This is a guest post by Sonia Crozier, Chief of Probation at Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. The original version of this article appeared in the latest edition of Probation Quarterly.
Probation practitioners on the front line are making important decisions on a daily basis – decisions which have real-life outcomes for our service users and the public. As Chief Probation Officer, I have always championed the use of professional judgment in our work, and taken all opportunities to promote it. We have an incredibly skilled workforce, and probation work should never be robotic.
But with professional judgment comes responsibility, and decisions we make should always be informed, transparent and consistently factor in unconscious bias. This is particularly pertinent in the fast-paced environment of courts.
In 2017, the Lammy Review put a spotlight on the role of Pre-Sentence Reports (PSRs) helping to scrutinise sentencing decisions and providing detailed information on the character of an offender. But the Lammy Review also highlighted the effects of unconscious bias, and how having less time to complete a PSR might exaggerate it.
With that in mind, the Effective Proposal Framework (EPF) was designed in 2017. The EPF is a digital application which aids probation staff in court by providing an objective shortlist of interventions for an offender, checked against eligibility, which could be proposed. Its development was led by Roz Hamilton in the North-West NPS division and was rolled out nationwide in April 2018.
The EPF does not replace professional judgment. Far from it; practitioners still need to interview defendants, do all the applicable checks and input profile data accurately. Rather, the EPF allows staff to be more efficient by refining a list of options and automatically making sure proposal criteria are met along sentencing guidelines and risk matrices. Ultimately, staff must use their own discretion in choosing a final proposal and can override the shortlist; it is just that the EPF makes sure we are doing this in a more efficient, accurate and consistent manner, mitigating against any unconscious bias.
On that, I must emphasise the importance of consistency when thinking about bias. Since Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) placed court work under the one roof of the NPS, it is imperative that a standardised approach to rehabilitation is maintained so that, whether sentenced in Swansea or Newcastle, Ipswich or Carlisle, service users are always assessed within the same parameters.
The EPF has also allowed practitioners to focus on targeted interventions, which is vital in deepening relationships with CRC colleagues, addressing a decline in community orders and giving effect to new policy and strategies, including the Women’s Strategy. The EPF has provided a re-fresh in our knowledge of interventions in each division, and the eligibility for these, by challenging us to think about what we are proposing.
So, not only is the tool addressing unconscious bias, it is subtly helping us to individually uphold our main missions of rehabilitation and reducing risk and re-offending.
And it is working! Analysis in the North West shows a positive trend on proposals since the EPF was introduced. Between April and June 2018, when compared to the same period in the previous year, the total proportion of custodial sentences decreased from 55% to 44%. Conversely, the proportion of community sentences rose from 47% to 56%, with accredited programme usage increasing by a third. Female offenders were already more likely, prior to rollout, to receive a community disposal than custody, but the rate decreased from 43% to 35%. Similarly, BAME offenders were more likely than the general population to receive custody, and although this remains the case, the proportion dropped from 57% to 52%.
The EPF can help us to increase sentencer confidence in probation: through providing detailed and specific proposals. More than ever, this is central. The Secretary of State, David Gauke, announced on 18 February 2019 his vision for a ‘smart’ justice system and the strong case to abolish ineffective prison sentences of six months or less, switching resources instead into probation.
He emphasised the importance of a probation system which has the full confidence of courts and the public. Sentencer confidence will be at the heart of this. In a roundabout way, a key component of this will be the use of the EPF. Evidenced-based, consistent and detailed proposals should be central to our work. We can never be complacent when it comes to unconscious bias!