This blog provides a summary of a Ministry of Justice pilot to increase the delivery of quality pre-sentence reports across 15 magistrates’ courts in England and Wales. See the Ministry of Justice guidance here.
What are the pilots trying to achieve?
Pre-sentence reports (PSRs) are conducted by the National Probation Service (NPS) to provide judges and magistrates with an assessment of an individual’s risk profile and the factors that may have contributed to them coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
There was a significant decrease in the number of PSRs recorded from 2010 to 2018 - from more than 212,000 to fewer than 114,000. The MoJ investigated these circumstances and concluded that the purpose of a PSR has become lost and sentencers have very different views on the benefits of PSRs and when one is deemed necessary. To address this decline, the MoJ has developed in collaboration with the National Probation Service (NPS) and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) an alternative delivery model (ADM), designed to:
- Test whether more informed PSRs provide sentencers with a more complete picture of a service user’s circumstances and whether this will enable more tailored sentencing recommendations to assist sentencers in making appropriate sentences
- Improve confidence amongst sentencers in the suitability and deliverability of NPS recommendations of interventions
- Improve the administration of justice and increase court efficiency through early planning and giving the NPS more time to generate a quality PSR.
What is the ADM being tested?
The first part of the ADM will be to reinforce the existing National Pre-Sentence Report Before Plea Protocol. This protocol has been introduced to help alleviate some pressures on magistrates’ courts during the Covid-19 pandemic. It aims to prevent the need for adjourning cases in order for a PSR to be completed by instead ensuring more PSRs are produced prior to an individual’s first hearing. The ADM will reinforce the implementation of the protocol across the 15 pilot sites and measure the impact this is having on numbers of PSRs completed before plea.
The second part of the ADM is to target service users within priority cohorts to receive a written short format report. The priority cohorts are women, young adults aged 18-24 and service users who are at risk of custody. The MoJ has classified these cohorts as more commonly having complex needs, and therefore require a more comprehensive written PSR. These cohort groups also generally show an over-representation of racially minoritised people when compared to the general population. If a written report cannot be produced on the day, magistrates will be asked to provide a short adjournment (up to a maximum of five days), to allow the NPS to complete a written report to obtain all the relevant information pertaining to the service user and the offence.
The final part of the ADM is to ensure that NPS court teams are equipped to better deliver high quality information, confidently and concisely. Pilot site NPS court teams will receive learning and development to improve their communications and advocacy skills, critical thinking and problem solving, inclusive risk assessments, trauma informed practice and responsive ways of working. Alongside this, changes have also been made to probation's digital tool to help improve the quality of the sentencing proposals. It is hoped that these measures can help improve the quality of PSRs even for those who cannot be identified earlier in the process (part 1) or are not considered a priority cohort (part 2).
MoJ Analytical Services will conduct an evaluation including interim reviews six and 12 months into the pilot, to assess whether the ADM is helping to meet the objectives of the pilot.
Where has the ADM been rolled out?
The ADM has now been rolled-out across 15 magistrates’ courts and will last for 12 months. The first sites went live on 22nd March 2021 and the final sites went live on 17th May 2021.
Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, and Luton and South Bedfordshire are also Community Sentence Treatment Requirement (CSTR) sites. Read more about the CSTR programme here.
Should the MoJ go further?
Full pre-sentence reports can be life changing for people. They can help judges and magistrates more fully understand the underlying reasons someone has come into contact with the criminal justice system and enable the NPS to make recommendations of appropriate community interventions. In some cases, this can mean that instead of being given a custodial sentence, people are supported to address their underlying needs in the community.
Any measure to increase the take up of full pre-sentence reports must therefore be welcome. Clinks particularly welcomes the inclusion of women in the priority cohorts, which will help sentencers take into account experiences of abuse and trauma and supports the aims and objectives of the Female Offender Strategy. The attention too on those groups that may have complex needs, who will be better supported via multi-agency community interventions is also welcome.
Clinks thinks the government could however have gone further and should be adopting specified targets for the completion of pre-sentence reports, in line with previous commitments they have made as part of the probation review programme.
As the Lammy Review indicated, racially minoritised people are far more likely to receive a more severe sentences for certain offences. Full written PSRs can help mitigate against racist perceptions and biases held by some sentencers that may lead to these disproportionate sentences.
We are therefore disappointed that racially minoritised people are not included as a priority cohort for the pilot. The MoJ will include, as part of these pilots, training for probation staff on how to address unconscious bias, and conversations on race and trauma and how to recognise racial disparity in the criminal justice system. The pilot evaluation will also cover insights into protected characteristics and racially minoritised service users.
This pilot was one of a suite of measures that were announced in the MoJ’s white paper on sentencing last year, including the piloting of problem-solving courts, support for the CSTR programme, and changes to the disclosure periods for criminal records. These measures are a welcome contrast to the focus in much of the white paper on increasing prison sentences.
Aspects of the white paper requiring legislative change are currently progressing through parliament as part of the wider Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Clinks thinks the bill will increase racial disparity and have signed a joint letter calling on the government to withdraw elements of the bill.