An attempt to help explain the mysteries and magic that are part and parcel of 'probation'.
Thursday, 22 January 2015
A View From Down Under
The following blog by a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship recipient is re-published with permission:-
BECOMING MORE VICTORIAN?
English probation needs to get more Victorian. But first there are a couple of things I need to explain:
In the past few years, the probation service in Victoria, Australia has been hit by a deluge of criticism. Several reviews of the parole system highlighted problems.
Then in 2012 a man called Adrian Bayley murdered a woman while he was on parole for many other violent offences. The media went mental and the public were outraged.
At the height of the crisis, the press were filming probation officers as they arrived for work at the Melbourne office where Mr Bayley had been reporting.
In response, the government ordered a report written by a retired judge called Mr Callinan. The general gist of his findings was that parole is neither necessary nor desirable. The best thing would be to get rid of it entirely, and let prisoners serve time inside, and then be released at the end of their sentences.
One paragraph in Callinan’s report characterised probation officers as mostly well meaning young women who were basically too scared of violent offenders to manage them properly. I am paraphrasing here, but not much. (There is, of course, much more to all this background story, but that’s not for here – that’s for my report later…).
The response to all this is why I am here now in Victoria. There was a fight back which radically changed the probation service – this is still ongoing as the reforms roll out. But for now, England take note: the Victorian fight has enhanced professionalism and raised the standards of their probation service.
I have seen some great things developing here, and there is more to come. For now, here are a few highlights:
- Differentiation: There has been a separation of roles, so that there are many opportunities for promotion and career development. Many probation officers I have met applied for new jobs, and are excited about taking on new responsibilities. An officer can move up the career structure, while retaining a case management role and direct contact with offenders.
- Specialisation (based on choice): Staff have been given a choice about the type of work they would prefer to do within the new system, and could decide to work with high risk parolees, or lower risk offenders on probation orders. There has been a clear and transparent applications process. Staff have not been moved around according to “sifting criteria” (note: that’s a quote, not a term of my choosing).
- Care: regular debriefing sessions are mandatory for all staff working with high risk offenders. They are run by external psychologists who offer support and a listening ear. Since this is mandatory, there is no stigma; it is seen as essential for staff well being. I have also been told by many that they are discouraged from working late, and help is given when workloads become too heavy.
- Training: One afternoon each week is set aside for professional development and/or training. Proper cover is arranged for officers’ work so that they do not feel pressure to catch up. The quality of the training is good. A young officer described how she recently completed a specialised diploma at Melbourne University.
- Cash: Yes, there has been a significant injection of government funding which makes all this possible. But, I sense it is not only a question of dollars.
The cash came after the case was made that working with parolees is important, skilled, professional work, that makes communities safer. Whether a similar case can now be made in England, remains an open question.