Bill Carmichael: Hard times in a tough job

THERE must be few jobs in the country that are as valuable to society as that of probation officers – and few jobs that are as tough to do. At its best, the probation service plays a vital role in the criminal justice system, preventing young offenders from becoming hardened criminals and persuading old lags to change their ways.

I have my doubts, expressed in this column numerous times, about the efficacy of so-called “tough” community sentences.

And unlike many who work in the criminal justice system, I do believe that prison does indeed work – not least because it removes offenders from communities and gives their victims some small respite.

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To put it in a nutshell – little Johnny Scumbag can’t mug your granny while he is safely locked inside. That’s not to say that in some cases community sentences may be appropriate – but if they work or not is almost entirely dependent on the professionalism and skill of the probation officer at the sharp end. A good probation officer shouldn’t be an offender’s friend – but a stern taskmaster who challenges criminals to turn their lives around. But they can only do that in face to face encounters with offenders – not sitting in an office filling out forms and ticking boxes.

That’s why the report this week from the Commons Justice Committee was so shocking and depressing. The inquiry found that probation officers spend as little as a quarter of their time directly dealing with offenders – a figure MPs said was “staggering”. The report, based on evidence from serving probation officers, went on to criticise the “tick-box, bean counting culture” that left staff filling in paperwork, rather than helping to rehabilitate criminals. The Committee questioned whether the National Offender Management Service (Noms), formed in 2004 with a merger of the prison and probation services, was giving probation trusts the support and freedom they need.

Particular concerns were raised about the “micro-management” by Noms, which required probation staff to spend a great deal of time filling in forms to comply with the agency’s targets. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke acknowledged the problem and said the Government was already addressing it by reducing the number of targets and giving probation officers back their professional discretion.

Let’s hope that is the right course. Confidence in the criminal justice system has been badly knocked in recent years, largely thanks to activist judges and soft sentences, and if it is to be restored we need a tough and rigorous probation service.

And the best way of achieving that is to allow probation officers the contact time with offenders to really make a difference, rather than filling out endless forms.

Brain power

News this week that northerners have bigger brains than southerners won’t exactly have come as a surprise to readers of this newspaper.

We knew that all along, didn’t we folks?

But scientific backing for this northern truism arrived in the guise of findings by Oxford University researchers.

They analysed 55 skulls from around the globe and found that people from areas further from the equator had more grey matter and larger eyes than those from sunnier climes. They reckon that this is because in low light conditions the brain and eyes have to work harder. They spoilt their conclusions slightly by stating that just because our brains are bigger, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are more intelligent.

Are they trying to call us big headed? That’s fighting talk where we come from.

On that point, the researchers have got it wrong. Northerners are cleverer than southerners – it is just a case of waiting for science to catch up with what we know in our hearts (and big brains) to be the truth.