‘People like me need to be in probation service’

DeQeonImage source, HoL

Image caption,

DeQeon takes his message to the House of Lords

The House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee is investigating community sentences and the work of the probation service. Three former offenders who have turned their lives around delivered some home truths to the peers this week.

“You can’t tell someone to stop having a drink, if you have never had a drink. The problem is there are a lot of people in probation who have not been drug dealers, have never been in front of a magistrate.”

DeQeon credits the transformation that has taken place in his life to a probation officer, a woman he describes as his “guardian angel”, who saw potential in him and went the extra mile to help him realise it.

“My other probation officers after Louise were not as good. I feel like a lot of them had no life experience. They are academics, they have not been in the real world,” he told the committee.

They had a “tick box” mentality, he explained, and did not “get” the challenges someone from a tough background like his faced.

It was a message echoed by Caroline and Ayesha, who were also giving evidence about their experiences of the probation service.

DeQeon told the peers: “People like me need to be in probation because it would change the system. It would make the system a lot better. We wouldn’t be sitting here talking about the situation if there was people like us being probation officers.”

But why stop at the probation service?

“Not a lot of people sitting on this panel have been on the other side of the system, have they?” asked DeQeon.

“The problem is that if we had, we wouldn’t be here,” replied Labour peer and former Home Secretary Lord Blunkett.

“You could be… you’ve got to have life experience!” DeQeon responded.

Image source, HoL

Image caption,

Ayesha and Caroline tell peers about their experiences

The three witnesses had all served community sentences, where low-level offenders are ordered to do unpaid work and have drug, alcohol or mental health treatment instead of going to prison.

They are now “lived experience” advisers with charity Revolving Doors, which campaigns for more community sentences and an end to prison sentences of 12 months or less in England and Wales, like in Scotland.

The probation service – which has struggled with its workload in recent months – is key to making community sentences work.

Drug treatment

Last month, Kim Thornden-Edwards, head of the service in England, told the Lords committee new investment going into alcohol and drug treatment programmes was a potential “game changer”.

She also acknowledged problems with pre-sentence reports – the all-important advice given to judges and magistrates on how to deal with offenders. A new, simpler form was about to be rolled out, she told the peers. Individually-tailored treatment orders were also coming down the track, she said.

The three former offenders told the committee pre-sentence reports were often out of date and did not have any input from the offenders themselves – and that some of the court-ordered programmes did not make a lot of sense.

Ayesha, a recovering addict, suggested drug treatment orders should be dropped in favour of a more “holistic” approach. She said she had gone into a treatment centre only after her community sentence had ended, with little input from probation.

She also spoke movingly of her ambition to go to university to study criminology, and her fear that despite all her efforts her criminal record would still be held against her.

‘Straight and narrow’

The Ministry of Justice says it is keen to set an example to other employers when it comes to giving a chance to ex-offenders.

A spokesperson said: “We know finding work is one of the surest ways for prison leavers to stay on the straight and narrow, which is why our Going Forward into Employment (GFIE) scheme provides employment opportunities for ex-offenders – helping to cut crime and protect the public.”

People with criminal records can apply for jobs with the probation service – and the wider Ministry of Justice – through the GFIE scheme.

But the scheme does not include the role of probation officer.

There is nothing to stop people with criminal convictions applying to be a probation officer “in the usual way”, the MoJ says, and having a conviction will not necessarily count against them.

But those with experience of the system say they will face a lengthy vetting process and there is no record of how many ex-offenders, if any, have ever been successful.

Some ex-offenders work as volunteer “peer mentors”, using their own experience of the criminal justice system to offer guidance and support to those struggling to cope with it.

Caroline, who overcame problems with alcohol and mental health, told the Lords committee about her work with the NHS Liaison and Diversion service, which supports vulnerable people when they first come into contact with the criminal justice system.

She said she was keen to work for the probation service in a similar role.

“However, due to my criminal record I have been pushed back several times. And it’s so frustrating because I have come such a long, long way, but because of something that happened years ago when I wasn’t very well, they are like ‘nah’. It’s a shame really.”

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