I recently read a challenging but stimulating scholarly book by David Hayes - Confronting Penal Excess. Retribution and the Politics of Penal Minimalism.
Hayes offers a critical overview on how the reliance of much of the current criminal justice policymaking in England and Wales on punitive and harshly retributive interventionist measures, could be better reconceptualised and more enduring progressive reforms made possible.
Thinking about how this academic offering might in some way relate to my past probation experiences, I recalled a most vivid supervisory encounter with Linford (not his real name) when working in my first probation office.
Having been tasked with the responsibility of preparing his pre-sentence report for offences of moderate seriousness involving handling stolen property, the Crown Court Judge had commented 'that the defendant's criminal record does not impress and custody was likely in the absence of any alternative community sentence'.
A difficult upbringing
When we first met, I was somewhat taken aback by Linford's apparent indifference to the outcome of his pending court hearing. What became clearer, when the interview was underway, was just how much unremittingly bleak negativity Linford had been forced to cope with in his upbringing.
A father who he noted was brutalising and distant, early school exclusion and what appeared 'merciless' bullying while in the care system. This resulted in a drift into offending and an overcompensating desire to 'impress' his peers (although he was of small stature).
He made a point of stating 'he got noticed' and his proudly worn nickname of 'Mousey' was hard-earned on some of the meaner streets surrounding the probation office. Putting together a credible proposal for a community order, that included attendance at a locally-run offending behaviour programme, was met with only a murmur of assent.
You'll find me in the Big House
'In time you will find me in the Big House' he muttered as he left the office. Indeed, Linford had spent time on remand for these current offences before a successful bail application.
At his Crown Court appearance, the sentencing Judge noted that the court has 'all but exhausted' its non-custodial options, so affording Linford another opportunity to be supervised in the community was likely to be a 'final one'.
When he reported to the probation office, he appeared moderately more upbeat and this jauntiness was I surmised perhaps more due having secured his liberty than a newly discovered and full-blown commitment to an offence free lifestyle! He did, however, in a jocular off-hand comment mention that the length of my report was such that, 'the Judge was worried that he might miss his round of golf!'.
On the up
I arranged for Linford to enrol on the offending behaviour programme and determined efforts were made to ensure that he kept to the terms of his order. He did undertake odd jobs as a handyman in the locality and this appeared to offer some scope to looking at enhancing his employment prospects and, as the office had recently enlisted the services of an employment specialist, an appointment was set up for the following week.
Linford’s one source of constant support was his bed-ridden mother who I had spoken to on the phone (as the prevailing living arrangements did not favour a home visit). Clearly her maternal concerns were vociferously stated, but her declining health meant that she was 'tired and fed up' with the police calling at her address to question her son about 'every crime committed in the neighbourhood'.
To his credit, Linford started the offending behaviour programme, and the course tutors noted that, 'he wants to move ahead without resorting to offending' but 'his motivation to sustain this outlook will need to be tested'.
By chance, I met with a local pastor lauded for his vocational commitment to visiting prisoners and assisting those ready to 'change their criminal ways' at an event hosted by the probation service. 'Oh yes, Linford…he so wants to change but I sense he will be back inside again before this happens'. This rather dismal assessment left me a little nonplussed, but a harder realism was beginning to inform my probation practice, and I left the gathering in a more sombre frame of mind.
The lure of easy money
It was when Linford failed to report at our next meeting and was absent from his weekly offending behaviour programme that an unfolding realisation, that perhaps a longer time frame for desistance was such an individual response, began to take shape in my thinking.
Although Linford had appeared to be motivated to undertake his community sentence obligations, that the seductive lure and counter attractions of 'easy money' had prompted him into engaging in more serious if opportunistic offending.
The local newspapers covered his committal for sentencing from the Magistrates’ Court in some lurid detail with the words, 'Man admits to string of armed robberies: Bank staff terrified when robbery suspect held them up’.
During the time that Linford had been engaging in his offending behaviour programme, he had also been actively pursuing an altogether more lucrative if illegal spate of offending! I recall feeling massively deflated at the time that he would behave in this fashion whilst professing a desire to ‘go straight'. This caused me to rethink what I took to be a neophyte probation officer’s naivety.
Linford was sentenced by the same Judge who had earlier afforded him the opportunity to 'change his ways', and the cumulative sentence for multiple offences of robbery/firearm offences was close to 20 years in custody.
Some while later a letter was rerouted to me (it was addressed simply to probation office, ***) from Linford. ‘I hope you are well, Mike, I am coping with my sentence, but guess you may not be around when I get out? I met with *** [local pastor above] at the prison, who said (without a noticeable hint of irony) that you had been talking about how well I had been doing’.
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer