Friday, 14 January 2011

What's It All About?

"An understanding of the ethos and underlying procedures and culture of the Probation Service is to me and many colleagues almost beyond understanding."  So writes the Justice of the Peace on his blog recently and I thank him warmly for giving this blog a welcome plug.

I am not at all surprised by the sentiment expressed because I think it is one widely held by the public generally. It was one of the reasons that made me decide to start a blog and try and shed some light on this most mysterious of occupations. But I still find it immensely sad to hear such comments from the Magistracy because historically there used to be such very close ties between the Probation Service and local Bench. As such it would be unthinkable only a few years ago that any magistrate felt that they did not fully understand what probation was all about. But then probation has undergone a not entirely painless revolution in recent years with some of us believing it has has lost its way and more recent recruits left disillusioned and confused.

Just by way of recap, some readers will probably recall that Probation Officers used to be appointed as Officers of the Court and indeed my interview panel was made up entirely of local magistrates. They knew what the Service was all about. They asked the awkward questions and they appointed a person whom they felt could do the job and could command the respect of the whole Bench. Of course these were the days of independent Court Administrations and all officers were appointed to a particular Petty Sessional Division. I remember that on appointment the first person I was officially introduced to was the Clerk to the Justices. As probation officers we 'belonged' to our local Bench and we used to meet with them at least four times a year to discuss developments, concerns and to conduct sentencing exercises. These were the days when magistrates would sometimes be more likely to follow a report recommendation when they knew who the author was.

Just by way of illustrating further how far things have changed, when I joined in 1985 it was only a few years after it was the custom and practice for a magistrate to be delegated to attend the probation office for the specific purpose of looking at the files and checking up on clients progress. Each officer in turn went in with a stack of files to explain what had been happening. This may seem extraordinary now, but remember that before each individual Probation Service was nationalised, a majority of members who made up the governing Probation Committee were magistrates. Currently we have a situation whereby magistrates are actually prohibited from sitting on Probation Trust Boards. Even so, it is still not uncommon for an experienced magistrate to approach me in the street for a quiet word because they are interested in someones welfare.

Given what has happened, it should not really be that surprising that a significant knowledge gap now exists between probation and magistrates. But of course it has been exacerbated by the enforced cultural change within the Service from social work agency to law enforcement agency. Not only do many old-timers like myself refuse to accept this change, but significant numbers of the new breed of officer are becoming hungry to learn about the ways of the past. They are becoming increasingly disillusioned by the formulaic approach to 'treating' offenders as opposed to trying to understand people as individuals and provide each with a tailored response through supervision. But of course this requires people with experience, training, support and permission so that judgement, discretion and innovation can be deployed - precisely the opposite direction to the command and control path the Service is currently going in.

I will end this piece by commenting on the example of new Probation management-speak quoted on the Magistrates Blog:

Specified Activity Requirements…….we are encouraging sentencers to consider SARs particularly as a more challenging alternative to stand alone supervision. This can have its place……but the standards to which we work specify that after 16 weeks all except high risk offenders are expected to report on a monthly basis only. This means that many stand alone orders tend to lack focus once the initial sixteen weeks have passed. By contrast the expectation with SARs is that we work with offenders more intensively, a structured hourly session every week, but for a shorter period of time, namely the duration of the activity. Once the specified hours are completed the work is completed; contact then ends at least for those cases that do not also have supervision attached to them. SARs have been traditionally confined to offenders with employment and training needs. We are now offering three other sentencing options that fall within the SAR orbit. First is the Structured Supervision Programme and is for male offenders assessed as having a medium to high risk of re-offending. It is aimed at those who meet the criteria for the Thinking Skills Programme but are unsuited to it…….perhaps because of their working hours or because they are unsuited to a groupwork setting……those sentenced to SSP are expected to attend twelve structured hour long sessions………Second is the Engage and Change Activity Requirement and has been in place for two months and is a shorter version of SSP; ten sessions not twelve. It is for males whose offending risk is low to medium – not high enough to warrant SSP or Thinking Skills. ECAR and SSP……..are designed to focus on the way offenders think and behave, on their lifestyles, attitudes and relationships. Third is Structured Supervision for Women – sixteen sessions in all for women who meet the criteria for the Women`s Programme but who for practical reasons are unsuitable.

This is the sort of stuff that makes most old-style Probation Officers cringe. The all-so-confident-sounding alphabet soup treatment model. It's simple, you do x,y and z to somebody and the implication is that change will be effected, almost by magic. Readers will not be surprised to learn that invariably it doesn't work and the reason is quite straight forward. It fails to address an individual and their unique needs. The dead giveaway as to how the Service approaches things now is the bit at the beginning that says the problem with standalone supervision is that after 16 weeks, unless the client is judged as high risk, they are only seen monthly.

Well I can say categorically that whatever the standards say, if a person has needs I carry on seeing them weekly or as required. Can you imagine how a client feels if they are still homeless, or unemployed, or have continuing drug and alcohol issues and are told 'come back in four weeks.'  The Service has become process-driven rather than client-centred. This does not aid rehabilitation and it's issues like this that both make me angry and spur me on. We need a grown up discussion and debate about probation urgently or as I've said, sadly we're finished.  


  1. Jim,

    Neatly summarised cri de coeur on how Probation has lost its way ! I will be attending my first branch meeting in a while pm today ( clue it will be close to the House of Commons!) since leaving the Service .. I note that inappropriate Court Rpts( FDR's) is high on the agenda.. I recall a senior Probation secondee to Noms opining that Probation was now a ' quasi-commercial organisation' which invited the retort from the indomitable Prof Rod Morgan( Former Chief Insp of Probation)to comment that if so it was now a ' quasi -commercial law enforcement agency'....



  2. I`m pleased you have seen fit to devote a post related to my recent offering. The quotation was of course from my blog not to be confused with compare the magistrates dot com.

  3. "Those were the days" indeed. A very fair picture of good quality probation work which the majority of long-serving magistrates will have experienced. On the other hand, to be fair, there was a period c.1978-1984 when, in some areas, probation seemed to lose its way and veered too much towards suppporting the offender come-what-may. This was particularly marked in a casual attitude towards breach. However the continued efforts by govts.(both main parties) for the last 20 years to tighten up have ended with the sad state of affairs you depict. The last government, towards the end of its time, seemed to want to do away with the service completely. It is a tribute to the Probation Service that it still gets support from many JPs (see the comments to the JP blog and generally on The Magistrate's Blog). Keep up your excellent blog.