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Probation unequipped on New Psychoactive Substances
HMI Probation finds an alarming lack of knowledge about NPS from both public and private sector staff leaving offenders unhelped and others at risk.

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Probation behind the game on NPS

Lack of training and knowledge means probation officers are not adequately assessing risks to children and others from offenders addicted to synthetic drugs such as Spice, according to yesterday’s (29 November 2017) report from HM Inspectorate of Probation.

Launching the report, Dame Glenys Stacey, HM Chief Inspector of Probation, said work to tackle the prevalence, impact and treatment of ‘New Psychoactive Substances’, particularly synthetic cannabis, was lagging behind their use by offenders in the community.

The report follows an inspection by HMI Probation and the Care Quality Commission in five major cities. Inspectors were particularly concerned that risks to children were not fully assessed.

The report noted:

We saw case records where responsible officers (front-line probation officers) were aware that service users (offenders) who reported using NPS daily were on their way to see their children. Such safeguarding concerns had not been sufficiently analysed.

Worryingly, probation providers did not routinely consider the risks associated with NPS use to groups such as children, staff, prisoners or the wider community, despite there being enough known about the unpredictable behaviour that could be displayed by those using the drugs.

The report makes clear that NPS use is still relatively limited compared to abuse of alcohol and drugs such as cocaine and heroin. However, it notes that offenders under probation obtain Spice and other NPS because they are cheap and difficult to detect in tests.

Key findings

The inspection’s key findings show that probation staff (both public and private sector) had little information about NPS which had a big impact on the quality of their work:

  • Probation assessments lacked sufficient information to explore the pattern, level and funding of NPS use. Many users experienced problems with housing, mental health, relationships and finances. Some had lost placements in hostels or housing tenancies for reasons that were often related to their NPS use, but responsible officers rarely identified this. In the process, those who lost their accommodation ended up on the streets, sleeping rough in an environment where NPS were easy to obtain and frequently used.
  • Worryingly, probation providers did not routinely consider the risks associated with NPS use to groups such as children, staff, prisoners or the wider community, despite there being enough known about the unpredictable behaviour that could be displayed by those using the drugs.
  • Two Community Rehabilitation Companies had developed short-duration substance misuse interventions. NPS use was only covered to a basic standard, with many attendees being better informed than responsible officers. The Building Skills for Recovery accredited programme, which is designed to reduce offending behaviour and problematic substance misuse, was not used for NPS users by either the National Probation Service or Community Rehabilitation Companies.
  • Responsible officers were rarely able to talk to NPS users about their symptoms and consolidate work undertaken by substance misuse services. While probation providers were making appropriate referrals to substance misuse services, these were not always responded to in a timely fashion. Service user engagement was often sporadic and responsible officers did not do enough to support NPS users to re-engage.
  • Poor-quality information-sharing. Prisoners were being released into the community often with no information shared about their NPS use in prison, and release plans did not meet the needs of the prisoner in relation to their substance misuse. While inspectors found good recording of information by substance misuse keyworkers who had access to probation IT systems, they often found that substance misuse services held information that would have improved the quality of probation assessments and plans but was not being shared.
  • NPS users were disengaged from services, insufficient progress had been made to address NPS use and in many cases no other work was taking place either. NPS users lacked trust in the help and support available, and many turned to using NPS to forget their problems.
  • Confidence, knowledge and awareness were the key areas that affected the quality of work for both probation and substance misuse services. While some training had been provided, this was often not sufficient for practitioners and was no longer up to date. As a result, responsible officers and many substance misuse keyworkers were not confident enough to undertake harm minimisation work with NPS users. While clinical guidance is available, not enough has been provided to inform professionals working with NPS users on community orders in the criminal justice system.

Records on NPS were poor but:

such records that are kept show that NPS are used largely by the homeless community and by other vulnerable people, including those who offend. Many offenders first experience NPS in prison and are then released with a dependency.

Inspectors found that services tended to deal with the emergencies created by NPS use rather than addressing the long-term causes. An exception was found in Newcastle, where Northumbria Police took a lead role with other agencies to tackle the supply of NPS and understand and respond to local concerns.

However, many NPS users were not accessing available services.  All the individuals whose cases were inspected were known either to have used or be currently using NPS, yet probation assessments lacked sufficient information to explore the pattern, level and funding of NPS use. Many users experienced problems with housing, mental health and relationships and finances but responsible officers rarely identified this. These people ended up sleeping rough in an environment where NPS were easy to obtain and frequently used.


Chief Inspector, Dame Glenys said:

We found that probation staff and even some substance misuse service staff had a low level of awareness of NPS. Screening tools for identifying drug use were not geared to NPS. Probation staff did not have structured, in-depth training about NPS and how to deal with dependency, and lacked the confidence and knowledge to quantify the problem and to address it.

As is their new custom, HMIP provide a helpful infographic summarising the main findings of the inspection:

Readers might be interested in the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s recent (November 2017) report on drug & alcohol related deaths in probation hostels which includes concerns about lack of a structured response to NPS and to User Voice’s authoritative (NHS-commissioned) 2016 report on NPS use in prison.


All infographics are kindly sponsored by Intelligent Fingerprinting whose non-invasive fingerprint drug test has been designed to simplify and support drug screening programmes across a range of applications. IFP has no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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