Serious Further Offences
Last week, the probation inspectorate published the second of its effective practice guides designed to complement its inspection reports and exemplify the standards against which it inspects youth offending and probation. They are intended to help frontline staff as well as managers to deliver good-quality services and improve outcomes for service users. The new guide focuses on Serious Further Offence Reviews.
Serious Further Offences (SFOs) are qualifying violent or sexual offences committed by individuals who are the subject of probation supervision. Mandatory notification and review procedures for probation providers were introduced in 2003, to ensure that when such an event occurs, there is a comprehensive review of the management of the case.
Although SFOs are relatively rare, their impact is extremely serious. Since 2011, SFOs have been committed by approximately 0.2 per cent of the probation caseload. The review of supervision following these offences has been known as an SFO review since 2003.
SFOs can be very high profile, attracting public and media attention. It is often the reviews subject to media attention that have the most impact. In 2017/2018, there were 626 reviews completed. There is currently no national process to ensure that the learning from lower-profile reviews is captured systematically and used to improve practice and policy.
In April 2018, a revised SFO review process was introduced.4 ‘Rigorous scrutiny’ remained the key objective, but the new process aimed to provide greater transparency to victims and to maintain a local and strategic focus on learning. A new narrative style report was introduced, replacing the previous process-driven format. The operational guidance directs that the completed SFO reviews must:
- review whether all actions have been taken, as far as could reasonably be expected, to manage the risk of harm posed to others by the individual
- identify what – if anything – could or should have been done differently
- analyse why things were done in the way they were done
- establish whether there is learning from the review of the case that requires actions at local or national levels
- ensure that areas for improvement are clearly identified.
The new SFO process and review format should enhance action plans and the information provided to victims. Both CRCs and the NPS divisions have processes for disseminating learning from SFO reviews, but learning is not consistently collated at a national level to drive policy improvement. The SFO review model focuses on the work of the probation provider. The current exclusive focus on probation practice restricts the learning for other organisations that may also have been involved in management of the case, except for that small minority of cases which are subject to the separate domestic homicide review or Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) serious case review (SCR) process.
The inspection identified that the best model for providers to identify learning was through the establishment of independent SFO review teams. This separation from the operational line management structure provides a degree of independence and allows reviewers to develop their practice more effectively.
The HMIP guidance identifies six characteristics of good-quality SFO reviews which are summarised below.
Assessment – the SFO review of the quality of assessment practice should not rely only on the content of assessment tools such as the Offender Assessment System (OASys). Source documents and historical information should be considered and a clear view given as to whether the assessment of risk factors and patterns of behaviour was sufficient to inform the risk management plan. The SFO review should specifically examine the judgements underlying the assessment as well as the content of assessment processes such as OASys.
Implementation – the SFO findings in relation to sentence implementation should not focus solely on the delivery of sentence plan objectives and levels of contact. The SFO review should analyse the quality of the professional relationship. For example, is there evidence of the offender manager proactively targeting any concerns or responding effectively to changes in circumstances? The quality of relationships, as well as the completion of objectives, should inform the judgement on the effectiveness of implementation.
Risk management – the SFO review of the risk management should not just focus on the written document, but also analyse the effectiveness of its implementation. Was it sufficient to manage the offender concerned? Did specified actions take place, such as routine information exchange with the police? The SFO review should also consider the effectiveness of contingency planning. How responsive was this when risks emerged, and were services, such as approved premises beds, available when required? Good SFO reviews analyse the practice of risk management and do not focus solely on the risk management plan itself.
Working partnerships – SFO reviews primarily examine probation practice but offenders are often complex individuals with many agencies involved in their management. In some cases, such as category 1 MAPPA cases, other agencies have statutory responsibilities. SFO reviews should analyse the probation contribution to these partnerships and assess their effectiveness. For example, are the partnership arrangements reliant on informal relationships rather than a formal framework? Is this effective? Did it provide the necessary consistency to manage the offender? The best reviews assess the effectiveness of the arrangements and their contribution, positive or negative, to the risk management of the case.
Management oversight – the SFO review of the case must include a view on the effectiveness of management oversight. This will include its frequency and contribution to effective planning and decision making. In addition, to assessing the quality of management supervision, the best SFO reviews consider the capacity and capability of managers to provide the necessary oversight and support.
Action plans – SFO reviews will inevitably identify individual practice that must be improved. Action plans nevertheless should not focus solely on individual practitioners. We recognise that procedure and policy change is rarely justified on just one case, but that should not prevent organisational actions being set. For example, SFO reviews may identify obstacles or inconsistencies in key areas such as MAPPA or approved premises. Where necessary, these can be included in action plan objectives. The SFO framework does not allow for actions to be set for other agencies. Reviews, however, may identify gaps in services or failures to respond to probation concerns and referrals. Actions can and should be set to highlight gaps in service to other relevant agencies. Effective action plans demonstrate an understanding of the case at an organisational as well as individual level.
Thanks to Emily Morter for permission to use her image as the header to this post. You can see Emily’s work on Unsplash.