Minister attacks IT used to risk-assess sex offenders, terrorists and murderers

A justice minister has taken the rare step of criticising a front-line system in her own department.

A justice minister has taken the rare step of criticising a front-line system in her own department.

The Oasys Offender Assessment System is designed, in part, to protect the public from offenders who could cause harm if allowed into the community.

Oasys helps officials assess the risk of sex offenders, terrorists, those with mental health problems and other criminals re-offending. It helps prison and probation officers work out whether murderers and other criminals can go into an open prison.

It is also used in assessing the risks of harm to the public of letting some criminals into the community, and of moving offenders within and between courts and prisons.

Hundreds of thousands of assessments are carried out each year on the system, which runs on Oracle 11g Enterprise Edition.

Justice secretary Jack Straw told MPs this month that probation staff use Oasys to assess offenders' risk of re-offending and risk of harm, including those convicted of terrorist or terrorism-related offences.

But Straw's colleague, Maria Eagle, a minister at the Ministry of Justice, told MPs at a different debate in a Commons debate this month: "I accept that Oasys is deeply frustrating to fill in and far too slow." The system has 750 data fields, many of which are for users to input information.

The trade union Napo, which represents more than 9,000 probation and family court staff, complained nearly a year ago that it takes on average one hour 40 minutes to complete each assessment on Oasys of an offender's risk of causing harm. Each subsequent review takes "upwards of 30 minutes", said Napo.

Tim Wilson, national chair of Napo, said Oasys needs to be streamlined to make it more user-friendly and less "laborious and less duplicative of effort".

But the Ministry of Justice defends the system, and suggests that Maria Eagle made a mistake in criticising it. A spokeswoman said the minister had "inadvertently conflated Oasys with the issue raised by the National Association of Probation Officers of London probation officers spending more time in front of a computer than with offenders, which are two separate things".

The spokeswoman added: "An upgrade to the Oasys system was rolled out in August. The changes it contained were designed to streamline processes where possible to allow practitioners to spend more time on high-risk offenders and less on lower-risk offenders."

The two separate Oasys applications in prison and probation are due to be replaced during 2011 by a single application developed within the Oasys R project - a scheme within the Nomis programme.

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