End of an era or a new beginning?

Today saw the publication of the report of the Commission on Women Offenders, chaired by Professor Dame Eilish Angolini’s, formerly Scotland’s Lord Advocate (Chief Prosecutor). It’s well worth reading in full: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2012/04/womenoffenders17042012

One particularly interesting recommendation — for me at least — concerns the fate of criminal justice social work. For those not acquainted with the Scottish system, we abolished our probation services at the end of the 1960s, wrapping them into generic social work departments. The Commission’s recommendation to create a national Community Justice Service (still social work led, and separate from the prison service) arises from their frustration with what they see as the cluttered and fragmented landscape for Scottish community justice. 32 local authorities, 8 community justice authorities, however many sheriffdoms (court areas), etc… it does seem hard to sustain these structures (and the variable service delivery that they permit) in a country of five million, though the jury is out on exactly what difference organisational structures make in supporting desistance.

As a former social worker turned criminologist, the recommendation provokes a sort of dissonance in me. I’m delighted that they have recognised that social work knowledge, values and skills remain central to supporting desistance; but they also recognise the need for more specialist knowledge and skills (in their case linked to women offenders, but the argument holds across criminal justice) to supplement the generic basis.

The question of the local authority locus of these services is a separate but complex one. Though I have always liked the idea of probation being a local authority function — because it ought to support joined up services and to allow the necessary connections to be made to education, housing, leisure, health etc., — as a practising social worker in the 90s, I have to admit that criminal justice social work seemed pretty marginal in social work itself (which was perhaps legitimately dominated by concerns about child protection and community care), never mind in the local authority. Making connections to other local authority services seemed no easier from inside the council than it might have been from outside it. Too many of my local authority colleagues seemed happy to see the ‘offenders’ on my caseload as my problem, not theirs.

Meanwhile, criminal justice social work also lacked a career structure (since serious advancement in social work meant becoming a generic manager and leaving probation specialism behind) and community justice lacked a powerful voice in Scottish politics and in the penal system. There was no Director of Probation to stand alongside (and where necessary toe-to-toe) with the senior judges or the Director of the Prison Service, or the Lord Advocate for that matter. While going under the political radar might perhaps have been helpful pre-devolution, it’s seems to me that it is simply not possible now to carry on without this sort of senior leadership and powerful representation at the centre, in Edinburgh (a hard thing for a Glaswegian to admit!).

If the Commission’s report has been challenging for social work, it seems to have soft pedalled a little on the judges. The SCCJR’s recent analysis of the criminal justice processing of women over the last 10 years (http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/view_pub.php?id=307) finds little or no evidence that the doubling of the population of women in prison owes anything to increases in the frequency or seriousness of women’s offending, or even to increases in the numbers of women being prosecuted. Judges are sending more women to prison and for longer. And yet, there is little in the report on sentencing reform — just the familiar indirect attempt to make the community alternatives better and hope that this (alongside improvements in judicial education) persuades them to sentence women differently. I can’t help feel that we’ve been trying that trick (unsuccessfully, with all offenders) for the last 30 years. The volume of community sentences has risen dramatically, but to no apparent effect whatever in terms of reducing the use of custody. My conclusion: if you want to change sentencing, bite the bullet and change sentencing. The Scottish Parliament has already passed legislation to establish a Sentencing Council that, if it was established could set guidelines to delimit the circumstances in which and the offences for which custodial sentences should be passed — for women and men — but the Commission stays silent on this vital question.

Returning to the positive aspects of the report — the Commission’s vision of local Community Justice Centres staffed by multi-disciplinary teams, and with a key role for mentors in intensively supporting women’s compliance with diversion, bail and with community sentences, and offering a one-stop shop where complex needs can be met, is a compelling one. But making those centres work will cost money — lots of it — and we know where that money is being spent — our public investment is locked in the wrong places; behind bars. It’s a true for men as for women. If we are going to get serious about supporting desistance and building safer and fairer communities; if we are going to ditch the puerile tough/soft on crime binary and develop the smart justice that a mature democracy requires, then we need to get the money out of jail — and realise the potential of social work and other services to work with offenders and ex-offenders to produce constructive justice. Better justice, better lives — for offenders, families and communities. There’s a manifesto worth voting for.

2 thoughts on “End of an era or a new beginning?”

  1. Noting your political / policy focus here the following conceptuyal framework incorporates a POLITICAL (care) knowledge domain. As such it is generic across health and social care.
    A presentation (March 2012, Hope University, Liverpool) is available at:

    Kind regards,
    Peter Jones
    POLITICAL domain resource page:


  2. It was always possible that the inadequacy of the devolution settlement would see the Scottish government occupy itself by nicking powers to itself, not from Westminster, but from the local authorities.

    The plan is already clear. The community care services run largely within budget are about to be hived off the the NHS, an organisation specialising in overspend and especially overspending on paying out after patient abuse and neglect. Now the plan is for the rest of social work services to be nationalised, starting with Criminal Justice Social Work.

    It rather makes you wonder why anyone should vote for any local authority at all. Holyrood will have taken all their powers shortly.

    If the mismanagement of the NHS and the performance of other unelected QUANGO’s is any guide, the future for both community care and criminal justice social work services is extremely bleak.


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