Sharper tools for offender management

Dr Sam Lundrigan and Dr Natalie Mann

Monitoring former sexual offenders places a huge burden on our police and probation services. Dr Sam Lundrigan and Dr Natalie Mann are helping to transform the way such cases are managed to keep people safe.

Today, there are almost 58,000 registered sex offenders in England and Wales: a startling number, which, according to Ministry of Justice statistics, is rising by about 3,000 every year. Each individual represents a potential threat to the public, and, once they return to the community, it is the job of our police and probation services to decide how they should be monitored.

Society depends on these professionals to make critical, high-pressure judgement calls, and to get them right. But a ‘sex offence’ can mean anything from a relatively minor harassment charge, to sexually-motivated murder. And previous offenders’ lives are far from static; as their circumstances change, so too does their risk of reoffending.

For police and probation officers, the problem is, therefore, as deep as it is wide. A single officer may be responsible for assessing 60 cases or more, each dynamically and in detail. The work is labour-intensive and demanding. Having the right tools for the job is essential.

"We are recommending changes that could define the future of sex offender management."

So, are those tools working? From 2014, both services started to adopt a new ‘Active Risk Management System’ (ARMS), designed to enable officers to make these fine-grained judgements while working in a more joined-up way. But how well that system is functioning has never been thoroughly reviewed – until now.

In 2017, the Ministry of Justice and National Police Chiefs Council approached our Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (now the International Policing and Public Protection Research Institute) to assess the implementation of ARMS. The resulting research, by Institute Director Dr Sam Lundrigan and Dr Natalie Mann, is transforming the way the system is used. “We are recommending changes that could redefine the future of sex offender management,” Sam says. “How these cases are handled could be completely different in a few years' time.”

Natalie and Sam interviewed staff from all 43 police forces in England and Wales and all seven National Probation Service Divisions. Their initial report confirms that ARMS is a valuable risk management tool that enables officers to make more confident judgements about former sex offenders, enhancing their ability to protect the public.

But it also draws attention to several significant ways that it could be improved. Perhaps most strikingly, the report highlights the immense strain that caseworkers are often under, and the need to streamline ARMS to ease that burden.

ARMS requires officers to complete 17 pages of information per case. But with limited resources, the number of cases they handle can be vast. For example, in Merseyside, the ratio of offenders to case managers is currently 103 to 1. During a recent round of cuts, only one police force’s sexual and violent offender team had their budget safeguarded.

“These officers are hugely passionate and committed people,” says Natalie. “But filling in 17 pages takes hours and drags them away from other, proactive work, like visiting offenders’ homes. Some were having sleepless nights, worrying about an assessment that they just didn’t have time to complete – and whether that case might be the offender who goes on to rape or murder.”

Natalie and Sam have also made several other first-stage recommendations, including improvements to the way that officers are trained on ARMS, and steps to strengthen its use between police and probation services.

When the report was presented to the commissioning organisations earlier this year, the impact was almost instant. Although the project is still underway, this initial response has filled both researchers with confidence that it will change ARMS for the better, and help police and probation officers to identify those cases, among thousands of registered sex offenders, who pose the most significant risk.

“It’s great to have had such a positive response from the policy decision-makers,” Sam adds, “but what really matters is knowing that we are changing front-line practice. In the end, this is all about helping officers on the ground.”

Crime and policing research at ARU

PIER is all about the production of high-quality research through collaboration. As well as running projects such as the current study on ARMS, the Institute provides regular opportunities for police officers and other professionals from local forces to attend lectures, conferences and networking events covering the latest academic research.

“We are building a community that brings research and practitioners a little closer together,” Sam says. “In the past it hasn’t always been easy for the two to connect. But it’s really important, because it means that our research has a direct line to the people who do the work on the ground, which is where the change our research can create really happens.”

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If you’d like to find out more about how you can access our research expertise, contact Amy Mitchell, Partnerships Development Manager for our Faculty of Arts, Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, on 01223 695139.