A trawl of the internet has netted the following brilliant Comment is Free piece from the Guardian entitled 'Will Nick Clegg cherish the probation service?' dated 23rd June 2010 and penned by probation officer Violet Towers.
Written long before the dreaded slogan 'Rehabilitation Revolution' had ever been coined, it begins by reminding us that the Service owes its very existence to a Liberal Government and goes on to set the scene for our present difficulties:-
It's fair to say that the probation service in England and Wales has undergone a few changes since the days when the Church of England Temperance Society's "police court missionaries" offered salvation to persistent drunks. Community-spirited volunteers had been offering their services as guardians for people passing through the courts since about 1841. Probation supervision was given formal footing by the reforming Liberal government of 1906, with the Probation of Offenders Act. It was the officers' duty to "advise, assist and befriend", and though those words are now almost profanities, the principle is still observed by plenty of probation officers today.
The early ethos was an outreach, welfare-oriented one, viewing crime as a problem of disadvantaged individuals and communities in need of support. With government interest came change at an ever-increasing pace, challenging the fundamental principles of the organisation. Many in probation still strongly value its traditional "social work" culture, which seems to jar with the "offender management" language of recent years. The implication of the current discourse is that those we work with are first and foremost sets of risk factors to be monitored, rather than people to support through the process of changing their lives. Good probation work balances these approaches on a case-by-case basis, but press coverage is often unsubtle, framing the criminal justice debate in terms of a need to pick a side. Perpetrators or victims? Callous criminals or decent, law-abiding citizens?
When Labour came to power in 1997, after promising to be "tough on the causes of crime", a nuanced approach to criminal justice might have been expected. Instead, the swaggering rhetoric was of being "tough on crime" – and on criminals. The probation service was at best a source of confusion for the administration, which preferred to steer clear of the topic. It remains the case that when probation does get a mention from those in power, it's mostly in terms of community service, while the supervisory aspect is ignored.
I think part of the trouble with probation and the media (aside from the fact that a person doing absolutely nothing of note to the general public is a resounding success for us), is that terms like "supervision", "licence" and "offender management" are thrown around without comment on what they actually mean, leaving them to each viewer's interpretation.
In the furore following the 2006 Panorama special on probation hostels, it appeared that many interpreted "supervision" as meaning constant surveillance. How can there be meaningful debate about probation practice if there's such a dearth of information about it for a general audience? As Andrew Bridges, then chief inspector of the probation service, said in 2008, we need to talk about "mundane truths" rather than "exciting fallacies". I'd suggest that people might even find some of the truths about probation inspiring rather than mundane.
Concluding the article, Violet goes on to prophetically ask what the future might hold for probation under the then newly-elected coalition government, and reminds us what Nick Clegg said on the occasion of the centenary of that piece of Liberal legislation that created the Service back in 1907:-
As former probation officers we are writing to express our dismay at the dismemberment of the service proposed in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, which will receive its second reading in the Commons on Monday 11 November.
Probation in England and Wales has recently celebrated a centenary of selfless and effective service to the community. To remove up to 250,000 of its cases and auction them off to an untried consortium of commercial interests and voluntary bodies is in our view to take a reckless gamble with public safety and to put at risk the prospects for personal change and reform which lie at the heart of what probation is and does.
Professor Robert Canton, De Montfort University, Leicester
Dr Philip Priestley, Wells
Professor Peter Raynor, Swansea University
Professor Paul Senior, Sheffield Hallam University
Professor David Smith, Lancaster
Professor Maurice Vanstone, Swansea
Professor Anne Worrall, Keele University