Making Soft Places – Gill Hirst FPinst

Photo Gill HirstThere’s a knack to being in the right place at the right time and looking like the kind of person who’s meant to be there. It’s particularly tricky for some people on probation. Think about Alice (1) down the rabbit hole, faced with a whole load of doors that she couldn’t fit through. Luckily for her there was some stuff lying around with a couple of clues (‘drink me’, ‘eat me’) so she could change her size to fit through. Even in the right place, though, saying or doing the wrong thing can be risky. ‘Off with her head’ isn’t a probation enforcement option but breach and recall do have serious, and sometimes life threatening, potential.

Wouldn’t it be great if the innovation that ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ was intended to bring made it easier to access the services you needed when you needed them? ‘One stop shops’ were introduced some time ago now and developed into the concept of  ‘no wrong door’, the idea being that access to services is made as easy as possible for people facing difficult times rather than turning them away on the basis that another need, e.g. substance misuse, prevents helping with the problems the person perceives as a priority.  This still requires the person to ask for help sometime and somewhere, however…a bit like Digory (2) in the Wood between the Worlds: getting to where he needed to be in just a couple of jumps but only if he was wearing the right coloured ring at the time.

Getting started is particularly difficult for people with a complex set of needs. If they were sent an appointment in the post, they might have already moved or might not have opened the letter.  If an appointment was sent by text, they might have lost, sold or swapped their mobile phone in the interim. Even if they got the appointment, they might have been drunk, high, low, ill or simply unable to face speaking to anyone at the relevant time.  There’s probably going to be an app for people and their probation workers to communicate through soon (and, of course, there should be – we need to move with the times) but people will still have to have some sort of personal IT access or make it to the kiosk, library or internet café.

And it’s hard for some people delivering probation services to connect people to what they need. They might struggle to: find the person; unlock sources of motivation to change; identify services to meet needs that are not blocked or withdrawn on the basis of other needs; mitigate the adverse impact of arrest and imprisonment; persist in the offer of help through lapse and relapse; and avoid being overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge. That’s why, for example, the NOMS and NHS jointly commissioned project is proving so useful as it allows probation staff to be psychologically informed and supported in their work, rather than simply make a (possibly futile) referral to psychological services.

It seems obvious that making a host of appointments for someone with a range of providers to meet their diverse needs is rarely going to be successful. As ever, Pratchett had the answer (admittedly helped this time by Baxter). Sally (3) could find people who needed to be somewhere and lead them through the ‘soft places’ to make sure they were in the right place at the right time and kind of understood why they were there…assertive outreach at its best.  All it took was for Sally to hold your hand and step away.

So how could we make soft places? Key opportunities to connect with people could be when:

  1. Police attention is attracted

Street Triage could tell probation workers when individuals with mental health and/or substance misuse problems, or learning disabilities, brought to the attention of the police as a result of anti-social or criminal behaviour, are identified as appropriate subjects for a care plan and, where appropriate, diverted from arrest.

  1. An arrest is made

People with complex needs could be identified whilst in police custody through delivery of drug testing on arrest and screening for mental health problems and learning disabilities so that workers can make enquiries to support police bail rather than overnight arrest and/or a bail application at court to avoid custodial remand.

  1. A crime is prosecuted

NPS could assist the court with bail information, particularly if other organisations take a proactive approach to information sharing. For example, individuals could be referred in advance of the hearing to the Bail Accommodation and Support Scheme for places in hostel or floating support schemes if CRCs know they need this or health providers can advise NPS on proposing Drug, Alcohol or Mental Health Treatment Requirements in Community Orders where they are already involved with the person.

  1. A Community Order is made

Sentence plans can include clear objectives related to mental health, substance misuse and/or learning disability needs. Where screening for these needs has not taken place at point of arrest or sentence, a first objective of sentence plans may be for assessment.  A volunteer or mentor can be part of creating the ‘soft place’ to help the person step into a treatment agency…or make arrangements to bring treatment to them.

  1. A Custodial Sentence is imposed

Through The Gate screening and resettlement planning so early in sentence is a great opportunity to connect with all prisoners, their family, statutory and voluntary services as necessary. That time when the person is stood still in a hard place can, strangely, be ideal for creating a soft place.

Scale and ambition has evolved in the fantasy world: Alice saved herself, Digory saved London and Sally saved the world.  Taking help to people rather than putting help on the top of a glass mountain might at least save us all time on the desistance journey.


1.Carrol, L.; Alice in Wonderland; 1865

2.Lewis, C.S.; The Magician’s Nephew; 1955

3.Pratchett, T. & Baxter, S.; The Long Utopia; 2015