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Probation needs to learn lessons from Serious Further Offences
Too many Serious Further Offence reviews are falling below par, with probation services not sufficiently identifying the necessary learning.

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First Annual Report on SFOs

HM Inspectorate of Probation has today (29 September 2022) published its first annual report looking at the quality of Serious Further Offence (SFO) reviews undertaken by the Probation Service after people on probation commit a serious violent or sexual offence while under supervision. These reviews, conducted by the Probation Service, aim to find out why these offences happen and reduce the chances of them happening again.

Since 2021, at the request of the Secretary of State for Justice, HM Inspectorate of Probation has been inspecting the quality of 20 per cent of the SFO reviews undertaken by the Probation Service into the circumstances surrounding some of the gravest crimes committed by people under probation supervision.

This inaugural publication reports on the quality of 64 SFO reviews quality assured by the Inspectorate between April 2021 and April 2022, across England and Wales. Inspectors rated 69 per cent of the reviews as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’, but almost one-third (31 per cent) were rated ‘Requires improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’.

The table below shows a breakdown of the Serious Further Offences committed by people under probation supervision for a six year period between 2015 and 2020 inclusive.

SFO Reviews

Serious Further Offences (SFOs) are specific violent and sexual offences committed by people who are, or were very recently, under probation supervision at the time of the offence. They are committed by a small proportion of the probation caseload (0.5 per cent); however, while this percentage is small, for the victims and families involved, the impact and consequences are devastating and cannot be underestimated.

An SFO review is triggered when a person is charged and appears in court for a qualifying offence alleged to have been committed while they were under probation supervision or within 28 working days of the supervision period terminating. An internal management report, known as an SFO review, is then commissioned, which aims to provide a robust and transparent analysis of practice.

Justin Russell, the Chief Inspector, identified the strengths and weaknesses of the SFO reviews analysed by inspectors. 

Too many Serious Further Offence reviews are falling below par, with services not sufficiently identifying the necessary learning. This is because they are focused on ‘what’ happened rather than the ‘why’. As a result, they are not analysing poor practice robustly, which limits the learning for probation practitioners about the factors underlying these often very serious crimes.

I have also some concerns about the grade and independence of those undertaking this work. Senior Probation Officers tasked with undertaking these reviews told us they would like to explore management and policy issues at a more senior level, but do not feel empowered to do so. They expressed concern that their ability to scrutinise and potentially criticise the practice of their own senior leaders could be limited by their own role, grade and links to the region concerned. Greater independence within the SFO review process and a more senior grade of reviewer might bring greater and more robust challenge.

On a more positive note, almost three-quarters of the reviews we looked at were rated ‘Good’ in terms of their accessibility to victims or their families. We are seeing a genuine effort to be open, transparent and sensitive to the needs of victims needs and their families. This is significant improvement and is to be commended”.

The inspectorate report includes a useful infographic (reproduced below) which identifies the key features of the best (“outstanding”) and worst (“inadequate”) SFO reviews.

Recommendations

In addition to reviewing the quality of the Serious Further Offence reviews undertaken, the inspectorate identified a number of key lessons for frontline practitioners and the probation service as a whole. Readers will not be surprised to hear that ongoing staff shortages and high workloads are a key issue:

  • practitioners are underestimating the nature and level of risk of serious harm posed.  In 64 per cent of the cases we reviewed, the practitioner had assessed the original risk of serious harm as only low or medium
  • diversity is not always fully considered and there is insufficient liaison between prison and probation staff
  • there is sometimes a lack of professional curiosity, with practitioners not using all available resources to support the management of the risks posed by people on probation in the community
  • there is a recurring failure (also evident in our local inspections) to undertake adequate enquiries with the police and local councils about domestic abuse or child and adult safeguarding risks.
  • high workloads and poor management oversight are having a clear impact on the quality of work to protect the public.

Thanks to Pexels for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Pixabay.

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