Former probation officer Mike Guilfoyle draws on the example of one of his former clients to discuss the role of courts in the regular review of community sentences as they unfold.
I read with considerable interest the recent legislative changes outlined in the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 to empower magistrates to be able to send short-term prisoners to prison for breaching the terms of their licence. This brought to mind working with Trevor (not his real name) who was sentenced to probation supervision for a string of middle range offences of dishonesty.
The progress of the order was at first somewhat faltering as Trevor found the demands of weekly reporting to the probation office, alongside attendance at an offending behaviour programme (a condition attached to the order) more onerous than he had imagined. What made the order more significant was, that having been sentenced at the Crown Court, the sentencing judge, who was a keen advocate of sentence review and accountability had opted to exercise his right to conduct regular reviews of Trevor's progress on his sentence.
Trevor's fitful employment career and at times unstable accommodation arrangements (whilst not unusual on any probation officers' caseload) suggested that the contents of any review might not offer much by way of short-term encouragement that the sentence was an appropriate one. The first review (submitted by way of a brief e-report) was discussed with measured concern by the diligent senior probation officer at the court. He screened all reports going to the judge and made some helpful comments on how Trevor's halting progress might be viewed at the outset.
The initial indications from the judge reinforced the impression that his judicial oversight was based on a proper and informed awareness of the challenges presented by many of those appearing before 'His Honour'! It was with some apprehension that Trevor noted that having this added supervisory oversight had acted as a spur for him to start 'sorting himself out'. But invariably best intentions met with sudden crisis and Trevor's resolve and waning compliance began to show signs of the order 'going off the rails’.
Having garnered the support of partnership agencies to bolster Trevor's plans for sustained employability, some tentative signs of progress began to appear and the offending nexus that he had become embroiled in receded. Such welcome signs of progress, first meagrely seen and recorded in subsequent court reviews led eventually to a shared decision (supported by my crown court colleague) to make an application that the order be revoked for good progress.
This was a move that required Trevor's personal attendance and my presence at the court. This almost proved too stressful for Trevor (whilst I was familiar with the court setting) and I still had some mild anxiety that the judge might remain unconvinced that progress was still short of what was expected for revocation. I spoke to the judge (having been sworn in!) and explained that in considering this application he should have due regard to my revocation report, but he still asked some pertinent and pointed questions with Trevor nervously perched in the well of the court.
The criminologist Shadd Maruna highlights the importance (pdf) of ‘reintegration rituals’ in prisoner resettlement and re-entry to society. His Honour, in concluding proceedings, then asked of Trevor, 'What will you do with your life now that the court has revoked your sentence?’. Trevor looked towards me with an appreciative glimmer in his eye, 'I never thought that the court would give me this early chance, can I thank you and Mr Guilfoyle for believing in me?'. His Honour's final words were: 'I do not expect to see you here again, you are free to leave the court'. The last I saw of Trevor was when he was heading towards the Underground.
His Honour now retired, contributes regularly to debates on penal affairs and nods knowingly whenever we meet!