Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

FIONA DEACON (National Probation Service, North West)

FIONA DEACON (National Probation Service, North West)

AWARD WINNER 2016-17: Fiona, a Probation Officer with the National Probation Service, North West, is described as a “star in the organisation”. She receives an Award for the vision, drive and diplomacy she has shown, in bringing together colleagues and partner agencies from across the region, to set up a ‘Problem Solving Court’ and help turn around the lives of women offenders in Greater Manchester. [This Award is supported by Seetec Justice.]

Fiona Deacon’s pioneering work as a Probation Officer for the North West National Probation Service (NPS) – covering Manchester, Salford, and Trafford – in creating a new ‘Problem Solving Court’ is helping to change women’s lives. Described by the Prime Minister as “one of the creative ways forward for the Criminal Justice System,” her vision, hard work, and remarkable diplomatic skills brought together dozens of organisations and colleagues – and, crucially, their resources – to turn around the ‘downward spiral’ of many women’s lives with this outstanding project.

Fiona’s Line Manager, and Nominator, Tim Kyle, calls her “an exceptional Probation Officer. She has had a vision to create an alternative sentence for women in Greater Manchester which has involved working well beyond her hours.” Describing “a committed individual who has inspired those with whom she comes into contact with her enthusiasm, consistency and desire to make a real difference in people’s lives,” Tim says Fiona is, “without a doubt a star in the organisation.”

Matthew Wakeman, Business Manager for North West NPS and Butler Trust Local Champion there, relates that the idea behind the project is based on the experience of Problem Solving Courts in the United States. The point is to involve the sentencing authority in the Court more closely with a range of support services around a particular cohort – like women or drug offenders – to provide a more nuanced and encouraging alternative to custody. As Matthew notes, “the multiple, complex needs of women offenders require a multi-agency, woman-centred and holistic approach” – and that’s what Fiona set out to provide.

At the early stages of her initiative, he reports, “some people people openly laughed at the suggestion.” Undeterred, “Fiona set out her design, arranged regular meetings, tailored the approach to target women with multiple issues and convinced them to ‘give it a go’”.

This process required dozens of agencies and colleagues to ‘buy in’ and, crucially, to commit scarce resources. To achieve this kind of ‘joined up thinking’ across so many stakeholders took, as Matthew says, “incredible diplomacy.”

The early results of a study suggest the “additional public value” created by the project is some £2.28million. In short, for every £1 spent on the project, some £17.60 of extra value has been created, most of which is around the “increased economic and social (mostly health) benefits of reducing crime.”

Fiona has delivered presentations on this work “to Ministers, the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), local Community Safety Partnerships and to the Judiciary,” he continues, adding, “out of the 101 reports completed, 99 of the women received a community order instead of custody… an incredible achievement.”

Fiona “has worked extremely long hours,” he goes on, “is dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives and has had the resilience to overcome difficult obstacles with a calmness that stands out amongst her Criminal Justice colleagues.”

“I have been in prison, this is the first time I have been given a chance, it has changed my life,” said one service user – and, as a Community Rehabilitation Company manager noted, the overall impact is much wider: “Fiona has been an inspiration, she has changed the landscape for women offenders in Manchester.”

PCC Commissioner Tony Lloyd praised the project as “exceptional piece of work”, while Debra Baldwin, the Ministry of Justice Women’s Lead, has called this work “inspirational”.

Roz Hamilton, Deputy Director for North West NPS, says that “Without Fiona’s drive, enthusiasm, diplomacy, and belief in pulling together partner agencies to supply the wrap around services for women within the Courts, the service would not have got off the ground. She has been described as an ‘inspiration’, a ‘life changer’, ‘exceptional’ – and I concur.”

As Fiona points out, the scale and complexity of this group of offenders is significant: “81% of the female prison population are largely complex, with issues relating to domestic abuse, substance misuse, self harm, emotional wellbeing and their ability to care for their children.”

The success of the project has meant, she goes on, that “as a result of the good reputation and relationship we have within the Court, many females are identified as suitable by their solicitor, the legal adviser or probation court officer.”

Fiona explains that “the magistrates have found the progress reports very insightful. They have appreciated being able to see the progress the female makes; discuss this with them; remind them of their court order if their motivation drops; and it has helped to make the sentence a credible option for them. Equally the women appreciate the support from the magistrates and the positive reinforcement during these progress reports.” The financial return on investment, she notes, is that “for every £1 spent, £4.13 is saved.”

Fiona’s ambition to deliver this ground-breaking change in women offenders’ lives extends further, too. “I would love to see the national roll-out of the Problem Solving Court. I feel that if this has been achievable and successful in a Court as large as Manchester and Salford, it can be duplicated nationally.” Meanwhile, she reports, “locally, we are in the process of rolling this out to our Crown Court… as a result of the Crown Court Judges becoming aware of the sentence and asking that it is made available for their disposal.” A champion for thinking differently about the needs of women offenders, Fiona is also a remarkable example of how ‘the right stuff’ can make real change happen in people’s lives.

Fiona would like to dedicate her Award to her late manager, Ruth Keane, “who supported and inspired me to develop the Problem Solving Court”.

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