Major probation failings in supervision of Joseph McCann

Inspectors found the probation service missed eight opportunities to recall Joseph McCann who went on to commit multiple violent and sexual offences.

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10 different probation supervisors

Today, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation published a damning review of issues arising the case of Joseph McCann.

Mr McCann committed multiple violent and sexual offences in April and May 2019. At the time of the crimes, he was under the supervision of the National Probation Service after being released from prison on licence. He was given 33 life sentences in December 2019.

The Justice Secretary asked HM Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell to conduct an independent review into this case. Today’s report is the first part of the review and focuses on the circumstances leading up to the offences. The second part of the review will look in more detail at recall policy and process.

The impact of violent and sexual offences for the victims may be life-long and cannot be underestimated. For the victims of Joseph McCann this impact is worsened by the knowledge he could have been in prison when the offences occurred. The HMIP report is clear that if the right actions had been taken by the probation service, he would have been kept in prison until the Parole Board determined he was safe to release.

Summary of findings

Inspectors examined in detail the case management and policies in the period leading up to Mr McCann’s offences in April and May 2019 and identified significant failings in local supervision but also some issues that need national attention.

A primary role of the NPS is public protection. To ensure the public are protected from offenders such as Joseph McCann, who present a high risk of serious harm to other people, the NPS has the authority to recall offenders from the community back to prison when they are in breach of the terms of their release or when it seems that their risk can no longer be managed in the community. Using this authority requires skilled judgement by practitioners and managers to decide when someone can continue to be managed safely in the community or when public safety demands they return to custody. 

In this review inspectors found that serious mistakes were made and this judgment was not properly exercised. No fewer than eight opportunities were missed between 2017 and Spring 2019 to ensure Joseph McCann could not be released from prison without a further Parole Board hearing or to recall him to prison. Indeed, on two occasions a decision was taken to revoke his Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) licence but for a variety of reasons these were not executed. The individuals responsible for these failures in his supervision have rightly been held to account. Inspectors found, however, that their decisions were taken against a national policy context which emphasised that ‘alternatives to recall’ should be used whenever it was safe to do so, given increasing pressures on prison capacity in 2017 and 2018.

Joseph McCann is a complex, dangerous offender who can be intimidating and controlling, yet was able to present himself positively to staff. Those making the decisions about him should have taken account of his long history of serious offending, his poor compliance with court orders, his behaviour in prison, and indications of his increasing risk. Information and intelligence about his behaviour was available but was spread between various criminal justice recording systems and not easily retrieved. Most worryingly, prison staff did not proactively share information with NPS staff responsible for his management.

As a result, those managing Joseph McCann did not have a clear picture of who they were dealing with. Their decisions and actions were based on inadequate and incomplete assessment, were not scrutinised sufficiently and sometimes not implemented.

Probation staff managing high-risk individuals require well developed skills: to interview effectively; to seek out and analyse information from a range of sources; to see beyond superficial compliance. They also need their managers to provide good oversight, investigative supervision and effective support. The supervision of Joseph McCann took place in an environment where probation officers and managers were faced with intolerable workloads and little access to the necessary, high quality professional training. 

While individual errors in the case have received plenty of attention, inspectors have also highlighted the need for broader changes across the probation system to ensure that staff and managers have both the skills and the resources required to undertake the task of protecting the public from dangerous offenders.

The inspectorate makes a number of key recommendations to both Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and the National Probation Service. 

It is recommended that HMPPS should:

  • ensure that probation staff are able to access all relevant information about an individual, including from historical case records
  • ensure prisons comply with the requirement to share all relevant information, including from prison security departments and records of prison behaviour with the Parole Board
  • require prisons to share all relevant information, including from prison security departments and records of prison behaviour with probation offender managers in prison and in the community to assist with parole reports and recommendations and with planning for release.
  • ensure there are clear and responsive arrangements for emergency referral to approved premises where required to manage offenders who present a high risk of serious harm
  • ensure there is sufficient capacity in the approved premises estate to accommodate all high risk of harm offenders who require a placement.

It is recommended that NPS should:

  • monitor the implementation of post release risk management plans presented to the Parole Board, including referral to MAPPA, access to relevant interventions, residence in approved premises, and move on plans.
  • ensure that the new recall framework is fully embedded in practice
  • introduce quality assurance processes to review the consistency and outcomes of recall decisions. This should include cases where recall was considered but not instigated as well as cases where it was approved
  • ensure that recall decisions are recorded and implemented regardless of staff absence. A digital prompt should be built into the nDelius system to keep automatically reminding offender managers and their line managers of the need to execute a recall until this action is marked as completed or cancelled by the relevant ACO.
  • review the Probation Instruction for case transfers (PI 07/2014) to ensure the exchange of all risk information; establish an effective communication framework between transferring areas, including clarity about roles and responsibilities; and to ensure cases are prioritised and transfer is expedited.
  • cases for which they assume responsibility
  • improve the professional training of qualified and experienced probation staff to enhance skills in interviewing; interpretation and analysis of information from different sources; and risk assessment.

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