The ability of a practitioner to communicate with people from all backgrounds and at all levels will aid good practice in the preparation of a PSR. When interviewing the practitioner will have to be able to communicate with the offender in a language that the offender understands whilst maintaining a professional relationship and acting in a pro-social manner. Resorting to derogatory or 'inappropriate' language in order to facilitate communication with the offender would not be good practice.
Such practice would fail to display what may be a well-needed example of pro-social behaviour and could lead the practitioner to inadvertently condoning inappropriate behaviour or colluding with the offender. When writing the report the ability to present the information logically, clearly and concisely will be fundamental to making a clear and realistic proposal for sentence to the court. Working within a profession often means that one will use terminology or jargon amongst colleagues that may not be understood by people outside the profession.
It is therefore necessary that the completed report is free from jargon and is proofread for spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors. Feedback from a shadow PSR that I wrote has shown how easy it is to slip into the use of words or phrases that might not be understood by all readers of the report. Phrases such as 'lack of consequential thinking' 'poor means end reasoning' and 'a willingness to engage in risky behaviour' have been highlighted as perhaps needing greater explanation.
Information gathering is an integral part of the assessment process and skills in this area will assist in the preparation of a PSR. The interview will provide the practitioner with a wealth of information but it is vital that information is recorded accurately and at the time acquired. By familiarising oneself with any information that might be available, including previous convictions, prior to the interview one can be prepared with knowledge of what further information might need to be extracted during the interview or what information might need clarifying.
The PSR writer should be mindful to inform the court 'why' the individual has offended in the way he/she has rather than repeating details of the offence which have already been described by the prosecution or the offender. However in informing the analysis made by the PSR "reference may be made to the offender's account where it differs from the account of the prosecution" (NPS Greater Manchester, 2000). Another source of information could include discussion with colleagues and professionals from other agencies.
However when discussing the offender with others it is important to distinguish between what is fact and what is opinion and whether the information bears any relevance to the current situation. Discussions with others will also provide an opportunity to look at what contribution other agencies might be able to make and their views about strategies on any planned intervention. It is vital that all information obtained from the offender and any third party is recorded as this information may assist any future supervision planning or risk assessments.
Home Office research findings can be another source of information when considering such things as the effect of particular crimes on victims and the effectiveness of certain interventions. Research findings if used appropriately can support any proposal for intervention within the report. Once all available information has been collated it will be necessary to analyse and make sense of that information in order for it to be of use in making an assessment and writing the report.
Sound analytical skills will therefore facilitate an assessment that will provide the basis for any proposal for intervention. The assessment is a professional judgement likely to contain factual information, opinion and interpretation but it is important that each is identified as such, with evidence supporting any factual information. Some practitioners have devised paper tools that assist in collating information and I have personally found them of assistance in the workplace.
For example the process of entering previous convictions, court disposals and dates onto a simple chart can highlight patterns of offending, the offender's reaction to and the success of various interventions, thus informing the suitability of any further intervention and future work. In making an assessment, the report writer will need to be skilled in the use of various tools aimed at informing the assessment process with regard to the risk and level of harm that the offender poses to the public and the likelihood of him/her re-offending.
The aim of these tools, namely; ACE, RM1 & 2, and OGR's is to provide a basis upon which a proposal for intervention should be made and they should therefore be completed before the report is written. However it is apparent from observations in the workplace that amidst workload pressures and time constraints that some practitioners are waiving good practice and completing these tools as the report is nearing or has reached completion mindful of meeting National Standards and confirming the assessment that they have already made.
Another area where there is a tension between good practice and resources is in the gathering of information by interview. National Standards states, " a PSR should be based on at least one face to face interview" (National Standards 2000, my emphasis added). However it now appears to be common practice in many cases to complete the PSR on the basis of one interview.
Again from observations within the workplace, though some practitioners may interview the offender on two occasions, of those PSR's that I have witnessed being completed on the basis of one interview there has always been at least one query or point that would have benefited from further investigation or clarification in a second interview. If and when resources reach a more favourable level, while acknowledging the contentious nature of this issue, might there be a danger that good practice continues to be disregarded because the process of making an assessment on the basis of one interview has become the 'norm'?
Good practice ensures that a PSR is well researched and all available relevant information is used. In adhering to good practice I have discussed competency in the following skills as being influential; risk assessment, provision of a balanced account, the ability to differentiate between fact and opinion, communicating, making a clear proposal, motivational interviewing, being analytical, negotiating, networking, recording, use of research and reflective practice.
I have also shown how knowledge in the following areas adds to good practice; statutory duties, anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice, one's own values and beliefs, impact of self and change upon others. Good practice will help ensure that PSR's provide the courts with an informed analysis of the offence and the circumstances of the offender in relation to the said offence or offences so that the court may be assisted in reaching an appropriate decision as how to best deal with the offender.
Hill, L. (2002) 'Working in the Courts' in Ward, D. et al (eds) Probation Working for Justice, (2nd edn), Oxford. HMIP (2000) Toward Race Equality: A Thematic Inspection, London: Home Office. National Probation Service for England and Wales, Greater Manchester (2001) Pre-Sentence Reports: Guide to National Standards 2000, National Probation Service, Greater Manchester Area. National Probation Service for England and Wales (2002) National Standards for the supervision of offenders in the community 2000, Home Office.