Following on from the debate that resulted from Bystanders piece about the arrested Sun journalists, an absolutely key question has been asked about Probation Officers and their role within the Criminal Justice System. What are they for? Do they look after the interests of clients or that of wider society? Apparently, I'm precluded from answering that they do both!
Over the months regular readers will be aware that I've tried to explain what Probation Officers do by means of a number of posts numbered 1 to 5. Fundamentally, a Probation Officers' job is to try and prevent offending. The journey we've been on from our Christian philanthropic roots through social work professionalism towards current law enforcement has been interesting to say the least. Our methods may have changed and adapted, but the key principle has remained the same, that of protecting the public from crime and the effects of crime.
Of course at this point I should mention that we are all members of the public, Police Officers, Judges, Magistrates and of course offenders. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that we have all been the victims of crime at some stage or other. It is therefore in the best interests of the whole of society that we try and reduce it. Incidentally, PO's are only too well aware of the supreme irony that dictates that is is our clients that often tend to suffer the most from criminal activity. They are more likely to have suffered sexual or physical abuse, be burgled more often or assaulted more frequently.
So, if that's what Probation Officers are for, how do they do it? Well in essence this has never really changed much in that we have always been charged with two responsibilities, the discharge of which means that there is constant tension between the need to protect the public on the one hand, but at the same time having regard to the best interests of the client. In simple terms, in a lot of cases, the public can be protected and crime reduced if the underlying reasons for the criminal behaviour are dealt with. This might range from helping with practical things like food and shelter through to effecting a change in attitude by means of counselling or groupwork. The landscape is vast and because every individuals needs are unique, the possible solutions and interventions vary enormously. All this of course means that the job of a PO is quite demanding, but potentially enormously rewarding.
Now this might be termed as focusing on the 'welfare' aspect of the job as a means towards reducing crime and thus protection of the public. But there is another side, the so-called 'iron fist in the velvet glove'. Having qualified as a social worker at University and started applying for jobs as a Probation Officer, I am reminded of an SPO who said to me once 'we don't want a social worker - we want a Probation Officer!' I knew even back then what he meant. A PO's job involves having to judge when a lengthy prison term is right, just and appropriate. When recall has to be instigated, when early release from a determinate sentence might not be appropriate and when it's simply too dangerous to consider releasing a lifer.
These and similar decisions are big responsibilities that affect people's lives and are never taken lightly. But they represent the other half of discharging our dual responsibilities and we still have to work with these people. No matter how heinous the crime, or unpleasant and difficult they are, we still have to try and take into account their best interests and work towards a change in attitude and a reduction in the risk they represent. If the risk is reduced the public are protected. If not, we carry on being part of the system that monitors, supervises or in some cases ensures continued incarceration.
So, I hope the question is answered. We do indeed do both - look after the interests of clients and society at the same time!