March of The Machines - Just Talk To The Kiosk (Have Your Say Below)

In an astonishing new development, London Probation Trust is proposing to introduce a new scheme whereby offenders placed on community orders on or licence from prison, report to a machine in a kiosk rather than a trained probation practitioner . This has been described as ‘biometric reporting.’

The intention is that the service user on probation (or on licence) logs into the machine using their finger print. The machine then asks routine questions to determine whether the offender has complied with the requirements of the order or licence. Senior management in London have told Napo that they can justify the introduction of the machines as a significant proportion of a probation officer’s time will be released by the use of the kiosks. They also claim that Napo members have privately told them that they agree with this initiative.

Napo understands that the pilot will start in June and our members in London have already been contacting us to say how appalled they are at the concept, and that the decision to introduce the machines was made without adequate consultation or discussion with staff, trade unions, service users, the community or the Trusts partnership organisations. In what is a radical change in service delivery, Napo believes that the introduction of biometric reporting could well put the Probation Trust in breach of the spirit of up to 18 Council of Europe rules on community sanctions. 

It is proposed that the scheme be introduced into two London boroughs - Bexley and Bromley. Appointments will be replaced by machines which will ask pre-set questions of the offender. The questions are thought to include:

  • Do you want to see somebody?

  • Have you changed your address?

  • Have you changed your job?

  • Have you been in contact with the police?

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It will also be possible, Napo understands, for a practitioner to add an individually tailored question that suits a particular offender; although no examples of what these particular questions might be have so far been forthcoming. 

Napo’s view

Greater London Napo Branch have issued a robust disclaimer to members which distances the union from the trials. In Napo’s view, the introduction of machines will further reduce the amount of face to face contact with service users. Our members may recall that the Beith (Justice Select Committee report in 2011) noted that 75% of a probation worker’s time was spent on administrative tasks including inputting data into computers, with just 24% in direct contact or on the phone with service users.

In a further and quite bizarre twist, London Probation Management claim that the introduction of machines would limit the ability of offenders using imposters for meetings with probation officers. But Napo is not aware of any evidence to suggest widespread infiltration by imposters into the offender management system.

Napo will be raising the issue at every possible level because all academic research shows that a positive, personal, relationship between probation practitioners and service users is the most effective way of reducing the risk of harm to the public and reoffending. Biometric reporting is in direct conflict with Council of Europe rules which state the importance of community sanctions in reintegrating offenders into the community, increasing meaningful ties and contributing to self-development. Biometric machines by their very nature cannot achieve this aim , and Napo believes that the government could be in breach of Rule 31 (It must be known whether the offender will cooperate with the sanction), Rule 46 (Sanctions shall be used in conjunction with the offender to develop meaningful ties in the community) and Rule 55 (Measures should be implemented to be as meaningful as possible to the offender). 

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You Can't Replace A Face

Napo will be raising the issue at every possible level because all academic research shows that a positive, personal, relationship between probation practitioners and service users is the most effective way of reducing the risk of harm to the public and reoffending. Biometric reporting is in direct conflict with Council of Europe rules which state the importance of community sanctions in reintegrating offenders into the community, increasing meaningful ties and contributing to self-development. Biometric machines by their very nature cannot achieve this aim , and Napo believes that the government could be in breach of Rule 31 (It must be known whether the offender will cooperate with the sanction), Rule 46 (Sanctions shall be used in conjunction with the offender to develop meaningful ties in the community) and Rule 55 (Measures should be implemented to be as meaningful as possible to the offender).

Further problems with the scheme are that the machines cannot record the information required to update offender registers; it cannot tell whether the individual is exhibiting any signs of risky behaviour; nor will it act as a deterrent. Indeed it is possible that offenders may be able to manipulate the risk by falsely suggesting compliance.

London Probation has said that the biometric machines will automatically generate warning letters for missed appointments. This is a rigid system of enforcement which does not recognise the flexibility in reporting that is sometimes needed to encourage compliance. Napo believes that enforcement must be based on a professional assessment on a case by case basis. It is possible therefore that failure to comply with the machine could result in breach proceedings, and the offender being taken back to court, or the recall of an individual on licence to custody.

Napo believes that enforcement action taken on the evidence of a machine breach alone would be unjust for the offender, represent an unnecessary barrier to engagement and put an additional and pointless bureaucratic burden on the probation practitioner . This could also put probation the government in breach of other Council of Europe rules such as Rule 6 (The sanction needs to be proportionate to the offence and take into account personal circumstances), Rule 27 (Not to aggravate the afflictive nature of the sanction), Rule 32 (To take into account the offender’s individual needs and responsibilities) and Rule 55 (Methods of control shall serve the aims of adjusting to society).

Diversity Issues

Napo is also concerned that service users perceived as difficult may be placed on biometric reporting as compared to their more compliant counterparts. There is also concern that vulnerable offenders who need help to comply with reporting will be disadvantaged by a rigid and static method of machine reporting.  We also await confirmation as to whether an Equality Impact Assessment has been undertaken despite it being a statutory requirement.

So far there have been no assurances from probation management that the technology will be accessible to Assistive Technology users or about the impact on offenders with physical impairments or learning difficulties. Again this could breach Council of Europe Rule 6 (The nature of sanctions should have regard to the personal circumstances of the offender), Rule 27 (Measures should not aggravate the afflictive character of the sanction) and Rule 32 (Taking into account the needs of each offender).

Many offenders will have difficulty in complying with the machine because of their background and/or chaotic lifestyles. Research has shown that 49% of male offenders were excluded from school, 30% regularly truanted from school compared with 3% of the general population, that 65% have numeracy levels of an 11-year-old or lower, that 48% have reading abilities below that of a 10 or 11 year old, 32% have been homeless and 72% suffer from two or more mental health issues. In addition , 66% misuse drugs and 63% have been involved in recent hazardous drinking. All of these factors underline the need for human contact rather than a machine .

In addition Napo understands that the use of the machines will be mandatory, which flies in the face of Council of Europe Rule 34 which states, ' wherever possible agreement be sought with the offender ', and because of the range of social problems that characterise offenders there is bound to be a high level of non-compliance.

How Much?

The introduction of kiosks will also be costly. Management estimate that using the machines for 12 months will cost about £130,000 per London borough, which means the total cost in a year for London alone would amount to £4.16 million. As yet there are no estimated costs for the total roll-out to England and Wales or any information about how this will be paid for. The machines are of a similar design to those originally produced by private companies based in the United States , where it is claimed that they enable the probation practitioner to hold up to 300 cases.

In conclusion, it is Napo's view that the replacement of face to face contact with machines signals a disregard for the offender and the professional relationship with them. Napo is concerned about the message that biometric reporting will send to the public and what it will mean for public confidence in community sanctions.

The introduction of machines does not comply with the ethos of Council of Europe Rules on community sanctions, and particularly Rule 90, which states that sanctions should conform to the expectations of lawmakers, judicial authorities and deciding authorities, and contribute to a reduction in the rates of imprisonment, enable the offence related needs of the offender to be met and contribute to a reduction in crime in the community.

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