Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Some Reflections

It was that sheep-like following that had some attempt to rename probation officers - offender managers - which is a meaningless oxymoron that gives folk a misunderstanding of the nature of the job of probation officer which is to enhance effective self management not imply that supervisees are ever being managed - in the sense that they can reasonably be relied to do what they are instructed.

I think you are right. The language matters. It can reshape the culture and give rise to new expectations as to what can be realised. It's a standard technique often used in politics to reframe reality. Think of the miners and 'the enemy within'. Or think of how the Nazis used language to define enemies. Orwell knew better than many how language distorts. The 'reality' of the offender manager created an us and them divide. Creating a pretence that people are machines that can be operated upon, repaired, made functional.

The probation officer as the technocrat rather than a fellow human being motivated by a basic altruism, whatever its source codes, to help individuals make creative use of their lives and make the best of their circumstances which often started out in disadvantage. By all indices probation clients are disadvantaged. What probation tries to communicate is that crime is not a lasting solution. 

There has to be a better way, but probation has moved away from helping towards classifying and controlling. The whole risk edifice is built on sand. There are no experts when it comes to predicting what an individual will do. Yet something terrible happens and then there is a forensic examination of case notes of the 'offender manager' who must have missed something. The system protects itself though the blame game. 

There are systemic problems: the extent of the institutional abuse of children appals and yet many of those children 'graduated' into crime. But in new reactionary culture of distorted thinking and individual pathology, there is little sympathy for those who were once victims. I used to see probation work as part of the solution, then it became part of the problem with its enforcement mentality. Not so long ago probation was stuffing the prisons with technical breaches of orders and licences. A good probation takes risks rather than being obsessed with the pretentious management of risks.

Excellent piece (in my view, at least). Since the politicisation of probation post CJA'91 we have been subjected to an ever increasing risk averse management, greatly encouraged by Boateng's battle cry of "we are an enforcement agency. It is what we are. It is what we do." (Or something similar). The skill and delicacy of nuanced thinking has been crushed as increasing numbers of 'yes' people have risen quickly & populated management positions; people who are frightened by such thinking because it's beyond them, so the trend is to stamp on what you're frightened of - spiders, beetles, ideas, compassion, creativity, taking risks.

No OASys document has ever prevented an offence. No ISP has, of itself, protected anyone. No risk management plan has ever managed risk. These are only recording tools. When Probation staff stop seeing offenders in order to complete admin tasks, they have cast aside what is acknowledged to be the most important element of intervention; themselves and the relationship they have with the offender. 

It is apparent that, like the Prison Service, NOMS has embraced the idea that it is enough to create the ILLUSION of rehabilitation and the REALITY of effective intervention is not necessary. It is two-dimensional thinking and looks for cause and effect outcomes archived in the current financial year. It is dumb, unsophisticated and corrupt.

Re-offending, interesting area. I did a dissertation as part of MA on key factors in reducing reoffending for clients on probation. I contacted a significant group of ex-offenders two years after they had completed their probation orders and then interviewed about what stopped them offending. Interestingly the top factor and statistically significant was the relationship with their Probation Officer. Of the 90 or so ex-client I interviewed certain probation officers names were repeated as making the difference. 

When I fed this back to the management team of the Probation service I worked for they were not interested, psychology was king and people didn’t matter, the mantra was just follow the manual. I left when I had to assess all PSRs in my teams, press F7 on my computer for acceptable and F9 for unacceptable. 

Most of the great chiefs I have worked for have gone. John Harding former CPO of Hampshire & the Isle of Wight would never have accepted what most of the current tranche of CPO and senior managers accepted. He was a great believer in people and believed in his staff, he would never have had anything to do with this disaster in the making. People help people change not systems not IT not manuals, they can help but they can`t change anyone. Only a person can do that and that’s what the best Probation staff do and have done. 

A few years ago I met a young man who came to his appointments with his face covered with a hood. He seemed surly and uncommunicative. I simply listened to him, now and then queried the very negative views he held of himself, the world around him and the point of his life. Then came a day when he said "Ì like chatting to you." Towards the end he was making plans, and making me laugh with his intelligent humour. We found a rehab in another part of the country and that's the last I saw of him. I do not know whether he made it through that time - his order was transferred and I have heard nothing of him since. I too remember his face and his name, and everything I learned from him.


  1. Some of the above quotes show the wealth of commitment and Understanding if the working of probation. The complex interaction at play between the supervisor and supervisee. It makes me wonder how things might look under the new changes and it is for this reason in fighting TR.
    Anarchist PO

  2. A different topic - this goes back - it was these reports (that follow) that MOJ used to justify TR : -

    " Non-existent recidivism statistics wrongly reported (reads the headline)

    It's A Stat Life

    Thoughts on uses and abuses of statistics in the news, plus a few educational pieces. -

    Get Involved
    If you see something in the news you think warrants a statistical investigation, let me know!

    Email me at evans [at] stats [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk

    I am a Lecturer in Statistics at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of Jesus College. "

    The write up is here: -