I vividly recall my initial meeting with the Criminologist Jock Young, whose untimely death was recently announced. I had applied to undertake the part time MA in Criminology at Middlesex University and when interviewed by Jock, his inimitably relaxed but immensely authoritative manner helped me through the meeting to secure a place on the course. He asked in his insouciant way, if I had been influenced by any book on crime and deviance in looking at my work in probation. With some hesitation, I mentioned Jack Katz's seminal text The Seductions of Crime knowing well that grounded ethnographic accounts of law-breaking had greatly shaped his own criminological outlook. I also took some of the insights from the 'seductions of crime' back to the probation office.
Meeting John (not his real name) at the probation office (then situated in a part of London that had been dubbed by the local press as 'London at its most lawless') was a memorable event. His considerable accumulation of deeds of 'theft by shoplifting', and what at the time I imagined was an almost Dickensian persona, heavy build and bewhiskered and often befuddled by copious alcoholic consumption! This meant that our meeting quickly descended into a confused and rambling exchange and offered only limited scope for my pre-sentence report. The magistrates' court, recognising that John was 'in need of probation support', placed him on supervision, and he dutifully reported later in the week. 'So what can you do for me?' he declared, 'I have been "at it" for 25 years, and know all there is to know about thieving!'.
We worked together over a period of 12 months and often our meetings resembled nothing short of bilious mutterings and half remembered reminiscences of the 'good old days' before the Harrods security systems improved! John made occasional racy references to his time when entrusted by a 'Mr Big' to manage Adult Shops in Soho. I noted in small ways that John was beginning to share parts of his richly textured biography that were most meaningful to him. Maybe here was a way to try to encourage and support a shift in his approach to stealing. Maybe behaving like a fieldworker, I might drop some of what I felt was the more distancing language that probation officers adopted to get to know John better. He steadfastly declined all my efforts to home visit, stating that he had to care for an ailing relative, and did not want me to disturb his domesticity! But I did reach a point in our meetings, when I sensed, some modest changes, arising from a better understanding of his life situation, more meaningful engagement and positive experiences of probation, in his pattern of acquisitive offending. At one of our final supervisory sessions, 'Mr Guilfoyle' (he always insisted on that conventional address), 'I am reaching retiring age, maybe I am not as comfortable about stealing from shops, after all, you know more about me, than I do'.
I did politely decline his offer a yuletide present, advising that he return the item to whence it came!
Reading Vicky Pryce's experiences in Prisonomics, I was struck by a number of references she made to the complex needs of some of her fellow prisoners, which brought to mind my former supervisory contact with Miriam (not her real name).
Miriam was a troubled and troublesome woman whose enduring struggle with alcohol dependency and domestic violence required a particularly sensitive approach. When she reported to the probation office, following a Crown Court appearance for assaulting a neighbour, I had already recognised the added pressures attendant on Social Services' involvement in relation to safeguarding her youngest child. Furthermore, that the way ahead in enabling the probation supervision element of a suspended sentence order (which meant that any further infraction or breach could result in custody) was to work alongside the family and enlist those best able to tailor their support to Miriam's sometimes combustible personality.
To this end, I made a particular point of arranging to make regular home visits so that she was better able to comply with the order. Arrangements were made for her to meet with the local Social Services manager, who it appeared had been recruited to bolster the work of the inexperienced social worker, whose relationship with Miriam had teetered on breaking down. When I arrived at the Social Services Office, the anticipatory tension was evident. Miriam arrived with her child - who was unusually fractious - which meant that I was called upon to offer some empathic support so that her threats to withdraw from the meeting subsided.
It was difficult for me to hold back from expressing my annoyance at what I saw as a patronising and, at times, unhelpfully didactic approach from the manager. Miriam did not have such scruples and we agreed to adjourn the meeting to allow feelings to cool. The manager indicated that a more robust supervisory input was needed: 'We could end up with you going to prison, if you fail to agree to mandated alcohol testing', he said. For a few uncertain moments I was convinced that she was about to scupper the planned intervention, the threat of custody was palpably present and the two years that I had worked with Miriam seemed to hang in the balance.
Miriam resolved with a confidence born of necessity to comply with the planned measures agreed at the meeting, with varying degrees of subsequent motivation. But what would it have benefited Miriam, her child, or the wider community to have sent her into custody? Shortly, the government aims to introduce a punitive element in all community sentences. With Miriam, as sole carer for her child, the challenge was to assist her in complying with an ever demanding order and care proceedings whilst strengthening her family ties and offering a pathway to employability. For Miriam being on a community sentence was very far from being the sloganising 'soft option' pandered by headline-seeking politicians. She offered her usually frank opinion at the time of her order concluding, 'Mike, I got through this order... just...my heads up and you ain't goin' see me inside anytime soon'.
I was measurably impressed after recently reading the refreshingly honest comments of Eileen Munro, Professor of Social Policy at LSE, following the serious case review on the tragic life and death of Daniel Pelka. She said that, having examined the work pressure on social work staff in the challenging environment of child protection, and with such a complex case, 'I can't claim I would have done better'. This brought to mind a particularly stressful parole interview that I undertook when working as a probation officer.
At the time, due to staffing and workload pressures at the probation office, timescales for the preparation of parole reports had worryingly slipped. In addition, allocation processes in which probation officers were assigned specific responsibility for preparing such reports, often amounted to a chaotic and seemingly arbitrary decision making process at middle management level. Through care and resettlement issues had, due to a faltering internal reorganisation at the time, resulted in poor levels of service provision for serving prisoners. In this context, I was allocated responsibility for preparing a parole assessment report on Jack (not his real name). The timescales for preparation were seriously overdue and Jack had sent numerous complaints and left phone messages at the office. I drove to the prison some distance from London with more than a smidgeon of apprehension and approached the interview with some considerable trepidation. This was amplified when I met a prison officer at reception on the prison wing. Officers invariably allow for such interviews within the prison to be conducted without too much ado unless safety issues intrude: he suggested that he stand at the door as he was fearful for my personal safety.
When I introduced myself to Jack, it was evident that his pent up rage was at what he perceived was the lack of timeliness from the Probation Service, and which might seriously impede his chances of possible release on licence. He launched into a visceral outburst that I had to concede almost made me press the panic button! I indicated to the prison officer who then entered the room with a view to terminating the meeting that I fully appreciated Jack's genuine upset. Then I suggested that we could find a way of preparing the report which would acknowledge that any delays were due to organisational shortcomings. In the subsequent two hours, in a stiflingly small interview room, I was palpably alarmed (Jack had intimated that his access to firearms might prompt some reprisal on the middle manager he attributed some of his present woes to!). But slowly and subtly his demeanour and utterances suggested that maybe this probation officer was prepared to hear him out, and in spite of his intimidating body language (he had a serious offending history involving the use of violence) was prepared to offer him an opportunity to reflect on his index offence, victim awareness and sentence progression with a view to resettlement on eventual release on licence.
When I left the interview room, the prison officer wearing something of a bemused expression noted that I had stayed the course and commended me on my perseverance in the face of Jack's withering onslaught! On returning to the office, I set about preparing the parole report and looked again at my notes from the interview. To my great surprise, amongst the scribbled notes I had written down was a comment that Jack had made, but overlooked in the highly charged interview: 'you didn't walk away when I dissed the probation service...looks like some probation officers are decent folk!’. Looking back, it was a challenging experience - dealing with a very difficult and volatile individual who, I was informed later, was released on licence to be supervised by one of my former colleagues.
I am left pondering just how the Probation Service will continue to survive if the current sell off plans materialise and wonder if Justice Secretary Chris Grayling would have done better?
The burgeoning literature on the role of compliance in criminal justice, and in particular probation, is finely captured by Fergus McNeil and Gwen Robinson in chapter 6 of Liquid legitimacy and Community Sanctions. Whilst perusing their contribution on how easily the legitimacy of the practitioner's influence can be lost after being hard won, it reminded me of supervising a community sentence.
Ian (not his real name) was directed to attend the probation office from one of my magistrates based court colleagues for the preparation of a pre-sentence report. The index offence was a breach of an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO). I was pleasantly surprised to see Ian in the waiting room, as the accompanying paperwork had indicated that he was homeless and destitute. However, Ian had good links with a drop-in centre that provided a focal point of support.
The interview was a lengthy one. Ian , whose appearance and associated baggage (his prize belongings he noted) suggested that he had been living homeless on the street for some years. He preferred, he stated, to remain 'unwashed' as this was a protective measure on the streets and meant that he was less likely to be victimised!
The court followed the proposal in the report that his sentence be deferred for six months so that Ian could demonstrate some motivation to address, amongst other jointly agreed actions, his use of crack cocaine. The visible reminder of this was the crack pipe that he carried with him, and which appeared an all too easy trigger for 'over-zealous' police intervention (the breach related to him carrying his crack pipe on his person). Even though he identified our meeting as a positive one, I fully expected that Ian would find it too onerous to make his next appointment at the probation office.
So when the receptionist confirmed that Ian had indeed turned up for his follow-up appointment and was regaling other attendees (perhaps less disposed to engage him in discussion) in a crowded waiting area, I was measurably impressed. I gently asked him what he felt had been the reasons that he had kept our meeting, knowing he had to cope with the chilling uncertainty of finding another safe 'snug' for the night and securing whatever funds he had by begging. ('Too much hassle at the Job Centre', he said). He brushed aside my misgivings, stating that 'I told you I would come back'. Ian found that being able to share in a meaningful way some of his dilemmas about what giving up his periodic usages of crack, and what finding settled accommodation would mean for him, made his journey to the probation office seem a little less threatening.
Over the next few months, Ian attended three further appointments (with some time variation!) and at the planned court appearance he was sentenced to a short period of supervision. ‘Would you remain my PO?' he murmured when I saw him next in the probation office. At the time, I was informed by local management that cases such as Ian's could now be handled by one of my probation service officer colleagues whose already excessive ‘lower tier/risk' caseload left me deeply concerned. A couple of weeks later I tentatively enquired as to Ian’s progress from my harassed colleague. ‘Oh, that was his name!’ was the offhand response, ‘we have approached the court for a warrant (without bail) as he has not reported’.
A short while later when passing the drop-in centre I noticed Ian in the doorway. When I asked him how he was coping and what had prevented him complying with his community sentence he said, ‘When I met you I thought here is someone who can help me, when I went to that other group I felt that I was there to be punished'.
In his provocative critique of how the American justice system concerns itself with the complicated relationship between sex-offender surveillance and punishment (Sex Panic and the Punitive State), Roger N Lancaster cautions the reader to keep track of the difference between rational fears and irrational ones. This insight brought to mind my initial meeting with Peter (not his real name) when working as a probation officer. He had been convicted of downloading sexual images of children and a Crown Court had requested that a pre-sentence report and assessment for his suitability to participate in a community based sex-offender treatment programme be prepared. He showed a great deal of discomfort and shame in our interview. At times, I struggled to suppress the recurrent urge to see in Peter all the most heinous and associative predatory aspects of sexual crime. I wondered how I might handle what many reading about such offences would see as the only proper response, namely an unremittingly punitive, controlling and surveillance driven approach to supervision.
The court accepted the proposal in the report and arrangements were made for Peter to come to the probation office (with a referral to the dedicated sex offender team in the offing). The early stages of supervision provided a foundation for what was to become a trusting and engaged professional relationship (recognising that it was important not to over-estimate the value of this type of intervention) at the expense of other aspects of his life which had disintegrated on the discovery of his sexual offending. Peter found himself without the meaningful relationship with his partner (as she had distanced herself from him when she discovered his downloading activities), and this was an area in which building hope for the future, and fostering the aim towards longer term desistance from these activities featured as joint supervisory goals.
Peter remained motivated and actively participated in the community sex offender programme (which had a specific component to address internet offenders) as well as cooperating with the Jigsaw team (specialist police officers working with sex-offenders). I endeavoured to pre-empt, what is sometimes referred to in the literature as, the 'golem effect', (low expectations leading to poorer outcomes). My expectations of Peter's efforts to successfully complete his community order (three years was the standard length for such offences), made this a challenging supervisory experience. Not least because Peter lost his job in the IT sector and found that his specific career path had to be rethought. In addition he was dealing with the often invisible stigma of such offences, including the ostracism from friends and family.
At the point at which the order was transferred to another area when Peter moved address he had not relapsed. He spoke to me by phone just after moving into his new address, 'Mike, you stayed with me when I thought that I had nowhere to go with my life, I realise that these offences are harmful but now I can see a different future opening up'.
I was particularly delighted to be able to attend the recent 16th Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture held at Cambridge University, presented by Professor Paul Senior entitled : Privatising Probation: The Death Knell of a Much-Cherished Public Service? Concluding his lecture, Senior made reference to the unwelcome interventions from mandarins (?) in the Ministry of Justice in what appeared to be a spasm of 'Stasi-like' paranoia, to pressure the sponsors of the lecture to alter/delete the 'provocative' epigram! These revelations caused equal measures of anger and dismay from the distinguished audience of probation watchers that the portals of academia could be so assailed! On my way home, I recalled how organisations can at times excite bouts of blinkered conformity when faced with the dilemmas of practice that challenge established ways of working.
One such incident when I was a probation officer kept surfacing in my thoughts. I was apprehensive at the prospect of supervising Ian (not his real name) as his prior pattern of offending had represented a high degree of destructive behaviour. He would engage in actions that, whilst starting off as attempts to 'cock-a-snook' at the authorities, often this brought him very close to potentially lethal outcomes. For example, when he stole motor vehicles and was subsequently involved in high speed police chases. On one occasion Ian said he had deliberately crashed the stolen vehicle he was driving, as he sensed that on the next street a school crossing might well be in use! It took a considerable investment in supervisory engagement to change his perspectives from such harmful risk taking behaviour towards more positive and productive lifestyle choices. I shared my supervisory concerns as to Ian's modest improvements in his managed level of risk (this being the calibrator for more resource led decision making) with my line managers. There appeared to be some inkling that Ian, having found employment and stable accommodation, was reaching a pivotal point in his troubled offending career, when the options for staying offence-free might begin to feature as a more enduring aspect of his changing 'offender' identity.
The telephone call I received from a detective, who was investigating a 'serious armed incident' involving Ian, remains indelibly etched on my memory. I was able to establish some basic facts surrounding the alleged incident and provide some broad information on Ian's response to supervision. What completely confounded me was the expressed intent to effect his arrest at the probation office, when he next reported, with an armed response unit, on standby. I agreed to ring back later when I had discussed this planned operation with my acting manager, but I also conveyed the concerns I had with experienced probation colleagues, who shared my opinion that any such arrest should be at the home address (known to the police) rather than at a busy probation office in the middle of the day! Maybe Ian could be persuaded to surrender so that no further harm would be occasioned to him or any innocent bystanders. He rang and remonstrated that he had not been involved in any such incident in the first instance. Realising that I was privy to information about the allegation from the police, he rang off. I was deeply worried about the implications of such an approach and spent an anxious day or so mulling this over.
I was equally perturbed at what I (and other experienced probation staff at the office) detected had become a palpable shift in local organisational practice. For example, that a number of recalls to prison had been effected on probation premises, when the individual under supervision reported on licence and was then, unsuspectingly and often unceremoniously, arrested in situ and taken into custody to be transported to the nearest local prison. The message appeared to be less a concern for the safety of staff, more an expedient managerial diktat that overlooked the critical importance of ensuring that such safety was also extended to those under supervision (if possible). In the event, Ian took a non-lethal drug overdose, averting what I most feared, a lethal incident at the probation office, and was arrested in hospital.
He later wrote a letter when on remand awaiting sentence, in it he stated, 'I know that you cared about what happened to me, even though I done wrong, maybe next time I will listen a little harder'.
One of the more enduring and troubling images in the public imagination, often used in a morally censorious way by sections of the media and politically motivated policy makers, has been that of the 'welfare scrounger'. Listening to a recent over-heated radio debate on this issue, I was reminded of the scene in the 2000 political thriller The Contender in which the actor Gary Oldman (playing Sheldon Runyon) opines, 'people will believe me because I'll have a very large microphone in front of me'.
This brought to mind my supervisory contact whilst working as a probation officer with Roberta (not her real name). I had been allocated a pre-sentence report on Roberta who was due to appear for sentencing at a local magistrates' court for false representation. That is to say, she had legitimately claimed entitlement to social security but had not informed the Department of Social Security (now the DWP) of a change in her circumstances, and as such was being prosecuted. It proved to be a difficult interview, less due to the complexities of the case; prima facie the prosecutorial burden had been proved. But the emotional impact of this prosecution (attempts to arrange repayments without the shame of prosecution proved fruitless) was immediately and distressingly apparent.
The court followed the proposal in the report that a period of supervision was appropriate (on reflection this might well be construed as too onerous given the facts?) and an ancillary penalty known as a Money Payment Supervision Order (usually employed for fine defaults) was imposed. Although Roberta's circumstances remained precarious, she was able to agree that supervisory contact, whilst aimed at reducing the risk of her reoffending, was also an opportunity for her to access the assistance of an able welfare advisor, who offered targeted support with money management. The beginnings of the order seemed to herald a straightforward supervisory experience and Roberta cooperated and appeared to recognise that the shape and frequency of future meetings (home visits included) would be determined by her continuing good progress. What was less apparent at the time was the very real difficulties she began to have in coping financially: a situation made more challenging with the arrival of her first child. The office meetings began to assume a more fraught and unsettled aspect and the modest repayment schedule had to be renegotiated via the court.
What also began to intrude into our discussion was an altogether more testing understanding of her index offence and the emotional attributions that she now felt. 'Disgusted' with herself, Roberta believed that being labelled a 'welfare cheat' was somehow going to irreparably trap her in a 'loser' identity.
The order was concluded successfully and the repayment schedule (although extended) was eventually paid. However, the impact of the prosecution and the fall out from what she perceived as her 'welfare cheat' identity somehow morally excluded from making good on her intentions to lead a 'good life' with her newborn child. It led me to think just how have such stereotypical representations permeated the current deliberations of the future of welfare reform? Of course amongst other things critical attention needs to be given to the intersecting links around class, race and gender.
Roberta shared an insight at one of our supervision sessions in which we looked together at some of the ways she might shake off the emotionally laden 'welfare cheat' identity, which is so powerfully exploited in popular debate, and she said: 'surely a label cannot control me?'.
Jock Young has offered many telling insights into crime, power and class structure and recently wrote a fascinating profile of the rise and fall of financier Bernie Madoff (in How they got away with it: white collar criminals and the financial meltdown). This reminded me of my time as a probation officer when I was given supervisory responsibility for Brian (not his real name). Brian's financial transgressions, although on a considerably more modest scale than Mr Madoff, in stealing a significant pot of money from his employers accentuated some pertinent themes arising from white collar crime. When Brian arrived for his appointment for the preparation of a pre-sentence report, his smart, articulate and affluent bearing appeared to sit uneasily with many of the presuppositions that often frame these meetings.
The custodial sentence, as the judge noted, was an 'inevitable outcome' as this was a 'grave breach of trust'. My first post-sentence prison visit to meet Brian was a curiously unsettling experience. The oppressive interview room with all the noise and pent up frustration together with Brian's unflappable demeanour caught me quite by surprise. He asserted that having 'undertaken national service' was a perfect preparation for a spell inside and he cited the offers of help and assistance that he provided to inmates aware of his professional background with letter writing and appeal hearings. The circumstances of his offences appear to owe more to a sense of misplaced loyalty than any narcissistic plundering of the firm's books for personal gain. He politely requested that I make discrete enquiries to ensure that his property remained secure and that I support, if needed, his transfer to an open prison. When next we met it was indeed at the open prison: suitable for his designated cat D status (lowest risk of harm and not likely to mount an escape attempt). By this time Brian had reached a point in his sentence when early release on licence was soon to be realised. His achieved status as a white collar prisoner had, it seemed, resulted in a largely untroubled (outside of the pains of confinement) sentence progression.
I visited Brian after release at his flat close to a busy London landmark and his hospitable offerings by way of lunch made for a stress-free interview. He complied with his reporting requirements and was often seen unhurriedly walking his dog in an adjacent park. The loss of income and livelihood was much more difficult to negotiate for him. There appeared to be no artifice to Brian's return to the community and his modest outlays in rent and subsidence suggested that he had not squirreled away any ill-gotten funds. I remained bemused that Brian appeared to cope with his fallen status and did not adopt the rhetoric of victimisation when faced with the challenge of regaining employment (he was approaching retirement age). Brian's well adjusted and solid persona helped him to re-integrate into society after his time inside. Maybe greed and excess entered into Brian's actions when faced with easy access to financial dealings. The losses sustained by his insider fraudulent behaviour were covered by the firm's indemnity fund and far from 'getting away with it' he was apprehended, prosecuted and jailed.
After one home visit Brian pointed towards a framed certificate on his wall, 'I got that after two years' National Service, maybe you should get a certificate that says you have done your time'!
I have followed with increasing dismay the numerous concerns expressed over the likely implications of the Ministry of Justice's, alarmingly short, six week Transforming Rehabilitation consultation. If the consultation is implemented without amendments, it could lead to what many fear will be the demise of the Probation Service. Alongside this consultation trundles another legislative milestone in the shape of the Crime and Courts Bill. Contained within the Bill are concerns surrounding the provision that every community sentence should contain at least one punitive element. Reflecting on these developments reminded of a particularly difficult experience that occurred during my time as a probation officer. I was preparing a pre-sentence report on Clare (not her real name) whose index offence was one of threatening behaviour. She had according to the prosecution, persisted in remonstrating about her personal circumstances when faced with potential homelessness from council premises. The police were called to the incident and arrested her and subsequently the magistrates asked that the Probation Service provide a 'fuller picture of this troubled woman's situation'.
I noted on the court papers that the interview for the pre-sentence report might well need to be home–based (in this instance at an address funded by the community mental health services) and arrangements were made for me to visit her. I was used to visiting a high percentage of clients at local hostels and bed and breakfasts. The first meeting with Clare was suffocatingly intimate, in the sense that the B&B room provided was so small I had to write my report notes on my knees as she struggled to articulate her story of increasing marginalisation, vulnerability and an unwelcome dependency on psychotropic medication. Before the visit, I had spoken to her community psychiatric nurse (CPN) so was better prepared to understand the stresses and demands of her situation.
There was some dispute regarding her culpability and as such I was minded to propose to the court that sentence be deferred for between 3-6 months. I would arrange to see her during this time and liaise with her key workers.
I sensed that when the deferment was sanctioned Clare felt 'let down' because deferral was often construed as a prelude to statutory supervision and as such was cited as 'testing motivation'. One day she appeared at the probation office unannounced and insisted that I see her to resolve a number of issues that she believed merited immediate resolution. Hurriedly rescheduling tasks for that day, I accompanied Clare to an interview room and said that I would help as best I could. As I listened to her concerns, she became increasingly distressed. Colleagues in adjacent rooms looked in anxiously to see if my safety was being compromised. I never experienced any fear of potential harm but began to realise that her deep seated issues could not be dealt with on one day. After three hours, and one of the most fraught interviews in my 20 years as a probation officer, Clare left the office weeping inconsolably.
Shortly before her court date at the end of the deferment period, I spoke to Clare by phone and said that a period on a community sentence, shortened perhaps by her deferred sentence, was uppermost in my mind. She accepted that maybe there was some worth in re-engaging with probation, partly to access services that addressed her needs but, just as important, to allow her to explore what she believed to be her 'deeper needs' for some connection to sources of help and support.
I was profoundly saddened to hear from her key worker that staff at the B&B had discovered Clare's lifeless body in her room when they went to remind her of her appointment with her GP. I subsequently found out that she had taken a fatal overdose and had most probably lain dead over the weekend. The verdict later at her inquest recorded Clare's death as suicide. The court was duly informed of this tragic turn of events. I arranged to see Clare's CPN to try to make sense of this sad outcome. He explained that she had mentioned self harming when he visited her over many years but she had always drawn back from the precipice of self destruction. I returned to the office full of gloom and disbelief.
But whether further criminalising or indeed 'psychologising' of Clare's disruptive behaviour would have made any difference to the direction her life might have taken, is indeed a moot point. Certainly when I interviewed her for the first time she said that 'everyone needs to have someone to care for them'. From my point of view, punishment in the community was what Clare had experienced in reality.
There have been many occasions during my 20 years as a probation officer when I was confronted by a distressed and angry parent or relative of a serving prisoner or young person protesting their innocence of the offence(s) for which they were sentenced. Once there was the unexpected arrival at the Probation Office of the irate mother of a young offender (the term 'offender' is given to a young person sentenced for a criminal offence between the ages of 18 and 21) called Stephen (not his real name). I had been allocated casework responsibility for Stephen shortly after he was sentenced to two years in a Young Offender Institution (YOI) for robbery.
Unusually I had not prepared the pre-sentence report for the hearing and as such felt a sense of palpable awkwardness when I looked at the contents of the report in a stuffy interview room with Stephen's mother. The author had commented on the fact that Stephen had not accepted responsibility for this offence and had said that he had been 'framed' by the police. This was greeted with suitable judicial derision and the remarks on the court case papers made for uneasy reading.
Stephen's mother had a resolute and heartfelt belief that mistaken identification had played a crucial role. She claimed to know the identity of the actual perpetrator as he had 'openly' admitted to the fact and this widely heard admission had added to her feeling that an injustice had been committed. I asked how Stephen was coping, having earlier spoken to probation colleagues at the YOI to enquire as to his welfare, and if he was considering an appeal. The appeal against sentence and conviction had been lodged within the 28 days timeframe. At that point, I arranged to visit Stephen and to keep his family informed of my contact. Stephen rang the office and we had a conversation, conducted with the noisy and volatile backdrop on the wing at the YOI.
He requested that I defer any decision to visit him in custody pending the outcome of his appeal. Afterwards Stephen's mother invited me to her address as I had to undertake a Home Circumstances Report. I readily agreed to the home visit and on my arrival, all family members presented themselves (including the feisty family dog), and I was given an impromptu viewing of Stephen's bedroom bedecked fortuitously in the colours of my favourite football team!
The course of the appeal was grindingly slow and it was ever more likely that Stephen would be released before any appeal decision had been made. Stephen's family ties and their fervent belief in Stephen's ability to readjust (in light of what they perceived as a major injustice) really challenged my own preconceptions on some of the quotidian approaches to seeing people who offended as somehow in need of 'fixing', to how best to repair the harm, occasioned by what I could accept was an injustice, with his family and the community. Indeed the one sustaining element which kept Stephen on track during his sentence was the hope of release and his being found innocent.
I met Stephen on the day of his release. He was quietly self-assured and agreed to comply with the terms of his licence (notwithstanding his appeal). I had disguised my own disappointment when an over-zealous middle manager had admonished my attempts to frame Stephen's evident unwillingness to participate in an offending behaviour course – as a part of his licence supervision – as an expression of a legitimate concern that this might confirm his offender identity! Collusion being the unspoken shibboleth of what was often viewed as being ' too close to the offender'!
The pathways towards a successful re-entry to the community had been facilitated by his family support and Stephen had opted not to engage with or contact the person who had 'boasted' that he had 'got away' with this offence. He cited the many occasions in which he had been stopped and searched by Police as he was known to them when a juvenile and mentioned the particular animosity that he had engendered when he had successfully complained about being harassed. To his credit, he was mature enough to be able to distance himself from such events and the take up of employment via a solicitous uncle had removed him from the malign peer driven pressures so many of his contemporaries were exposed to engage in offending.
I recall his mother ringing me on the day that his licence period had expired, her dented confidence in the 'justice system' tempered by what she deemed my open minded and decent approach towards her son, I averred that I hoped that he would be exonerated in due course and secure some redress for 'stolen time'.
Some of my own preconceptions and prejudices had been challenged and I began to rethink my approach to the issue of miscarriages of justice as more than just occasional system failures. In Stephen's case it remained an alleged miscarriage of justice as the appeal was eventually unsuccessful.
But his mother's words at the outset of her struggle for justice for her son were 'Don't just look at the surface, see if you can look in the heart'.