Evaluation of Community Payback Orders, Criminal Justice Social Work Reports and the Presumption Against Short Sentences
This document presents the findings of an evaluation of Community Payback Orders, Criminal Justice Social Work Reports and the Presumption Against Short Sentences. The evaluation was conducted by Scotcen Social Research during 2013-14.
2 Criminal Justice Social Work Reports
2.1 The purpose of the Criminal Justice Social Work Report (CJSWR) is to assist in the sentencing process and to complement other information available to sentencers (Scottish Government, 2011b, p.19), in particular, by providing information about social work interventions and how those may impact on offending behaviour. The CJSWR acts, then, as a focus for dialogue between the sentencer and social work, and also allows for engagement with the offender to help determine his or her attitude towards potential disposals. As such, it has a potentially critical role to play in enabling the effective and appropriate use of community penalties.
2.2 The introduction of a new process and template for CJSWRs in February 2011 (replacing the existing Social Enquiry Reports (SERs)) was intended to achieve greater consistency in terms of the presentation, content and style of information available to sentencers in Scotland. However, it was also intended that CJSWRs would be briefer and more focused and concise than the SERs they replaced, and that they would contain better quality analysis. There was also, of course, an expectation that CJSWRs would be submitted according to agreed timescales (and therefore be available to sentencers at the point at which they are needed).
2.3 This chapter, then, examines the extent to which those aspirations have been met. Specific issues addressed within the chapter include the timeliness with which CJSWRs are submitted to court; the degree to which the new template has led to consistent and standardised reports; the range of information sources drawn on; and the quality and usefulness of the information, analysis and conclusions contained within the reports. The chapter also examines the degree to which CJSW staff appear to have the time, training and support needed to produce high quality reports. In addressing these themes, we draw on a wide range of sources, including the survey of CJSW managers and qualitative interviews with both CJSW managers and staff; the survey of and qualitative interviews with Sheriffs; qualitative interviews with offenders; and the 'participative audit' of a sample of CJSWRs.
2.4 Over the course of the chapter, it will be argued that CJSWRs represent a significant improvement in a number of important respects and, in particular, in terms of the format and consistency of information presented. It will also be argued, however, that the highly structured character of the new template has had some disadvantages and that there remains scope for improvement in the overall quality of analysis provided.
2.5 A CJSWR must be requested:
- before imposing a custodial sentence for the first time or where the offender is under 21,
- when imposing a CPO with a Supervision Requirement or Level 2 UPWOA Requirement (over 100 hours), Community Service Order (CSO) or Probation Order (PO) with Unpaid Work,
- when imposing a Drug Treatment and Testing Order (DTTO).
2.6 Recent years have seen a downward trend in the number of criminal justice social work reports requested by the courts - a trend which pre-dates the introduction of CJSWRs. In 2006-7, for example, the number of reports requested across Scotland as a whole was 50,698; in the first full year following the introduction of CJSWRs in 2011-12, there were 42,054 reports, while in 2012-13, the figure fell again to 37,184. (This is likely to reflect a general downward trend in reported crimes and offences in Scotland, and in the number of young offenders in particular - though the introduction of Level 1 orders, for which a report is not required, may also have been a factor in the last couple of years.)
2.7 Evidence from different sources within the evaluation suggests that the vast majority of CJSWRs are being delivered to court within the agreed timescales. For example, this was true of 90% of reports examined during the audit; and 28 of the 30 respondents to the survey of CJSW managers indicated that between 91 and 100% of reports in their area were being delivered to court on time.
2.8 Sheriffs, too, felt that timeliness was not a concern: 55 of the 72 who responded to the Sheriffs' survey 'agreed' or 'strongly agreed' that reports are delivered to court in sufficient time for sentencing.
2.9 That said, there are still some minor pressures and delays which - while not preventing the timely submission of reports - may reduce the time available for CJSW staff to complete reports. The research found isolated examples of delays in the transfer of requests for reports from the courts to CJSW. More significantly, however, it appeared that allocation to report writers within CJSW was sometimes time-consuming. For those cases examined as part of the audit, it took an average of three days for reports to be allocated - and in a fifth of cases, it took five days or more. In combination with other factors - discussed below - this may have implications for the overall quality of analysis contained in reports.
Standardisation, structure and overall focus
2.10 Across different professional groups, there was a broad - but not universal - view that the structure and focus of the new template represented an improvement on SERs. It was seen by many CJSW staff, for example, as reducing variation across reports, report-writers and local authority areas - something often considered to have been an undesirable feature of SERs.
"I think previously the problem with SERs [was] they were open to interpretation and …there was some guidance, but when you read a report, sometimes you wouldn't find things where you thought they should be and, I think that was difficult for sentencers."
(Interview 37, CJSW)
2.11 The template was also felt to provide a structure and focus on offending that is helpful in ensuring not only that the information is provided in a consistent format but that consistent questions are asked of offenders in the first place.
"I actually like the new template. I think it's very structured. I think it's more offence focused and that because of the structure of it, it guides you what to basically ask …the perpetrator and also it means that there is the same format for everybody so it doesn't matter what social worker is doing your report, you should still be asked the same type of questions, still be assessed in the same manner. Whereas beforehand the reports varied significantly depending on the worker."
(Interview 3, CJSW)
"It helps to break down the analysis; it makes you think about the questions you're asking and the information you're getting […] It doesn't help your decision but what does it do? It kind of provides a framework for it."
(Interview 55, CJSW)
2.12 UPW staff also suggested that CJSWRs were more helpful than SERs in providing a full picture of individual offenders' needs, risks and circumstances:
"I think it's been a huge improvement. You get a better idea about the person, you know, why they've ended up in that situation."
(Interview 47, UPW staff)
"I mean it's a definite change, a departure; it's far less narrative and I was guilty along with many other people of maybe being too narrative. Sheriffs would complain about reports being overly long. But they now are definitely more focused and there's a much clearer risk assessment [that] now goes with them."
(Interview 2, UPW staff)
2.13 The more structured and consistent character of the reports was also welcomed by Sheriffs, who commented on the benefits in terms of being able to find key information quickly - an important feature in the context of demanding workloads.
"I think they're better because they're standardised - you know exactly where things are going to be and under what heading they're going to be."
(Interview 63, Sheriff)
2.14 Overall, then, the structured and consistent character of the CJSWR template was widely seen as an improvement on SERs - or, at the very least, as a step in the right direction. That is not to say, however, that views of CJSWRs were universally positive or that there is no room for improvement. Some key issues in that respect are discussed below.
Range of sources drawn on
2.15 The NOS Practice Guidance on CJSWRs makes clear the importance of drawing on a wide range of sources in preparing CJSWRs: 'The more detail of the individual's self-report which can be verified as accurate from other sources, the more credible the report/assessment is likely to be considered.'
(Scottish Government, 2011b, p.24)
2.16 The participative audit suggests that this is largely happening. On average, the audited reports cited 6.35 different sources (with a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 10). As Table 2.1 shows, the offender interview, criminal history information, and complaint/indictment were explicitly cited as sources in almost all (90%+) reports audited, while the LS/CMI, consultation with colleagues and reference to departmental/service records were cited in around 80% of reports.
Table 2.1: Sources CJSWR author has quoted as the basis for the report (n and %)
|Offender interview||140 (97%)||Home visit / family interview||6 (4%)|
|Consultation with colleagues||118 (82%)||Telephone consultation with family/ partner||8 (6%)|
|Complaint / indictment||134 (93%)||Consultation with other agency||55 (38%)|
|Full criminal history information||135 (94%)||Prosecution summary of evidence||8 (6%)|
|LS/CMI assessment||113 (78%)||Dept. information / service records||114 (79%)|
|Medical services||25 (17%)||Any other risk assessment tool||58 (40%)|
Note: Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.
Source: Participative audit.
2.17 There was, however, relatively little (40%) quoted use of risk assessment tools other than the LS/CMI - of particular relevance in cases involving domestic abuse or serious violence, where the use of tools such as the Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA) might be expected.
An over-reliance on offender accounts?
2.18 From the findings of the audit reported above, very little reference is made to prosecution summaries of evidence (cited by report authors in just 6% of cases). While such summaries are usually provided in cases involving sexual offending - and despite pilot initiatives in some areas - they are not routinely available to CJSW staff for other offences. Interestingly, not all audited cases involving sexual offending made reference to prosecution summaries, while some other types of cases did.
2.19 In interviews (and at the validation event), many social workers argued that this left them overly-reliant on offenders' accounts and that their ability to assess the risks the offender continues to pose, identify the appropriate method of intervention and provide appropriate advice to the court would be improved by access to prosecution statements or other trial evidence. Those with experience of working in (or with) courts in England & Wales, where such information is routinely provided, were perhaps especially likely to express such a view, although the dangers of 'information overload' were also acknowledged, as was the difficulty of determining the status of summaries prepared in advance of trial (and which might subsequently be challenged).
2.20 There is little doubt, however, that there is a significant body of opinion within CJSW that fuller access to prosecution information would improve the quality of assessment and recommendations, contribute more effectively to public safety and reduce the likelihood of a significant gap between social workers' recommendations and sentencers' final decisions.
"[W]hen they're writing...the Probation Service [in England & Wales] they get every bit of the witness statements, they get the police information, they get everything and actually that's overkill, I don't need that for every report I write. But...there are some things where the disposal was so far on the other side of what you think, there must have been something that I didn't know here! That can make you feel a bit disempowered at times and a bit kind of 'oh, have I made a really bad judgment call then?'."
(Interview 57, CJSW)
"Most of the time, they come back […] as we recommend but I think going back to that point of not having the full information, as we'd have in England, sometimes we are arguing for something and then we see it afterwards or even we read about it in the paper. You think, 'Maybe that was more serious than I thought it was'."
(Interview 37, CJSW)
2.21 Some Sheriffs also acknowledged the difficulty for report writers in having to work with only 'the offender's version of events'. Most, however, saw this as reason for CJSW staff to exercise caution in relation to analysis of harm, risk and preferred sentencing options, rather than as a strong argument for granting them access to prosecution summaries. Both Sheriffs and court staff expressed concern about the status of such information as well as doubts about the practicality of managing such large information flows.
"Well, the trouble with getting the Crown narrative is […] Ideally, yes, but the trouble with that is I've seen the Crown narrative might be three or four pages, but what the person pleads or is found guilty of might be two of those pages."
(Interview 19, Sheriff)
'Writing to the template?': Length, relevance and duplication
2.22 Despite a broadly positive view of the CJSWR template as a whole, around two-thirds of Sheriffs responding to the survey (44 out of 68) either agreed or agreed strongly that reports are too long or contain unnecessary duplication. In combination with the views of CJSW staff (see para 2.23), this raises questions about whether the template, as currently used, is meeting the original requirement for concise and focused analysis. Indeed, there is a suggestion that overly detailed reports may actually inhibit sentencer engagement with key messages, simply because of pressure of workload.
'In my view CJSWRs are very helpful but could be much more focused and concise, focusing only on information which could conceivably bear upon risk and sentencing options and providing detail about family background etc. ONLY where relevant to those issues.'
'It's important... to have concise reports, but obviously informative. It's not helpful to have over-long reports... in any event, from a practical point of view, it's difficult to find the time to read, especially if you have a remand court with 60 or 70 cases in it.'
(Open-ended responses to Sheriffs' survey)
2.23 Many CJSW staff and the participants in the audit acknowledged that reports were often unnecessarily long. Some CJSW interviewees attributed this to individual writing styles and to a lack of discipline on the part of individual members of staff, while others saw it as a by-product of the structured character of the template and an inevitable tendency to 'write to the boxes'.
"If you provide a template with a whole load of headings, then people will write to the template; they'll write a whole load of stuff under each heading."
(Interview 65, CJSW)
"I think the template can maybe push sort of... I wouldn't say 'indecisive', but maybe less experienced staff, into writing quite a comprehensive report."
(Interview 36, UPW staff)
2.24 The tendency to provide excessive detail was felt to be exacerbated by a degree of overlap between some sections of the template - for example, between 'insight into offending' and 'awareness of impact on the victim/community'.
"I've heard workers saying, 'I'm not really sure where to put it,' so end up putting it in both boxes, and it's kind of […] if they could merge a couple of those sections it might be good, but keeping that overall focus of what the report's actually about."
(Interview 13, CJSW)
"You quite often say, 'oh this feels like it should be in both, but I don't want to put it in both when they're right beside each other, so which should I put it into?'."
(Interview 56, CJSW)
2.25 While both Sheriffs and CJSW staff expressed concerns about the consequences of the length of reports, the nature of that concern was arguably different. For Sheriffs, the main problem with overly detailed reports is one of finding the information that they consider relevant to their decision-making. For CJSW staff, the concern is more that report writers may be expending time and energy fulfilling the demands of the template, rather than generating analysis and conclusions of the highest quality. (As we shall see below, the participative audit reported a substantial minority of cases in which there was clear scope for improvement in these areas.)
2.26 Implicit in discussion about the length of reports is the question of the relevance of the information contained within them. The new reports certainly address a wide range of issues relating to individuals' personal and social circumstances. For example, accommodation, family relationships, education and employment, financial circumstances, and use of alcohol/drugs were specifically addressed in almost all of the reports examined as part of the participative audit.
2.27 In many cases, however, these were not considered by auditors to be relevant to the individual's offending and/or a proposed intervention or sentence. (In this context, it is worth noting that the guidance tells report writers to include only needs information relevant to the individual's offending behaviour). Those most likely to be identified as relevant to a proposed intervention or sentence were alcohol/drug use and family relationships. An example of a topic which is addressed in the vast majority of reports but rarely mentioned as relevant to offending or proposed intervention/sentence is education and employment - this was addressed in 97% of all reports audited, but mentioned as relevant to offending in 32% and to sentence in just 29%.
2.28 It is worth noting that not all CJSW staff accepted the suggestion that reports contain unnecessary duplication or irrelevant material. Some, for example, considered it important on occasion to demonstrate that certain factors were not relevant to the offending; while others used repetition to highlight an important point:
"If I'm putting [in] a point that I feel needs to be raised to the Sheriff so that he really understands, sometimes I would do - as I would do in the old SERs - I would labour that point two or three times to get it over"
(Interview 66, CJSW)
2.29 Overall, it appears that CJSWRs have not yet achieved the degree of focus, relevance and conciseness that was hoped for. The question of whether this points to a more general trade-off between structure/consistency and analytical quality is returned to below.
Quality and usefulness of information, analysis and conclusions
2.30 We have seen that the overall structure and content of the template is widely seen as an improvement on SERs in terms of consistency, navigability and structure of argument, even though there are some concerns about duplication, relevance and length. We turn now to the related question of the quality of the information, analysis and conclusions contained within the reports.
2.31 A useful starting point for this is to consider Sheriffs' views (as captured by the survey) of how useful they find the various elements of the report. As Table 2.2 shows, Sheriffs were most likely to say that they found useful the information about current and previous offending (64 out of 68 doing so) and the personal and social circumstances of the offender (65 out of 69), and social workers' assessment of suitability for a community disposal (61 out of 70).
Table 2.2: Sheriffs' views of usefulness of individual elements of CJSWR (n)
|Very useful/ Fairly useful||Not very useful/ Not at all useful||Question not answered|
|Information about current and previous offending||64||4||4|
|Information about the personal and social circumstances of the offender||65||4||3|
|Social workers' assessment of suitability for community disposal||61||9||2|
|Social workers' review of relevant sentencing option and potential disposals||51||18||3|
|Social workers' analysis of the risk posed by the offender||46||24||2|
|Social workers' conclusions about preferred sentencing options||33||36||3|
Source: Sheriffs' survey.
2.32 However, some analytical elements of the CJSWR were markedly less likely to be considered useful by Sheriffs. This was especially true in relation to the analysis of the risk posed by the offender, social workers' review of sentencing options and their conclusions about preferred sentencing options.
2.33 For example, 46 Sheriffs (out of 70 who answered the question) found social workers' analysis of the risk posed by the offender to be very or fairly useful and 24 thought it not very or not at all useful (Table 2.2). Responses to the open-ended questions suggested that some Sheriffs considered this element to be less reliable than other indicators of risk or to be simply restating a risk that was obvious anyway. There was also an acknowledgement of the difficulty that CJSW staff face in assessing risk when largely reliant on offender accounts. Similar views were evident in the qualitative interviews, along with a degree of scepticism about the 'science of risk'. This had various aspects to it, including a view that it fails to recognise sentencers' own knowledge and expertise in recognising risk, and that a complex assessment is sometimes unnecessary or adds little to overall understanding - especially in relatively straightforward cases or where there is simply a lack of available information.
"I'm troubled by the whole idea of risk management, but that… really is a personal view. I'm quite sceptical about that. I know it's all enshrined […] but we seem to have so many different matrices and approaches, and it's all very academic. And I'm sorry. I think that's what I bring to the game: an understanding of where the risk may lie from this particular individual. Sometimes the... assessment of risk is just a statement of the […] obvious. And then when perhaps it's an assessment of low-risk, that's just simply because there's not enough material for anyone to reach a definite view on the matter."
(Interview 19, Sheriff)
2.34 Sheriffs were broadly positive about social workers' review of relevant sentencing options and potential disposals - 51 found this to be very or fairly useful - but a sizeable minority (18) also thought it was not very or not at all useful (Table 2.2). Qualitative comment on the limitations of this element of the CJSWR suggested that Sheriffs sometimes felt such material to be one-sided (overly relying on the offender's account of events) or that the sentencing options proposed were unrealistic (particularly when custody was considered to be inevitable because of the seriousness of the current offence or the risk of further non-compliance or offending).
2.35 Perhaps most strikingly, only 33 Sheriffs considered social workers' conclusions about preferred sentencing options to be very or fairly useful, compared with 36 who thought these were not very or not at all useful. This issue is returned to in detail in Chapter 7.
CJSW perspectives on analysis of offending, risk and harm
2.36 The participative audit also examined reports in terms of how well each of a range of offending-related analytical issues was addressed. Figure 2.1 shows how well auditors felt that reports addressed a range of issues including the history and pattern of previous offending, the nature and seriousness of the current offence, the degree to which the offender assumed responsibility, the level of planning involved and the impact on the victim. Across all of these, around half of audited reports were rated positively - i.e. given a rating of 4 or 5 on a scale from 1 to 5 where 1 represents 'very poorly' and 5 represents 'very well'.
2.37 The analysis of the 'degree to which the offender assumed responsibility' was most likely to attract a rating of either 4 or 5 (with 55% of reports doing so), although analysis of the 'history of offending' was most likely to attract the maximum score of 5 (22% of reports, compared with figures of 12% to 19% for other aspects of offending analysis).
2.38 In relation to most of the issues covered, auditors gave around a fifth of reports a score of just 1 or 2. The items most likely to attract a low score were 'the level of planning involved in the offence' (22% scoring either 1 or 2), 'the seriousness of the offence' (21%), 'the history of offending' (19%) and 'the pattern of offending' (18%).
Figure 2.1: How poorly or well reports addressed various aspects of offending (%)
Source: Participative audit.
2.39 In terms of the assessment of future risk of reoffending or of harm (see Table 2.3), the picture from the participative audit was also somewhat mixed. Fewer than half the reports (46%) were rated towards the higher end of the scale in relation to the analysis of the risk of re-offending (4 or 5 out of 5), and only 15% rated 5 (risk analysed 'very well'). Around three in ten (28%) were rated poorly (a score of 1 or 2).
2.40 In relation to the analysis of the risk of harm, over a third of reports (35%) were given a score of 1 or 2 (out of 5), including 8% given a score of 1 ('very poorly'). Auditors marked 38% of reports towards the higher end of the scale, but just 13% were given the highest rating.
2.41 In reflecting on the results of the participative audit, auditors expressed the view that there was an absence of a shared language of risk - both between CJSW and the judiciary and within CJSW itself.
Table 2.3 - Auditor views on quality of Risk Assessment
|Very poorly 1||2||3||4||Very well 5||Not answered 6|
|How well is risk of reoffending analysed?||6||35||38||44||21||0|
|How well is risk of harm analysed?||11||39||40||35||19||0|
Note: Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number and so may not add up to 100.
Source: Participative audit.
2.42 In qualitative interviews, too, CJSW managers and staff also indicated some lack of confidence that CJSWRs were consistently delivering the required quality of analysis. Again, the highly structured character of the template was seen as a factor here, both because it is time-consuming to complete (leaving less 'thinking' time), but also because it can lead to an emphasis on the descriptive rather than the analytical. Although one interviewee suggested that the template "forces you to be more analytical - I think it's harder to hide from that", others took the opposite view, arguing that the structure of the template makes it difficult to build a clear picture and argument.
"If you give people a template with headings then they'll write to the headings. And the headings maybe sometimes aren't as helpful […] in terms of getting a coherent flow about who this individual is. What are the significant things in their background that actually impact on their thinking and their offending behaviour? And what are the things that need specifically to be addressed and how it is we're going to do that?"
(Interview 76, CJSW).
2.43 In this context, it is especially important that CJSW staff have the time, the skills and the confidence to move beyond the purely descriptive. The extent to which this seems to be the case is returned to below.
How are CJSWRs used by Sheriffs?
2.44 Both in qualitative interviews and the survey of the judiciary, Sheriffs were asked about how they actually use CJSWRs. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a wide range of responses here. Some Sheriffs make a point of reading each report in full, sometimes carefully marking key passages or making notes, others tend to skim or to read reports selectively for particular types of information.
Figure 2.2: How Sheriffs typically use CJSWRs (n)
Source: Sheriffs' survey. N=69. Missing responses (n=3) excluded.
2.45 As Figure 2.2 shows, around two-thirds of Sheriffs who responded to the survey indicated that they typically read the whole report closely. From the qualitative interviews, there was a sense among this group that they would otherwise lack the full picture needed to make effective sentencing decisions, although some simply attributed such diligence to personality traits.
"I read them! I read everything! It's just the way I am - I can't help it!"
(Interview 20, Sheriff)
2.46 Those more likely to skim, or to refer to specific sections, sometimes attributed this to the length of reports - and to what they saw as the inclusion of unnecessary detail - or to the demands on their time. Others simply suggested that, for certain straightforward cases, it is relatively easy to arrive at a sentencing decision - and in such cases the report is read to confirm that decision rather than in great depth. Some were at pains to contrast this, however, with the attention they would give to a report in a more complex case.
"You're going through [the report] and you know that when you get somebody - a lad who has too much to drink, and fights with another young lad who likes too much to drink - that you're probably just going to give them some unpaid [work] hours to do, rather than send them to the jail. You get a reasonable idea where you're going with it. […] The more complicated the sentencing exercise, the more attention you have to pay to every part of the report."
(Interview 69, Sheriff)
2.47 In this context, it is worth noting that there is variation not only in how Sheriffs read reports, but also when. Some of those interviewed made a point of working through all reports in advance, while others indicated that they would read reports on the bench on the day of the hearing, in order to avoid spending time preparing for cases which did not proceed.
Sheriffs' overall views of CJSWRs by comparison with SERs
2.48 Despite concerns about length, and ambivalence about some of the analysis contained within the reports, overall, Sheriffs appear to be broadly positive about the new template. As can be seen from Table 2.4, while most saw CJSWRs as about the same as SERs in terms of various measures of quality, consistency and confidence, around a fifth thought they were better and almost none that they were worse.
Table 2.4 Sheriffs' views of how the CJSWR compares with SERs (n)
| Compared to SERs,
how would you rate
CJSWRs in terms of…
| Much better/
| About the
| Question not
| …the quality and completeness of the
information they contain
|…the quality of the analysis they contain||17||44||2||1|
| …the degree of consistency across
| …your overall confidence in the
Source: Sheriffs' survey. Question asked only of Sheriffs appointed before introduction of CJSWRs in February 2011.
2.49 Overall, there is a sense from Sheriffs that the reports are indeed more focused and consistent, and that they play an important role in the decision-making process - not just in tailoring community penalties to particular offenders, but in identifying those for whom such a disposal will simply not work.
"I've been very impressed... particularly the modern criminal justice reports are very, very good at identifying the people who won't cooperate. They're much better than the old Social Enquiry Reports. They seem now to be able to focus on folk who you'd be setting up to fail if you were to make the order, and that's actually quite encouraging."
(Interview 50, Sheriff)
2.50 It is clear, however, that while confidence in the reports is partly a function of the template, it is also sometimes simply a marker of confidence in the report writer. Particularly in smaller courts, individual CJSW staff are known to the bench, and Sheriffs know from experience whether they are likely to be able to trust the analysis and recommendations provided.
"My confidence is pretty high […] I know a lot of the people who do these reports - there's maybe about half a dozen names that I know. If I look at a report and look who the author is, I can have a high degree of confidence that it's been well done and well thought-out, and […] we're thinking along the same lines."
(Interview 44, Sheriff)
2.51 This simple observation - that it is the skills and experience of the report writer that do most to determine the overall quality and credibility of the report - serves to highlight the importance of issues around training, support and continuous improvement. It is to these that we now turn.
Do CJSW staff have the time, skills and confidence to produce high quality reports?
2.52 At the time of the survey of CJSW managers (in late 2013), 29 of the 30 local authorities who responded were either 'very' (23) or 'quite confident' (6) that all the relevant staff in their area had been trained in the use of the new template (and all 30 were confident that their staff were now using it). This picture of relatively systematic training was backed up by interviews with Social Workers in three of the four case study areas. In the fourth, the feedback on the guidance and training received was more qualified.
2.53 In general, then, the initial training seemed to have been well received, although social workers also emphasised the importance of peer support, good supervision and career experience in giving them the confidence to prepare effective reports, including analysis and recommendations.
2.54 In this context, it is worth noting that in some of the interviews conducted with CJSW staff towards the end of the project, there was more of a sense that the initial training had perhaps been overly transactional - largely focused on the format and use of the new template - rather than contributing sufficiently to a 'culture shift' or the development of individuals' analytical and writing abilities. In other words, once issues to do with basic familiarisation and use had been addressed - even if this had been done effectively and systematically as seemed to be the case in three of the four case study areas - some CJSW staff began to reflect on the extent to which the training had helped to deliver all of the original objectives of the new report.
"Well, when the template was introduced there was some training around familiarisation with the template. But it wasn't what I would say was training around report-writing skills so I think there's a need for that kind of training and, and how […] to make best use of the template, because the template really should be at the end of the process, you know? You should be gathering your information from all of the various sources, and analysing it, and trying to structure in a coherent way what it is that you want to say about this individual."
(Interview 76, CJSW)
"My personal opinion is that the template was launched with the hope that it would […] lead people to be more analytical, but I don't think a template alone will do that. I think there needed to be more thought and more consultation in changing the culture of how we produce reports. And, we went from producing reports that talked about low/medium/high risk, to being asked about pattern, nature, seriousness and likelihood. And […] probably it took a good two years, and we're still on that journey… for people to start to get their heads round what actually is pattern, nature, likelihood and seriousness."
(Interview 65, CJSW)
2.55 And, as with training in relation to CPOs more generally, there was also a concern that the comprehensive initial training had not been followed up systematically and that new staff were being trained 'on the job' rather than receiving consistent and structured input. This is illustrated by comments from two of the respondents to the survey of CJSW managers:
'As with all national/regional training, the merits of common training are diluted by impact of staff turnover and consequent reliance on experiential training.'
'[The main gap is] ensuring new workers get the same structured training that was rolled out initially. It's not so much training about the reforms that is needed but improving the report writing skills of SWs.'
(Open-ended responses to survey of CJSW managers)
2.56 In this context, it is also worth noting that CJSW staff from the four study areas who took part in the participative audit suggested that a process of regular, embedded audit could potentially make a valuable contribution to skills development and quality improvement. This issue is returned to below.
Impact on workloads
2.57 There is little question that the near simultaneous introduction of the LS/CMI, CPOs and the new report template placed significant demands on CJSW staff - both in terms of finding time for briefing and training and simply absorbing a great deal of new information.
"There was like a year or so of training that staff were required to engage with. And new ways of working. And I think it became a bit of an overload at that time."
(Interview 76, CJSW)
2.58 Following the introduction and initial 'bedding in' period, however, most staff seem to have become broadly familiar with and proficient in using the new template, and there was not a widespread suggestion that, in itself, it was associated with a significant increase in workloads. That said, the total number of reports requested by courts is declining. It is, therefore, possible that this trend is offsetting the fact that individual reports now take longer to complete. One interviewee certainly indicated that this was the case and that its implications were not being appropriately reflected in resourcing formulae, which they suggested draw on the total number of reports but continue to use the same assumptions about the time required per report.
"The difficulty now is that, especially with the formula that's been used by Scottish Government for allocation […] there's a significant drop in reports that are being requested and presented to court. […] So when it comes to the allocation of funds, we're actually seeing that formula impacting on the monies coming to us. The reality being, though, is that nobody changed the equation in respect of the amount of time it takes to generate a criminal justice social work report now, in comparison to days gone by."
(Interview 65, CJSW)
2.59 The suggestion that CJSWRs are more time consuming to produce seems to have two main aspects to it. The first is the link to LS/CMI, the completion of which forms the basis of the subsequent CJSWR and is seen as laborious and complicated, in some areas, by an inflexible software interface. Secondly, there is a view that the new reports are themselves more complex, involve additional liaison with other agencies and that overall expectations of quality are higher.
"[T]he quality of the reports are much better than they used to be, and quality requires time. […] So we consult more widely with other agencies. We gather a wider amount of information. And even the process of analysing requires workers to take time to reflect, maybe to consult with a senior on a more complex case. […] And I think what workers are doing as well is - what I'm seeing is them honing their skills and having to be much better at not just being able to analyse but to then form a cohesive argument in the report. So actually the quality of what they are, and the expectation of what they're having to deliver has increased."
(Interview 65, CJSW)
2.60 As the above quotation indicates, most of the CJSW staff interviewed saw the improvements in the quality of reports as outweighing these additional time demands.
"I mean there's no doubt [about] it, it's a more involved process. I think the days of somebody sitting down and bashing out a social enquiry report are long gone. It does take longer to write. But it's taking not so much time as it did in the initial stages …when people were getting used to it. But I think it's a much more professional approach than it used to be."
(Interview 55, CJSW)
2.61 Nevertheless, some interviewees also suggested that additional desk-based activity might impact on the time available for direct work with clients and highlighted the need to monitor the balance between various aspects of staff workload and practice.
Quality assurance and retrospective audit
2.62 In the four case study areas, there was a variety of practice in relation to the quality assurance of reports prior to submission to the court and the retrospective audit of reports with a view to identifying opportunities for continuous improvement.
2.63 To achieve a consistently high standard of reporting, one might expect to see ongoing training and staff development through individual supervision, supported by a formal process of gatekeeping, where some kind of systematic attempt is made to check the quality of reports before they get to the court. In the four case study areas, the evaluation team only heard evidence of this being done systematically with students and newly appointed staff. Otherwise, staff would sometimes consult with colleagues or a manager, especially if the case was controversial or especially serious. Resource constraints were often mentioned as the reason for the lack a more systematic arrangement.
2.64 One might also expect to see audit (i.e. retrospective review) of reports as both a quality check and an aspect of staff mentoring and development and an important supplement to more formal training. Interviews with CJSW staff in the case study areas suggested that this would typically involve the random selection of a single report to be reviewed by the manager in supervision with the staff member (on a roughly monthly basis). However, we also heard from CJSW interviewees, and from some members of the audit panels, that regular systems of audit of this kind were not currently operational in all areas. It is not clear what lies behind such variation in practice, but it suggests that opportunities for continuous improvement are being lost. This issue is returned to in para 8.51.
2.65 There were reports of more formal audit exercises across an area or with particular groups of staff, but these tended to be ad hoc and infrequent and focused more on the generation of statistics than explicit quality improvement.
2.66 The CJSW staff who took part in the participative audit conducted for the evaluation indicated that they had found it a very useful exercise - not only quantifying the standard of the reports sampled but contributing to their own understanding of what makes a good report and, hopefully, improvements in their own practice. Their view was that this kind of exercise could be a very useful way of integrating audit of systematically sampled reports into routine staff meetings.
Offender views and experiences of the CJSWR process
2.67 The main purpose of the CJSWR is to provide the sentencer with full and accurate information about the offender and the offending - about personal and social circumstances of relevance to the offence; the potential for future offending; the individual's attitude towards their victim and willingness to engage constructively with services, and so on. As we have seen, the report writer may need to draw on a variety of sources in developing such a picture. Invariably, however, they need to be able to talk directly and openly with the offender in order to prepare the report. Offender views and experiences of this process are, then, highly relevant to the quality of reports submitted, especially in the absence of other sources of information such as prosecution summaries.
2.68 So how much did offenders understand about the process of report writing, how did they feel about it, and to what extent did they provide full and accurate accounts to CJSW report writers? Again, it should be emphasised that those offenders interviewed as part of the evaluation were likely to be at the more compliant end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, their experiences shed some important light on factors that appear to enable and to hinder the report writing process. While these will perhaps not come as a surprise to many of those working or researching in the area, they serve as a useful reminder that offenders are critically important actors in this process and that if their needs are not met, the quality of report-writing (and sentencing) will suffer.
2.69 In terms of awareness and understanding of the report writing process, most of the offenders interviewed for the evaluation seemed to have had a reasonable grasp of what was being asked of them and why. In some cases, of course, this came from prior experience (of SERs or previous CJSWRs); in other cases, however, individuals had been told what to expect by friends or family, their lawyer or social worker. This generally prepared them for the likely content of the interview to inform the preparation of the CJSWR, though there was some variation in understanding of exactly why such information was required.
"Basically [I'd be told] just that you... get an interview. It only takes about half an hour. They ask you numerous questions about how you feel about what you've done. Would you be willing to do community service if that's what the Sheriff requests. I know some people would probably turn round and say, 'No. Just gie me the jail. I'm no daein' that!', but it's for them to see what your attitude is, and how you're prepared to - you know? - what kinda punishment you're prepared to accept."
(Interview 33, Offender)
2.70 There were examples of individuals only fully understanding the purpose of the interview after the event and suggesting that this lack of understanding might have led them to be less open in their responses. And, regardless of understanding, some offenders consciously managed the sharing of information about aspects of their past. One female offender, for example, said that she had been less than open about her previous drug use, explaining that:
"I didn't see it was that relevant, because I hadn't done it for a few years, and maybe 'cause I thought it would make me look bad."
(Interview 82, Offender)
2.71 It was also clear that several offenders were unprepared for the highly personal nature of the interview and found it challenging or upsetting to be asked about their upbringing or domestic circumstances. In this context, the skills and sensitivity of CJSW staff are obviously critical, especially in the context of contact with offenders they have not previously had dealings with. Some offenders felt that the process failed to generate an accurate picture of their life and needs, while others simply felt that the focus on their background was irrelevant to the offence they were being sentenced for.
"Well, it was a person... [with] a social worker that I'd never met before, and I went in and, for that hour, to get my whole life history and to decide on a sentence wasnae… She didnae get to know me in that hour, and I don't feel that I was able to come across in the way that I wanted to in that short space o' time."
(Interview 72, Offender)
"I didnae like them asking they kinda questions. Nuh. […] Because it's nothing to dae wi' your background. It's how you are now."
(Interview 32, Offender)
2.72 However, most of the offenders interviewed seemed to feel that the process, although difficult, had been fair and even helpful. There was also a sense that this was part of the deal with the court: that cooperation was part of the price of getting the best disposal.
"I felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, and maybe it was probing into things that they didn't really have to know but since then I've realised that everything they were asking me was for a reason so...yeah it makes sense now but at the time I was a wee bit confused [about] why they were needing all that information!"
(Interview 12, Offender)
"The way I seen it was it was something...they had to do, it was just something that the judge asked me to do so to keep my side of the bargain I had to do it whether I liked it or no"
(Interview 9, Offender)
2.73 One thing that was a source of resentment, even among those who otherwise understood the need for the report, was having to repeat information that had already been given to another social worker (for example, in relation to the preparation of a previous CJSWR).
"I remember coming out the meeting expecting to see [name of CJSW staff], and seeing this other lassie, and she was like that, 'Right. We're gonna do your report', and I said, 'My report's already done. Do we have to go through all this again?'. I didn't want an hour o' sitting crying, explaining how I felt when I was 14 when [significant family event happened]. I didn't need to be doing that all over again. It's just emotionally… it's horrible. […] And then having to do it again when the reports are sitting on your colleague's desk!, you know?"
(Interview 82, Offender)
2.74 Some of the offenders interviewed for the evaluation said that they had been given a chance to read the report in advance of submission; others that their lawyer had given it to them or read out the main conclusions. Those who had seen the report were generally broadly content with - or at least unsurprised by - the content and conclusions.
2.75 Although some offenders simply saw the CJSWR process as 'something that had to be done', others saw it as having tangible benefits. Sometimes that simply reflected a recognition of the part that the report had played in avoiding a custodial sentence. In a handful of cases, however, there was also an acknowledgement of the fact that the resulting sentence had been directly tailored to their needs and circumstances.
Offender: "I don't know how much you know the court system, but if I hadn't had the report, and I'd o' went off and pleaded guilty, the Sheriff wouldn't o' known if I'd o' just done it out o' spite or malice, or whether there was underlying health …mental problems or …things like that, without the report, so I think that the reports are an invaluable part of the system."
Interviewer: "So to what extent do you think that the sentence was well-matched to your needs at the time?"
Offender: "Oh, it was absolutely fantastically matched. I mean I think the... big thing was getting put on the Antabuse. That was the turning point."
(Interview 82, Offender)
2.76 A final benefit mentioned by offenders was the way that the report-writing process helped to inform and prepare them for the sentence itself. This was contrasted with the situation prior to the introduction of the reforms by some offenders who had experience of the criminal justice system.
2.77 The CJSWR plays an absolutely critical role in the sentencing process, in providing Sheriffs with the information needed to arrive at a sentence that meets the needs of both the community and the offender, but also in gauging the attitude of offenders towards specific disposals.
2.78 In some respects, the new template appears to be delivering on its original objectives. Despite the fact that the report itself is widely considered to be more time consuming to produce (see para 2.42), the vast majority of reports are being delivered on time. The standardisation of reports, within and across local authority areas, has been welcomed by Sheriffs and CJSW staff. And it is widely felt that the template has improved navigability and the focus on offending.
2.79 There is also, however, a widespread concern among Sheriffs that the new format has led to longer and overly detailed reports - something that is seen as especially problematic in the context of demanding caseloads. CJSW staff and managers also express concern about 'writing to the template' and highlight the risk that the quality of analysis suffers as a result.
2.80 Sheriffs appear to find much of what they receive in CJSWRs helpful, but are especially positive about the information about individuals' current and previous offending, personal and social circumstances and suitability for a community disposal. They are more ambivalent about the analysis of risk provided by report writers and markedly less positive about social workers' reviews of relevant sentencing options and conclusions about preferred sentencing options.
2.81 The participative audit also suggests that reports are drawing on a broad and appropriate range of sources, although prosecution summaries are absent for most cases (an issue that CJSW staff and managers - and some Sheriffs - have consistently raised). The audit also raises questions about the quality of analysis contained within reports, especially in relation to risk of reoffending and risk of harm. Overall, there is clear scope for improvement in the quality of reports, with around one in six being given a negative rating by auditors.
2.82 There are issues here relating to the availability of training for new starters, and the extent to which training and support around CJSWRs in general moves beyond the transactional to focus on report writers' analytical skills. It is also evident that the new template is more time consuming to complete than the previous SERs. While this has been partly offset by a reduction in the number of reports requested - and is seen by many as worthwhile if it leads to better quality - there are potential resource implications, both in terms of overall CJSW staffing and the amount of time available for direct work with clients.
2.83 Procedures for quality assurance and retrospective audit are inconsistent across and within areas. Although there is a solid base of peer support and line management, formal or systematic processes of assurance and review are often absent. This makes it harder to identify the minority of below-standard reports and also means that a potentially 'virtuous loop' of skills improvement is not completed.
2.84 Given the central role that offenders' accounts play in the preparation of CJSWRs, it is important that they understand the process and feel able and willing to contribute to it openly and honestly. For the most part, this seems to be the case, although some are still unprepared for the depth of questioning or do not fully grasp the purpose of the report. The skills and experience of report writers - and the nature of their relationship with the offender - are clearly critical here. Most of the offenders interviewed for the evaluation acknowledged the role that the report had played in securing a community disposal; a few felt that it had played a major role in tailoring the sentence to their needs; and others were simply grateful for the way that it helped prepare them for the sentencing process.
Email: Sacha Rawlence
There is a problem
Thanks for your feedback