The probation officer

The aim of a Pre sentence report (PSR) is to submit to the court information about the offender and the offending so that the court has sufficient relevant information to enable it to decide on a suitable sentence. The PSR provides an assessment of the offending behaviour, an assessment of the risk, both of re-conviction and of harm to the public, and should also provide a clear and realistic indication of the action that can be taken by the court to reduce re-offending.

The report should conclude with an established and realistic proposal that is commensurate with seriousness. In achieving this aim the practitioner will have to draw on certain skills and knowledge in order to maintain what is recognized as good practice. Failure to adhere to good practice may result in a report that is unclear or ambiguous in its proposal. "When reports are poorly prepared, inconsistent in quality, unreliable in their conclusions or illogical or poorly targeted in their proposals, one of the first casualties is justice" (Raynor 1994).

I shall now identify and discuss some of the skills and knowledge that influence good practice in the preparation of a PSR. Practitioners need a sound knowledge of their statutory duties and powers, including what constitutes anti-discriminatory and ant-oppressive practice. When preparing a pre-sentence report the probation officer has a duty to ensure that all offenders are given equal opportunity of access to services. For example a disabled person should not to be refused the opportunity to complete a Community Punishment Order because disabled facilities were not available.

The exclusion from such an order would reduce the sentencing options available and could increase the likelihood of the offender receiving a custodial sentence therefore discriminating against that person. Some offenders may have experienced racism as a result of social structures or from the actions of individuals. It is important that the report writer is aware of the impact that this, or any other form of discrimination, may have on the individual. Knowledge of the possible forms or sources of discrimination can then be explained in the PSR along with ways that they can be avoided or remedied.

Though creating a clear picture of the offender and his/her life might help understand why the offending occurred, one must be aware of and refrain from using language that may discriminate or stereotype. HMIP stated in 2000 that of the reports where the writers were able to "acknowledge difference in a culturally sensitive way had a credibility and strength that others lacked" (HMIP 2000, p. 45) as opposed to simply equating equal opportunities to treating everyone alike. It is important to be aware of one's own values and beliefs and how they might inadvertently lead to oppressive or discriminatory thinking.

A useful method to help avoid this is to share assessments with colleagues before completing a PSR. This practice, from my experience within the workplace, helps avoid stereotyping or discriminating against individuals in terms of language or lack of appropriate disposal, or referral to other agencies on the grounds of race, disability, sexual orientation, gender or any other reason that might be deemed discriminatory. A formal system of 'gatekeeping' was introduced in the 1980's, however it was deemed to be heavy on resources and has since been replaced by the quality control checks by senior probation officers (see Hill 2002).

It is necessary that the PSR provides a balanced account of the offender and offences and does not over emphasise points that may be tainted by personal opinions or values. I witnessed an offender sentenced to a custodial sentence, at a Magistrates Court, contrary to the proposal in the PSR with which I agreed. The argument in the report for a community sentence was weak. There was also little reference to the affects that a custodial sentence might have on the offender and the likelihood of reducing future offending.

Consequently, later when receiving feedback on a PSR that I had shadow written it surfaced that I had rather over stated the case for the inappropriateness of a custodial sentence. In acknowledging that I had subconsciously allowed my writing to be influenced by the event of a custodial sentence being imposed in an inappropriate case and being aware of how one might be influenced I shall be better equipped to provide a balanced account in the future. It is imperative that one is able to distinguish between what is fact and what is opinion so as to maintain objectivity and ensure that the document is factually correct.

It is important when interviewing the offender that the practitioner has knowledge of 'motivational interviewing' and is conscious of the environment in which the interview is conducted and how it might affect the offender's reactions to questions. Though the reasons and parameters of the interview need to be made clear, an oppressive atmosphere should be avoided and trouble should be taken to put the offender at ease. The practitioner needs to be aware of his/her own appearance and body language so as to avoid acting in an oppressive manner.

Some offenders may not be able to articulate what they want to say and it may be necessary for practitioners to give the offenders opportunity to express themselves by posing relevant questions but at the same time avoid 'leading' the offender to make invalid statements. In recent years as well as assessing the impact of the offence upon the victim, PSR's have been intended to assess the offender's attitude toward the victim. Information on the offender's attitude will assist in making an accurate assessment of risk which will in turn form the basis of any future work with the offender.

In a recent interview that I co-interviewed for a PSR the interviewee was overwhelmed by the process of the interview and had trouble articulating some of his answers. By repeating one or two questions near the end of the interview the offender was able to give a far greater insight into his attitude to the offence as he was by then more relaxed. When assessing criminogenic needs, or factors that have contributed to the commission of the offence or offences the practitioner should draw upon knowledge of the offender's circumstances and explore possibilities for change.

Areas of analysis should include the possible effects of; peer group pressure, substance misuse, family conflict, homelessness, unemployment, discrimination and class. All of which may have affected the emotional, social or economic status of the individual. A sound understanding of the individual who is to be sentenced and how that person might be affected by change is crucial in the preparation of a report. A custodial sentence for example will impact differently on different people and details of the likely impact should be included in the report along with reasons why custody might not be appropriate.

By adopting a task-centred approach to assessment and identifying the causes of offending behaviour and circumstances that need to be changed the practitioner may well identify tasks that need to be undertaken in order to alleviate offending behaviour. Some of these tasks may have already been identified and commenced by the offender thus informing the preparation of any proposal for a community sentence, which should have a clear explanation of the programme of supervision.

Good interviewing skills on behalf of the practitioner are integral in assessing and supporting the offender's motivation to complete community sentence and will be crucial in extracting information from the offender in relation to the offence. It is important at the outset of the interview that the interviewer introduces him/herself in an appropriate manner, clarifies roles, establishes the 'ground rules' for the interview and explains the limitations of any confidentiality agreement in relation to disclosure of information and the purpose of the interview.

Research suggests "role clarification should be viewed as one of the key skills in work with involuntary clients" and "is an ongoing process" (Trotter 1999). Assumptions should not be made with regard to the offender's knowledge of the process and preparation of PSR's. In another interview for a PSR, I observed the practitioner state to the offender that as he had recently had a PSR interview for another offence he probably knew what it was all about, to which the offender agreed.

It was not until discussing a proposal at the end of the interview that it became apparent that nobody had explained to the offender that the court was considering a custodial sentence. Had the offender been made aware of this consideration at the beginning of the interview his demeanour throughout may well have been different, impressing on any assessment of motivation. The cooperation of the offender is essential to the provision of a high quality PSR, of which it is good practice to share the contents of, with the offender.

Negotiating skills will assist in attaining the offender's informed consent to any proposal for a community sentence. A negotiated document is likely to carry more credence with the court and may have a better chance of success than a proposal that has not been negotiated. Negotiation is also an integral part of the writing of the report and arguing positively for a clear single proposal that has the best chance of success in assisting the offender to remain offence free. The writer should also be able to show how the proposal is linked to the analysis of the offence to which the report refers.