I heard an interesting thing the other day. A member of the Parole Board speculating as to why over the last 10 years the release rate of Lifers had halved. He felt it was possible that members had heeded very public and negative comments by senior politicians, or that they'd simply become much more risk-averse due to public concern over notorious cases that had gone wrong. But he actually felt that the reason was connected to the increase in the number of negative recommendations from Probation Officers.
I find this so depressing to hear, but sadly completely understandable when we reflect on what has changed over this 10 year period. There has been the introduction of OASys the Offender Assessment System and a differing ethos within the Probation Service. To put it bluntly, officers have changed. Each year there are less and less social work trained officers well used to exercising high degrees of judgement and discretion and an increase in those newer officers who have never known any other approach to risk assessment other than the utterly formulaic method as dictated by OASys. Officers today are just not as willing, or feel able to take a risk in recommending release. This is very worrying because this group has not changed in terms of the risks they've always posed. It's the way we now deal with them that has changed and not for the better in my opinion.
By it's nature, OASys is focussed on the problems, not the strengths that each individual possesses. So it really shouldn't be that surprising that when the completed document produces a comprehensive assessment of all the risk factors involved, there is often very little scope for corresponding positives with which to assist in coming to a balanced view about risk. The document is simply not configured in such a way that makes it possible to counter-balance all the risk factors and the result is more often than not negative as a result. I noticed this routinely when forced to read PSR's when working as a Court Duty Officer. Being an experienced practitioner, I knew full well that everybody has some positives to be highlighted, but routinely I found myself reading OASys-generated reports that had nothing positive to say about an individual. This cannot be right.
It will be appreciated that it is complete heresy to publicly say anything other than 'OASys is a vital tool in assessing risk and a vast improvement on what went before.' On the other hand it's completely fashionable to say that we really were not very good at assessing risk in the past and it all needed 'tightening up.' I simply don't accept that hypothesis. We've created a monster that gobbles up millions of man-hours every year and that fails to deliver a meaningful risk assessment. It has utterly debased the value of PSR's and ushered in the routine and often inappropriate use of FDR's as a way of avoiding it. It is a system that results in more people going to prison and less people coming out via the Parole Board. In fact it's been a complete disaster. There, I've said it!