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15 November 2010

Dano Sonnex – is the criminal justice system fit for purpose?

Former chief probation officer and PRT’s current deputy director, Geoff Dobson reflects on the lessons to be learned from the time Dano Sonnex spent in custody.

Much attention has understandably been focussed on the period following Dano Sonnex’s release from prison and missed opportunities to recall him to custody before he and Nigel Farmer brutally murdered Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez. He was 23 at the time of these offences having first received a prison sentence at the age of 17. The four reports on the Ministry of Justice website allow us to examine aspects of his behaviour and treatment during his time in custody.

In 2003 Dano Sonnex was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for offences of assault with intent to resist arrest, having an imitation firearm with intent, attempted robbery, robbery x4 and wounding with intent. He had no previous convictions, but a history of difficulties, including exclusion from school and an abusive childhood. The reports make no other reference to his early years. The pre-sentence report by the youth offending team deemed the level of risk to be ‘very high’ and suggested a need for future family therapy.

While on remand and in the early phase of his sentence, he spent many periods in separation as a result of his poor behaviour and attitude. Being a challenging prisoner to manage also led to his being transferred a number of times in the young people’s estate. While at HM young offender institutions Portland, Reading, Aylesbury and Feltham, he had more than 40 adjudications. These were for serious matters including taking drugs, serious violence against staff and prisoners, threatening behaviour and starting a fire in a segregation unit. An anger management course at Feltham was not completed, although for a short while he undertook weekly anger management sessions prior to a transfer to Portland.

An assessment in May 2004 in Portland, by an experienced prison medical officer, gave real cause for concern about dangerousness. Dano Sonnex expressed the view that his ‘reactions could kill’. It appears that this and other information in the medical file did not transfer to the general prison file and therefore did not inform his management in custody.

In September 2004 the in-reach team at Aylesbury questioned whether he had Aspergers Syndrome. It was not clear that the Portland assessment was available or considered. He rejected opportunities to see mental health teams at Aylesbury and various subsequent establishments.

Throughout Dano Sonnex’s prison file there is mention of paranoia, mood swings and changes in behaviour until July 2007, when a review states that these were no longer a problem due to his giving up drugs a year before: “He is much better behaved and is not a control problem”. He had 10 mandatory drug test failures early in his sentence, but his final three tests were all negative.

The record suggests his improved behaviour and attitude had resulted from giving up drugs and a transfer to HMP Elmley, an adult establishment where he continued to display “short bursts of negative behaviour”. He completed an enhanced thinking skills course and a prisons-addressing substance related offending course while at Elmley. A course tutor stated he was “polite, respectful and punctual”.  A parole assessment however said that there was still a risk that he might be prepared to resort to violence using a weapon. His two parole applications were not supported by his offender manager and he was released on his non-parole date, the latest date he could be released from custody.

The National Offender Management Service was established in 2004 to provide “the end-to-end management of offenders” and to “break down the current silos of prison and probation”. This case suggests that much remains to be done.

Communications between prisons and probation did not include significant judgements made about Dano Sonnex prior to his release and there was too little involvement of the offender manager at the pre-release stage. Assessments of the risks he presented fluctuated, and were over influenced by his eventual compliance in the latter part of his sentence. He was incorrectly assessed to present a medium risk, which was the basis for the decision to allocate his supervision to a standard offender management team, rather than a more skilled public protection team in the London Probation Area (LPA).

Referrals to multi-agency public protection arrangements were not followed through. An initial referral had a technical error which meant offence details were not included on printed forms and it was not considered. There are known IT problems between prison and probation because the system was built on different IT platforms. This meant delay in the offender manager gaining control of the assessment held by the offender supervisor in custody.

Many questions have been raised in the media about pressures on probation staff and the performance of police and probation in dealing with recalls to prison. At a time when we are locking up more and more children and young people, this examination of the time Dano Sonnex spent in custody from the age of 17 raises a number of concerns about the effectiveness of the young offender estate:

  • Why was a highly disturbed young man transferred frequently within the young offender estate, preventing continuity of care and attention?
  • What was the impact of repeated periods of separation?
  • Why was there no thorough multi-disciplinary assessment from the outset to determine his sentence plan?
  • Why were key medical records that focussed on risk of harm not available subsequently through his prison sentence?
  • How did he manage to access drugs so readily throughout the early years of his custodial sentence?
  • Why do the IT links between prison and probation remain so poor, after years of planning and investment?
  • Why was there so little involvement of the offender manager prior to release?
  • Why were apparent behaviour changes allowed to override significant indicators of risk of harm in the pre-release phase?

Geoff Dobson
Deputy director

This article first appeared in Community Care