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September 1, 2010

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Community service staff fear for their safety

Supervisors of unpaid work placements (formerly known as community service) are being subjected to increasing abuse and threats from offenders, with staff feeling intimidated and scared at work, according to a union for probation staff.

Releasing a dossier of evidence recording verbal abuse and physical threats made against staff by offenders, Napo is calling for an urgent review of the staffing and training of Community Payback schemes to improve standards for supervisors.

Last year, more than 55,000 individuals were sentenced to unpaid work in the community. According to Napo, work-placement groups sometimes comprise 12 offenders for one supervisor – double the number of offenders that the groups were originally intended to include.

Staff have also complained that it is now rare to have a probation officer on site, and placements are increasingly staffed by ‘sessional workers’, who are not contracted employees, the union adds.

Napo’s dossier highlights hundreds of incidents of abuse by offenders, of individuals suffering injuries, and of offenders refusing to obey rules. There have also been reports of offenders smoking cigarettes and cannabis on site, refusing to wear boots and uniforms, and refusing to carry out unpaid work.

In a serious incident that occurred just a month ago, a 19-year-old offender, who is believed to be a gang member, was shot five times by an assailant as he left a site in Hackney in London. In one of several incidents recorded in Hertfordshire over the past few months, a male supervisor had to lock himself inside a vehicle to evade physical violence until police officers attended and removed the offender from the site.

Commenting on the evidence, Napo assistant general secretary Harry Fletcher called for urgent action to tackle incidents of abuse and assault.

Said Fletcher: “Sessional supervisors are increasingly reporting that they are scared on site and reluctant to report bad behaviour for fear of reprisals. It is quite scandalous that staff are paid £8.50 an hour to be systematically abused; not surprisingly, there is a high turnover of staff.  There is need for an urgent review of the staffing and training of unpaid work.”

He added: “Unpaid work clearly has an important role to fulfil in sentencing. However, if it is to be run by increasingly untrained and intimidated staff, often working alone, and if action isn’t taken to decrease the amounts of threats, both verbal and physical, then the public will continue to be at risk.

“A combination of a workforce who do not want to be there and staff who are not trained to motivate spells major problems for the future.”

A Probation Service spokesperson told SHP: “Supervisors of Community Payback projects receive the relevant training in working with offenders and challenging unacceptable behaviour. During the last quarter the average number of offenders per supervisor in each work group was six. If an offender does not comply with the rules of Community Payback they face being returned to court for further punishment.€ᄄ €ᄄ“All offenders are risk-assessed prior to placement on projects. Where it is known there is a risk of gang conflict between offenders they will not be put on the same projects.”

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