The current Victims’ Commissioner (VC) and the Chief Probation Officer (CPO) had their first meeting. The VC looked forward to working with the National Probation Service in looking at how victims in the Victim Contact Scheme (VCS) might best be supported.

Communications with Victims within the VCS

The VC advised she was keen victims should be provided with sufficient information to enable them to understand the progression of prison sentences through to the point of release. One example was to inform victims whether the offender has been re-categorised, in the annual contact letter, explaining in general terms how and the decision was taken and the factors likely to have been taken into account. She was aware that there were certain concerns as to how much information might legally be shared and planned to write to the CPO to ask that the current position be reviewed.

The CPO and the VC had a general discussion about the purpose of the annual contact letter. The CPO explained the primary purpose of the letter was to retain ongoing contact with victims prior to the offender approaching release. The VC referred to the paragraph in the letter that makes reference to significant developments. It was unclear what might be regarded as a significant development, but was aware that invariably, these letters stated that there had been no such developments in the past year. This gave a strong impression to those receiving the letters that there had been no change as far as the offender was concerned. The VC feared this might be a misleading impression.

The CPO underlined the importance of maintaining regular communication with victims and the VC agreed. One of the benefits of the annual letter was to remind victims of the release date or the date at which the offender was eligible to have a parole review.

The VC suggested there might be a paragraph explaining in general terms the process of rehabilitation offenders might be expected to undertake whilst in custody. She and the CPO discussed whether victims might find this useful.

The CPO suggested this might be explored through a focus group of victims and the VC agreed. The VC will write to the CPO outside of the meeting setting out her thoughts in more detail and asking that victims be consulted. A copy of this letter will be placed on her website.

Co-Location of Victim Liaison Officers in Victim Hubs

The previous VC advocated placing VLOs in victim hubs so that staff integrated with colleagues in victim support services, offering an opportunity of a more seamless transition for victims. The NPS are piloting this in the North West.

The VC was keen to see how this is progressing. She was particularly keen to see how it affected opt in rates for the Victim Contact Scheme. There was a general discussion about opt-in rates and how they varied across the country and the reasons behind this. There was a general agreement that by adopting a more personalised approach, opt-in rates would improve. This was borne out in the North West, whose inspection rating for the Victim Contact Scheme was rated by inspectors as ‘outstanding’. Other parts of the country had more work to do to achieve this.

The VC suggested that one way of evaluating the pilots was to measure the impact on opt-in rates.

There was a discussion about those victims who declined to opt in. Some became very distressed when the offender was eventually released and they had not been informed. This presented a real dilemma for staff in the Victim Contact Scheme. The VC and CPO discussed and agreed that one approach might be to send those who declined to opt-in a letter as the offender approached release.

Transparency in Sentencing

The VC explained to the CPO her desire to see greater transparency in sentencing. Many victims and defendants do not understand what the sentence means in practice. This can create a false expectation that the offender will be required to serve the who of the sentence in custody.

The CPO agreed that sometimes, sentencing was difficult to understand, particularly when taking into account factors such as remand time, time spent on electronic tag and schemes such as Home Detention Curfew. A good pre-sentencing report can assist judges and courts, but these were not always being sought. The Justice Secretary has taken this issue up with the judiciary.

Another issue was an unrealistic expectation of the likely sentence arising from the police who in advance of trials might draw victims’ attention to the maximum sentences available.

The VC wanted victims to receive informed advice on sentencing throughout their criminal justice journey, before the trial, at trial and following trial. This would create informed expectations and avoid frustration and disappointment.

The VC wants to discuss with key stakeholders, the possibility of victims and defendants being offered free copies of judges’ sentencing remarks as this might help all parties to understand what a sentence means and how it has been determined.

Going Forward

The CPO offered the VC the opportunity to meet and shadow some Victim Liaison Officers to help her understand the work they do. the VC welcomed this opportunity.

Find more Meeting notes.