30 Apr 2019

Strip probation officers' power to recommend prison sentences says lawyer

4:20 pm on 30 April 2019

There are calls to strip probation officers of their power to recommend jail sentences for criminals.

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Photo: 123RF

Lawyers say probation officers don't need a degree and are not qualified to make calls on something as serious as imprisonment.

Probation officers write reports about criminals waiting to be sentenced and recommend to judges what the sentence should be. However, concerns have been raised about the quality of their reports.

Wellington criminal defence lawyer Elizabeth Hall said pre-sentencing reports often regurgitate what police have said and are not in depth, and the sentencing recommendations can come out of the blue.

"Often time it is difficult to understand where the recommendation has come from," she said.

"Where the report is so brief and the offender or the client has really not explained or been asked why they have done what they have done and if they understand the consequences."

It takes about seven months of training to become a probation officer and they do not need a degree or qualification. The Department of Corrections website states that tertiary qualifications in sociology, psychology and criminology are preferred but not essential.

Ms Hall said they can spend very little time with an offender and it doesn't make sense for them to recommend a sentence.

"Those skills are all very helpful in terms of interviewing people and providing information about what has happened.

"It is a different question though whether someone without any qualifications, having met someone for 15-20 minutes, or even up to an hour, should be in a position where they can recommend to a sentencing judge whether someone should go to prison or not."

Wellington Alcohol and Drug counsellor Roger Brooking said probation officers should return to a time when they 'befriended' and supported offenders in the community.

He said they are not qualified to be making calls about their freedom.

"In order to make a recommendation for a sentence, you need years of legal experience. You need a law degrees," he said.

"Only judges have the kind of experience that qualifies them to sentence people which is why they are appointed as judges.

"For probation officers to write reports recommending a particular sentence means that they are vastly overstepping their qualifications and experience to do so."

Whangārei Barrister Sue Earl specialises in parole law and she agrees.

She said many of them do not have the background in criminology or law and should be stripped of their power to recommend sentences.

"So you've got a really experienced judge in court, and then you may have a probation officer making a recommendation who might of, six months prior to, been working as a bank teller," she said.

"You do have to question the recommendation by the probation officers to the court."

Ms Earl said probation officers should focus on writing thorough reports about offenders, and leave the sentencing to judges.

The Corrections Department is expected to respond today to the criticisms.