Not much thought went in to Think First

Jeremy Cameron says the government’s latest scheme to
prevent reoffending is totally flawed.

This government wants an increasingly punitive criminal
justice system. If people are not sent to prison they must, via the probation
service and community service, be placed on robotic programmes or forced in to
publicly demeaning labour. Will it cut crime? Can the country afford it? Does
it have any connection with reality? No.

Does this government care? No. All it is concerned about is
votes. Three strands run through its policies for criminal justice. First,
punishment: don’t try to understand criminals, or help them, just throw away
the key. Second, crimes must have been committed due to evil or distorted
thinking, not because of circumstances; therefore criminals just need to have
their thinking put straight and they won’t offend again. Third, "budget
restraints": there aren’t enough staff to see people anyway.

At the moment, when a defendant’s case is adjourned for a
probation report, pressure is being exerted on probation officers to recommend
something called Think First. The central idea behind this set programme is
that someone has offended not because of their circumstances, but because their
brain is malfunctioning. Put that right and they’ll follow the party line.

Think First has several attractions for the government. It
is cheap, punitive, and has a catchy title. It aims to reduce crime, we are
told, by 5 per cent. Five per cent of what? Of total crime? Or was it 5 per
cent of those placed on orders to the probation service? If this is the case,
it’s a total disaster. All probation orders have shown a reduction in crime
massively greater than this.

It is worth noting that Think First is not expected to
succeed. It has a target failure rate of 53 per cent not getting through the
course. Yet the probation service is more or less under orders to place the
majority of its clients on it.

After the rigorous programme has ended, the client will be
seen on only the most rudimentary basis for the rest of a one-year, 18-month or
two-year order. All credible research on probation has indicated that, whatever
the nature of the order, nothing will succeed without an individual
relationship between client and worker.

This government, however, is not interested in preventing
crime, merely in punishing criminals. In probation, the name for this
punishment is enforcement. It consists of bringing people back to court for
missing appointments. I should, perhaps, point out that no one thinks clients
should routinely get away with not turning up.

On the other hand, you take some of the most chaotic,
disadvantaged members of society. You place them on a community rehabilitation
order because they are chaotic. They miss a couple of appointments because they
are chaotic. So you send them to prison. That’s justice, Labour style.

Jeremy Cameron is a probation officer.

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