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Probation must learn from failings to prevent more tragedies, inspector warns

Chief inspector of probation Justin Russell called for improvements.

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File photo of a prison cell (Paul Faith/PA)

File photo of a prison cell (Paul Faith/PA)

File photo of a prison cell (Paul Faith/PA)

The probation system must learn from its failings when offenders commit crimes like murder and rape while under supervision to prevent more tragedies, inspectors have warned.

Chief inspector of probation Justin Russell said there was “lack of independent oversight and transparency” in the process of serious further offence (SFO) reviews which are carried out after such an incident.

While individual reviews are good in parts, some were failing to give a “clear judgment as to whether all reasonable steps had been taken to manage the risk of serious harm”.

Publishing a report of his findings on Thursday, Mr Russell said: “At a national level, more needs to be done to identify trends and themes to drive changes to probation policies and guidance.

“Until this work is done, the Government and probation services are not doing enough to learn from past mistakes.

“Lessons must be learnt to prevent more tragedies in the future.”

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Joseph McCann is back behind bars (Metropolitan Police/PA)

Joseph McCann is back behind bars (Metropolitan Police/PA)

PA

Joseph McCann is back behind bars (Metropolitan Police/PA)

The case of Joseph McCann thrust the process of SFO reviews into the spotlight last year after he was jailed for a minimum term of 30 years for a string of attacks on 11 women and children.

Probation, police and prison authorities were warned of the risk a serial rapist posed eight years before he carried out a sex attack spree, the SFO review into his case found.

Officials were warned as early as 2011 that he had the hallmarks of a sex offender and later probation officers missed eight chances to keep him behind bars.

Of four probation staff who were directly involved in McCann’s case, one was demoted.

Mr Russell is conducting an independent review of the case with the first part of his report expected to be published in June.

Around a quarter of a million people are on probation in England and Wales and about 0.2% are charged with SFOs each year while under supervision.

Managers at the National Probation Service (NPS), which supervises high risk offenders in the community, and Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC), which monitor low and medium risk criminals, have to complete the internal review when serious and violent crimes are committed on their watch.

Out of 493 reviews carried out in 2018, 114 were for murder and 149 were for rape, according to government figures cited in the report.

According to the findings:

– Reviews should be drawing “clear conclusions on failures of probation practice” and look at the involvement of other authorities, not just probation.

– A “culture of fear” means staff feel the focus of a review is to apportion blame and has contributed to a “defensive operational practice”, undermining the ability to learn from the process.

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Chief inspector of probation Justin Russell (PA)

Chief inspector of probation Justin Russell (PA)

PA

Chief inspector of probation Justin Russell (PA)

– More effort needs to be made to help victims and families see and understand the reviews.

– Staff shortages have led to “backlogs and unacceptable delays” of around six months on average in part of the process.

– Officials should publish an annual report on key trends and lessons learned from SFO reviews.

Asked whether the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) should routinely publish SFO reviews, Mr Russell said there could be “public interest” in doing so but care must be taken to consider the potential impact on victims and their families.

Some families who had seen the reviews told inspectors they found the process open and honest about failings.

But the risks should be considered before disclosure, inspectors suggested, after they learned one victim ended up in a psychiatric hospital after reading a review and another was left with the entire document even though there were still in a relationship with the perpetrator.

The MoJ has agreed to allow probation inspectors to assess the reviews.

New guidance and mandatory training for probation officers is also being provided, the department said.

A MoJ spokesman added: “Serious further offences are rare but each one is scrutinised so that probation officers can improve the work they do to reduce the risk of others coming to serious harm.

“In most cases, reviews find errors by individuals, rather than systemic failings, and action is taken to address them.

“However where wider issues have been identified, the National Probation Service has acted to put them right.”

PA