Interview with convener and chief executive of the Risk Management Authority, which is building a reputation for expertise in the management of serious offenders

The Scottish criminal justice system has not been short of negative headlines over the last year or two. On the sentencing front, we have somehow reached the situation where sections of the press habitually apply the label “soft touch Scotland” even as prisoner numbers repeatedly reach new record levels.

If this is ever to change, it may be that the work of the Risk Management Authority will be seen to have played a significant part. This somewhat anonymous-sounding body has a pivotal role at the serious end of the system, but is coming to be recognised by other professionals as a valuable resource on a much wider front.

While the RMA, set up in 2004 as an independent centre to develop best practice in the management of the most serious sexual and violent offenders in Scotland, will really only be able to prove its worth in this respect over the longer term, the nature of the body and the expertise it is already demonstrating have attracted interest from well beyond Scotland.

Peter Johnston, a former Scottish solicitor who moved into regulation of the accountancy profession and then recently to chair the RMA’s board, believes the authority is still the only one of its type in the world. “It is, I’m told, envied by others and to be honest I’m not surprised. I think it has achieved very significant advances and is leading the way in the field. Risk management was a concept which existed in many other areas and professions but somehow it did not get to the judicial system as quickly as one might have hoped.”

Collaborative approach

To begin with its principal purpose, the RMA was founded on the recommendation of the MacLean Committee (2001)to oversee the committee’s other creation, the order for lifelong restriction (OLR), under which certain serious offenders are made subject to a lifelong management order. As the RMA’s chief executive Professor Roisin Hall puts it, MacLean “saw risk assessment and risk management as the absolute fulcrum for looking at serious offenders”.

Here the authority’s initial role is to accredit the assessors who provide the reports for the court considering an OLR, having agreed the levels of competence that are needed, and laid out the standards and guidelines for how offenders receiving this type of sentence will be managed. If an order is made, the designated lead authority then has to produce a risk management plan for the offender, which the RMA has to approve as fit for purpose.

But its focus is far from confined to these relatively few cases. Hall continues: “Our role is an advisory body, a regulatory body, we produce standards and guidelines and carry out the research that informs those and also train on them. We relate to the Parole Board, we relate to criminal justice social work, prison service and the police and we’ve done training for the sheriffs and the judges in terms of risk assessment and management, so our role is to build awareness and to develop skills in this area.”

Alongside the OLR offenders are the larger number of sexual offenders who present a serious risk of harm and are subject to the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements, or “MAPPA” scheme. Here the RMA works with agencies such as the state hospital, forensic psychologists and psychiatrists and the police to develop good practice in risk management. (In time the scheme will be extended to the violent.) Another significant area of work is helping develop standards and guidelines for the management of restricted patients under the mental health legislation.

When inquiries have been held into why serious repeat offending has gone unchecked in the past, often the conclusion has been that the offender slipped through the net because different agencies each thought another was taking charge. Through MAPPA, however, the concept is emerging of the “lead authority” to take overall charge of a case. The twin thrust of designating a lead authority and the development of collaborative working between agencies is central to the RMA’s approach.

It also exists to ensure constant monitoring and review. “We really crawl over the detail of these risk management plans”, Johnston comments. “They’re not a nod through in any sense.” He adds: “The plan that is approved today will be reviewed comprehensively 12 months down the track to make sure it is still entirely relevant and meeting changing circumstances, and that will happen every year that the person is in custody. And when ultimately that person is released into the community that process will continue. There will be a radically different plan required to receive that person back into the community, and ensure that the public is protected and the risks minimised going forward.”

Of 26 assessments requested since the legislation went live in June 2006, 11 have returned to court, resulting in eight OLRs. Given the nature of the order, the number of people subject to the authority can only cumulate as time goes on.

No ivory tower

The research and training area is a big thing for the RMA. Unusually, perhaps, it has express statutory duties to compile information and carry out research, which takes up a third of its budget and two thirds of its staff time.

This may be original research, perhaps for the government; undertaking studies of offenders to see how they respond to certain tools in use; acting as a centre of expertise; or developing training opportunities. “We’ve published a directory of tools which I was very intrigued to see how pleased the judges were to get copies, because I think they felt this gave them some understanding of what is being quoted in the reports they read”, Hall observes.

Johnston indeed admits: “One of the things I can say since I came to the RMA is that for the first time in my life I have begun to understand the value of research, because it’s not ivory tower stuff, even if that’s what one thinks of research, it’s a very useful, in fact indispensable methodology to test the validity of the tools and other processes that are used.

“Anything to do with prediction is difficult; anything to do with the prediction of human behaviour is very difficult; and one has to test the tools and the methodology very carefully to make sure that they actually do work and that they are likely to minimise risk. It’s what we’re about and so research has to be very important.”

Across the board?

Is it, then, the $64,000 question to ask, with so much public debate about sentencing, does the RMA have expertise which can be applied to offending at all levels? Hall is convinced that it does, and indeed the McLeish Commission in its recent report acknowledged the RMA’s input.

“We feel this is incredibly important”, says Hall, “because our central message is, it isn’t enough to make an assessment and say somebody is high risk, it’s all about how you manage that person. And therefore you’ve got to look across the whole spectrum of risk even as it’s reducing, and look at the community provision. Now whether prisons will be effective or not is about how you target resources, and in order to do that, the ways you assess and the ways you manage are very important.”

Welcoming the Commission’s conclusion that management in the community is every bit as important as management in custody, she adds: “In fact it’s probably more important because that’s where it really matters. So the whole focus on what are we trying to do with offender management, we’re trying to make communities safer, I think this is where we link up with the Prisons Commission.”

From her own experience of prison work, she recalls her concern that the sophisticated behavioural change programmes being developed in the custodial setting were not being translated for the outside world on the prisoner’s release: “Teaching somebody to be assertive in Cornton Vale is not the same as standing up for yourself in Pollok or wherever.”

Report card

Its apparent success behind the scenes notwithstanding, the RMA is currently under Scottish Government review. Johnston accepts this as part of the general drive by ministers to maximise the effectiveness of public and regulatory bodies, but believes that the authority should have nothing to fear.

“If it can be demonstrated that there is a more effective delivery mechanism, then so be it. I hope and think that will not be the case but I’m not going to prejudge it. We want to take part in it and for it to come to the right conclusion.”

Pointing to the advantage in Scotland as compared with other jurisdictions of having the RMA as a central repository of different competences, he adds: “From the fact that there is a body into which all of this good stuff can be fed and which can then deliver very effectively, if the review were to say we’ve thought of a more effective way, the only possible alternative to my mind is something very similar to what we have now.”

But at this early stage in its life, and operating as it does in conjunction with so many other institutions, how can we measure the RMA’s success?

“I think we’ve got three overarching goals”, Hall responds. “Obviously public safety, making Scotland safer, is terribly important, but that’s not just about reducing the number of cases, it’s also about people feeling safer, and I think that trying to explain to people about what goes on in risk management is an enormous part of making people feel safer in their communities. But the third thing is the whole area of prevention, and that’s where helping people to do things right, training them, making sure there are the resources and the skills and the competences to do this work in Scotland is very important…

“The very welcome reception we’re getting for this training, the fact that our accredited assessors’ reports are according to the judges very helpful in deciding whether to make an order for lifelong restriction, is again for me an indication that we are providing a useful service. We know that we’ve taken it from the best available research, but whether we’ve phrased it in the best way is about communication as well.”

Johnston agrees, adding: “The hope I have in this area derives from the fact that for the first time perhaps, we have a method of testing the efficacy of the assessment process and the management process.” He acknowledges that things can still go wrong, but argues that through the RMA the system is now best placed to learn from experience. “You’re dealing with some of the most difficult areas in the world, and yes, things will go wrong. But I hope not nearly as many as would go wrong if we didn’t have this very good process.”

Hall continues: “I think you have to judge success in terms of what you see happening with people from different agencies talking to each other, passing information to each other in a way that both find intelligible and this type of thing.” To which Johnston cites the senior social worker in Glasgow who told him the RMA’s materials had given his staff a new confidence in dealing with the people they managed, “actually and potentially violent people… This fellow was some distance from the OLR yet he was saying the work you’re doing is giving my staff and me a new confidence and a new ability to do our job”.

Government objectives

So as it feeds in various ways through the criminal justice system, does the RMA have a broad enough remit? Both Johnston and Hall seem content with what they have. “We don’t need to grow an empire”, Johnston responds. “The work if it’s good enough, and I think it is, will tend to speak for itself, and I always think that efficient units working together are better than juggernauts.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with our remit”, Hall adds, “but I think people’s perception of it needs to grow a little and we need to develop it because quite often people do think the RMA is just the OLR, and it’s not. If you’re going to talk about risk management, public safety, you’ve got to look at these concepts right across the spectrum of risk from wild adolescents to serious offenders, and that means improving best practice with people who are dealing with them, you’re taking it all the way through.”

Johnston concludes: “If the work we do enables another agency, the appropriate agency to take steps then I think we could actually be a very valuable part of what the Scottish Government wants to do and that is to reduce recidivism. There are all kinds of potential without our necessarily having a larger remit or more staff or anything else. We’re effective and lean and we can do the job….

“I think the difference for tomorrow may well be that there is a harnessing of facilities and abilities and different approaches by bringing agencies together. This has not always happened in the past. It’s not going to happen overnight; it will never be perfect; we’re talking about minimisation here. But it’s a darn sight better than it used to be.” 

Introducing the RMA: Assessing and minimising risk

The Risk Management Authority was set up under the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003, charged with “ensuring the effective assessment and minimisation of risk” through compiling and keeping under review information, research and development, promoting best practice, publishing standards and guidelines and other means, in addition to overseeing and reviewing risk management plans for offenders made subject to the order for lifelong restriction introduced by the Act.

Directed by a board comprising Peter Johnston as convener and seven other members with legal, prison service, clinical and forensic psychology, and clinical and forensic psychiatry expertise, the RMA is led by Professor Roisin Hall as chief executive and employs 12 other staff at its offices in Paisley. Its accounts for the year ended 31 March 2008 show net operating costs of £1,392,000.

Peter Johnston is a former Scottish solicitor. Following a career in legal practice and in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, he was appointed chief executive of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (1989) and thereafter of the International Federation of Accountants, the umbrella body of the accountancy profession, based in New York. Having served on the board of the RMA he was appointed convener earlier this year.

Professor Roisin Hall was previously head of psychology for the Scottish Prison Service and has worked in a number of NHS, custodial and academic settings. On coming to Scotland, she joined the Douglas Inch Clinic in 1986 and worked in both the NHS and SPS before taking up her current appointment.

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