I suspect I've always had a slightly different view of probation and how it fits into the scheme of things. Quite early on I came to view my job as someone paid by the state to try and apply sticking plaster to the consequences of failed social policies of one kind or another. I've always felt this view has more relevance than the one often heard from the political right that people just 'choose' crime. In effect they say it's just all effectively a 'lifestyle' choice. Nonsense in my view, and as a consequence I'm always alert to any evidence that might come along that could support my own particular viewpoint. It just so happens that in the last couple of days, just like buses, three have come along.
First off here's news of a Parliamentary Committee confirming just how bad Residential Care can be for young people. All my anecdotal evidence collected over many years confirmed this ages ago, which is why I was so surprised to hear Martin Narey, the former Chief Executive of Barnado's, say a couple of years ago that more kids should be taken into the care of the Local Authority. I suspect all probation officers can recite many instances of where someones life really started getting much worse as a result of being in a Children's Home. For far too long it's been a Cinderella service, typically poorly paid, under-resourced and sadly the preserve of the most in-experienced staff.
Then there's another report into the failure by the NHS to provide proper treatment for patients with mental health problems. Again, boy don't we know that as probation officers! I wish I had a pound for every Pre-Sentence Report I've written over the years, identifying significant mental health issues that are connected with offending behaviour, require urgent medical attention, but knowing full-well that it will not be forthcoming. Sadly the Medical Profession has never felt itself bound by Court Orders which make treatment conditional. To be honest I've always felt that Forensic Services have been a Cinderella branch of the NHS not fully understood by commissioning managers. Maybe they feel it should be funded by the Justice Ministry as being somehow for the 'undeserving'. I particularly note with disgust that £400 million ear-marked for the 'talking therapies' has been otherwise appropriated in the absence of compulsion. So much for local accountability.
Finally there is the news that nearly 7 million people in this country 'are just one bill away from disaster'. Yet again all probation officers will know just how precarious many of our clients financial situations are. Many exist from week to week by means of complicated informal borrowing arrangements involving friends and family. Having absolutely no access to any savings, as a consequence disaster is a common occurrence. This situation has not been helped since a decision was taken some years back to stop probation officers having access to the wonderfully named 'Befriending Fund.' Typically this money could be dispensed pretty much at will by officers, and up to £10 without management authorisation. These mostly small sums often provided food and shelter in emergencies and I'm sure helped to avert all manner of bigger problems for society. But, as with so much discretion, it was swept away in the name of probation becoming a punishment service and we are where we now are.
I firmly believe that all these recent examples show how offending and the work of the probation service fit into the wider context of society and quite often in my view demonstrate failings in social policy. It is completely unjust to blame us for not bringing down re-offending rates when many of the causes of criminal behaviour are not being addressed and we are not being given access to the tools necessary to do our job.