The hidden heroes of our criminal justice system
THE Citizen is running an occasional series from people who work in the Criminal Justice System in Gloucestershire. John Bensted, chief executive officer of the Gloucestershire Probation Trust, will be writing for The Citizen regularly. Here, he describes the role his staff play.
THE Probation Service was established more than 100 years ago and we have been working in Gloucestershire for most of that time.
Many people are fascinated by crime detection and we are inundated with TV programmes, films and books about criminals and their dealings with various aspects of the Criminal Justice System.
But the "probation officer" rarely features, even though we work on a daily basis in conjunction with the police, courts and prison service. So why is this? Are we not sexy enough to get into the limelight?
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We do not wear uniforms and our offices are not in prominent buildings such as police stations, courts or prisons, but we are beavering away alongside all these other agencies, playing our part in protecting the public and reducing re-offending. True hidden heroes of the Criminal Justice System.
Gloucestershire Probation Trust is a small organisation that punches above its weight. At any one time we supervise more than 1,500 offenders on court orders or parole licence having served a term of imprisonment.
These offenders range from petty shoplifters to murderers on very strict parole licences. It is our responsibility to assess the risk posed by such offenders and make recommendations to magistrates, judges and to the parole board. If, for example, an officer assesses that an offender, after being released from prison, is in breach of his parole licence, we can have him back to HMP Gloucester within hours.
Crime is at a 25-year low in the county and probation has played a significant part in that reduction by working closely with the police, and many other agencies in the county.
The coalition Government is calling for a "revolution in rehabilitation" and we welcome this since that is precisely what the Gloucestershire Probation Trust daily strives to bring about.
In line with the rehabilitation revolution, Ken Clarke, Minister of Justice is questioning the effectiveness of a short prison sentences. The prison population has nearly doubled over the past ten years as more offenders receive prison sentences for relatively minor offences.
The re-offending rate for short term prisoners is 61 per cent. The figure for Gloucestershire Probation is 37 per cent, which indicates the probation supervision is significantly more successful in delivering successful outcomes in the short term for some offenders.
We aim to improve that figure but many offenders lead chaotic lives with drug and alcohol problems, homelessness and poor employment prospects. We work closely with offenders who are on strict supervision plans, using a "curriculum type approach", rather like the national curriculum for education, to address their different problems and assess their progress.
To this end, we work in conjunction with drug treatment agencies, accommodation providers, education schemes, victim organisations and many others to break the cycle of criminal behaviour.
Crispin Blunt, new Minister for Prisons and Probation, in one of his first speeches quoted Churchill, saying that the first principle of prison reform "should be able to prevent as many people getting there at all". One of our most successful schemes to stop people going to prison is Community Payback.
Groups of seven or eight offenders in high viz jackets undertake work to payback to the community. Last year we undertook more than 70,000 hours of work in the community ranging from running lunch clubs for the elderly to clearing graffiti, building school playgrounds and refurbishing projects such as the walled gardens in Prinknash Monastery.
The re-offending rate scheme is as low as 11 per cent. We welcome suggestions for new projects via our website (www.glosprobation.org).
As the person in charge of the probation service in Gloucestershire I am committed to ensuring that you have confidence in the work we do. Part of the process is to increase awareness and understanding our work. With this in mind, I will be writing regularly and I hope this will contribute to the current discussions around rehabilitation revolution to cut re-offending.