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Risk assessment and Offending Behaviour Programmes (OBP’s)

Over the years accredited offending behaviour programmes have been seen as the holy grail of risk reduction. Whether a prisoner has completed an accredited programme has been seen as central to whether risk has reduced.

Arguments to parole panels that accredited offending behaviour programmes are not necessary for release/progression have regularly fallen on deaf ears. This despite the well known Judgment of Justice Cranston in Gill v The Secretary of State for Justice confirming they are not and that the 7 recognised pathways can reduce risk.

I have often told clients and family members that whilst those assessing risk may mention courses are not the only way to reduce risk, in practice the other areas play little in decision-making.

For those whom maintain their innocence this has been a particular problem, particularly given maintaining innocence or the favoured term of the prison service “denial” has been seen to be a significant risk factor. Within the last 12 months there has been a breakthrough as psychological research studies have shown this is not the case and maintaining innocence can actually be a protective factor. In terms of this principle featuring within risk assessment on a daily basis there is a lot of work to be done. Whilst a few parole panels have accepted this, many still associate maintaining innocence as being evidence of increased risk.

For sexual offenders, this stance has been even more nuanced because those assessing risk appear to have been risk averse towards them.

Over the years, I have used many independent psychologists whom have believed that accredited offending behaviour programmes whilst helpful do not necessarily reduce risk. Common sense indicates if an individual wishes to change their lifestyle they do so without completing programmes.

Through the use of psychologists I’ve presented arguments to the Parole Board, Category A team and the Ministry of Justice that at best the programmes can be viewed as experimental as there has not been any published evidence to confirm they actually reduce risk.

I’ve seen panels heavily criticise eminent forensic psychologists for speaking out about courses. Panels have preferred the evidence of trainee prison psychologists because they have maintained the status quo. I distinctly remember in one hearing, a Professor setting out aspects of the HSP about masturbating to unhealthy sexual thoughts, which a panel member was aghast at this happening and saying it must be wrong.

I’ve seen as part of the PPG assessment reports whereby clients have had their penis strapped whilst being played audio/visual sexual videos to see if they are aroused by situations society would deem to be wrong. Upon passing the assessment, in one case without any evidence it was suggested he may have manipulated the results.

Last year, I looked at bringing a challenge for a lifer client whom maintains his innocence of a sexual offence and remains category A, many years post tariff. We engaged the pre-action protocol procedure for Judicial Review challenging the failure of the MoJ in it’s public law duty to my client to give risk reduction work. We were told a claim would be premature due to the Horizon and Kaizen programmes that were being developed.

At the time, little did we know about the significant developments that were going to occur. Over the last 6 months we heard rumblings about research into the SOTP and its ability to reduce risk. In documents released by the MoJ to explain the removal of the programmes it has confirmed that the men who did the Core had a 2% higher rate of sexual reoffending than those who did not.

The studies conclusions were so staggering that the MoJ immediately de-commissioned the programmes and have sought to indicate that given Horizon and Kaizen have now been accredited the decision to de-commission was in part due to this.

What we know is that simply saying a programme has been accredited does not fit with obvious risk reduction given the failures of the SOTP’s.

A prisoner notice released by the MoJ states:

the rate of sexual reoffending was low for both men who did the Core and men who didn’t. Fewer than 1 in every 10 men were reconvicted/cautioned for a sexual crime up to seven years after release”.

The position is appalling given the lip service those involved in making risk decisions have placed on the completion of accredited OBP’s and the weight given to those within the system whom opine the completion of such as necessary.

I say this, because as a practitioner I have surrounded myself with the most eminent psychologists and I have seen panels prefer the evidence of trainee psychologists without little reason other than they are recommending more courses.

I personally think we need an honest debate and re-evaluation of our system moving forward because for years we have had trainee psychologists, often young females, relatively fresh out of university risk assessing some of the most dangerous individuals detained. We have allowed poor risk assessments to become the norm. I ask this, if you were on a murder charge, would you want a trainee solicitor/barrister? If, you were going in for brain surgery, would you want a trainee Doctor?

I’ve seen reports from trainee’s that have been trainee’s for 10 years plus! In any other professional it would be untenable to be a trainee for that long. The MoJ has permitted this in order to pay them less.

The MoJ and Parole Board are keen to reduce the prison population and increase release rates. Obviously, this can be only for those whom risk is manageable in the community and for those whom it is not necessary for them to be detained in prison. I would never advocate the release of dangerous individuals, but working in the coalface and conducting parole hearings daily I truly believe a number of our prisoners could be released tomorrow without posing an unacceptable level of risk to the public.

I’ve never come across someone convicted of a sexual offence being released having only completed the Core programme.

There is a wealth of psychological research evidence that as age increases risk decreases. We have an increasing older prison population, does someone in there 70’s, in ill health need a course to reduce risk.

I don’t say that lightly, a few years ago I represented Harry Roberts, whom back in the 1960’s was responsible for the murder of a number of policemen. It was a crime that shocked the nation and at his parole hearing a number of individuals were saying he was too high risk to be released. They argued he needed courses and psychological input, but we were successful in arguing that the release test was met. He was duly released and has been out in the community for over 2 years. No unacceptable risk to the public.

With an honest debate the MoJ and Parole Board should urgently look at how they will deal with matters moving forward. I believe the Parole Board needs to hold member training particularly given the recent large recruitment drive, because it is evident regularly within decisions that some of the members are still as risk averse.

Very, recently I submitted a request for an oral hearing for a client whom maintains his innocence of a sexual offence. We pointed out that he had completed the TSP and engaged with the 7 recognised pathways and that an oral hearing was necessary because maintaining innocence did not increase risk. We relied on the Risk Matrix 2000 assessment, which suggested he was a low risk of re-offending.

The decision of the highly experienced member refused an oral hearing and said there was no evidence of risk reduction and questioned “whether RM2000 is an effective measure in your case, in view of the score being so low at the time of sentence and now”. The member with no evidence questioned the low assessment purely because he maintains his innocence.

Thankfully, following a robust and very strong critique of the decision the Board has now granted an oral hearing, but one most wonder how many occasions are prisoners being refused hearings for similar reasons and simply accept it because they do not have representation or don’t properly understand they can challenge it.

So far, both the MoJ and Parole Board have failed to address a number of key points arising from the removal of two highly advocated programmes and I believe the following need to be addressed:

  • Where does that leave us in terms of other accredited offending behaviour programmes?
  • Have studies been commissioned or now will they be commissioned to evaluate the effectiveness of programmes that remain in operation e.g. RESOLVE, TSP etc?
  • What is the evidence base to say that Kaizen and Horizon are likely to reduce risk?
  • Will panel members be much more inquisitorial in viewing recommendations for further courses?
  • What training is going to be given to Parole Board members to assist decision-making?
  • Can those whom believe they are still detained for issues pertaining to SOTP be re-referred to the Board for an up to date risk assessment and oral hearing?
  • What steps are the MoJ taken to ensure those that do require Horizon and Kaizen are going to be given timely access to it?

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