Monday, 18 April 2016

Guest Blog 53

An ignorant old mans take on probation

The Harvard Law of Animal Behaviour, states "under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases."

This law explains why all prison regimes, interventions and courses based on what I will call Folklore Psychology fail. I predict Incentives and Earned Privileges will have no effect on recidivism rates. Putting someone on basic and taking away their TV will build resentment, if you mistreat any animal you are likely to get bitten.

There is a paradox, international comparisons show that the countries with the lowest ratio of Probation Officers to Prisoners have proportionally a lower prison population the exact opposite of what you would expect, but you could be comparing apples and oranges so you cannot draw a conclusion. Scotland has a very similar prison population per hundred thousand as England and Wales, the crime rate and prison population mirror each other, not very surprising social factors are about the same. The probation staff in Scotland is about half that of England and Wales pro rata, for a similar outcome.

It would be reasonable to conclude that the number of Probation Officers employed makes no difference to re-offending. “The animal behaves as it damn well pleases”. However there is an important difference between Scottish probation and England and Wales that could be giving the Scots an advantage. Their Criminal Justice Social Work Services, is an integration of Scottish probation services and generic social work departments, through the Social Work (Scotland Act 1968.) Since then Scotland has experienced criminal justice policy trends similar to the rest of the United Kingdom resulting in an increased emphasis on public protection through risk management and on reducing re offending. Nevertheless, practice in Scotland has remained firmly rooted within social work principles with a commitment to social inclusion.

In 2010 an Advisory Group emphasised the need to support practitioners and managers professional autonomy within a framework of accountability, whilst ensuring the personalised delivery of criminal justice social work services. In addition, a key focus of the revision was to support the active participation of offenders in work towards outcomes.

The personalised delivery may be a key. In England and Wales the trend is to group offenders into bands, cohorts or whatever, not as an individual. I am not a psychologist, but I understand that our behaviour depends on what we have experienced in life and it can be changed by new experiences.

It is possible that as the CRC's reduce their staff by 40% the recidivism rate will not change. If that happens it doesn't mean Martinson was right when he said “Nothing Works”, just that Nothing Works based on the “punish and protect” philosophy. Could that be a time to switch to a new philosophy based on giving positive experiences to change behaviour? The only intervention that I can think of as positive, is Circles of Support and Accountability as conceived by the Mennonites and taken forward by a couple of American states. Many adoptions of this are tainted by elements of punish and protect, some accidental, I believe in the UK many volunteer 'friends' are criminology students anxious to get something on their CV's, more interested in questioning the core member about his crime than giving them a positive experience socialising.

I remain open minded, it's a complex subject, but I have a belief that in a contest between good and evil, good will eventually prevail, so something must work.

Rhys Toogood


  1. I have watched over many years as the Probation Service has been turned into "An enforcement agency", and all along I have felt that punishment is too late for our client group.

    Think about it, the people we get have been;
    Punished by their didn't work
    Punished by their didn't work
    Punished in care didn't work
    Punished by youth justice didn't work
    Punished by didn't work
    Punished by employers/benefit didn't work.

    And yet the belief is that if we "enforce orders" behaviour will change.
    If we breach people behaviour will change
    If we Challenge offending behaviour (Which in my office seems to consist of yelling at people while not listening to them, at least in some quarters)they will change.

    My philosophy has always been that people's behaviour is based on their story and their experiences, so I try to listen to them, find out what they want and help them to achieve that. To be a ready ear and a gentle voice of calm when things are on top. Basically we should try something different.

    Seems there is very little room for that at the moment.

  2. Probation Officer18 April 2016 at 07:53

    As I understand and as the post suggests, "what works" in reducing reoffending is having knowledgeable and well trained probation officers providing tailored and resourced supervision and support to offenders. The key is in commencing the support at the earliest stage, remaining consistent and the building of an honest and open professional relationship between supervisor and supervisee. Leaving out all the "risk management" and "public protection" claptrap, this is exactly as proper probation training/qualifications used to instill in probation officers. That is until our training was diluted with hogwash so that probation leaders were able to sell us down the river so the government could sell most of us to Sodexo Links and turn what was left into third rate civil servants.

    Good post and more evidence that the "anyone can do probation work" crew are far from correct. This is why, as I said in Guest Blog 52, if you are the last of a dying breed with a decent probation qualification (CQSW, DipSW, DipPS, etc, sign your name with it on formal emails, letters and reports to seperate yourself from the unqualified staff they're trying to replace us with.

    Have a good day all!

    1. Thank you,

      I have noticed that Scotland with its probation service rooted in Social Work has a very slowly declining re-offending rate over the last 20 years.

      It might be a false memory. I used to work in Local Government, I have a slight memory of a flyer crossing my desk twenty or thirty years ago asking me to retrain in Probation Work. I looked at the qualifications required and was surprised I was eligible. It was a long time ago and I have no qualifications in Social work.

  3. Meanwhile the Circles of Support and Accountability model of practice is quietly functioning in parts of the UK. Some folk utilised and developed the Canadian experiences with HM Government support.

    1. It's all quite similar to old school probation work just rebranded under a new name and applied to an organisation not led by the government. There's quite a few probation officers seconded to Circles of Support, some who have been key in its ongoing development. Some of the concepts similar to that used in the SEEDS model (Skills for Effective Engagement Development and Supervision) developed from experiences in Canada. This was rolled out to all probation staff pre TR and then forgotten about post TR!!

    2. Yes Anon at 08:47 I first heard about it over 15 years ago when I was a Trustee of British Quakers for about 5 years and we supported Helen Drewery, a senior staff member as she worked alongside others to run a pilot project, initially in Thames Valley. A key stage was when Quakers took on what was a potentially costly project for their limited financial resources and had to budget for a contingency in case the Governement did not sustain its financial support - it was a great relief when as with other schemes introduced by British Quakers, it became an independent organisation.

    3. If you want to know more, I found this article by Mike Nellis about the start up of "Circles UK"

    4. Thank you for your informative reply.

      I would like to add an anecdote to show the calibre of the Mennonites

      A couple of years ago the Bonavista Peninsula was struck by hurricane Igor full force having only brushed Bermuda before.

      The area was of course devastated. The road network destroyed six houses in Trouty alone were totalled. There were a couple of Mennonites in Trinity five miles away were they have a summer camp. Legendary carpenters they flew back to Manitoba a couple of thousand miles, collected their tools and some mates, flew back and helped the Newfoundland men rebuild there homes. Unbelievable altruism to me.

      Community Justice is the traditional Inuit justice system. As practiced in Nunavut it is an alternative to the court system, not a pre-sentence option. Very similar with a facilitator.

      I think its Minnesota has circles for other offenders besides SO's.

  4. I am not sure that the Harvard Law has the pedigree it's being given as no-one quite knows who formulated the so-called law in the first place. It's certainly wasn't Pavlov or Skinner. It's generally regarded as an argument for free will.

    A behaviourist model for prison regimes with its incentives, privileges and punishments may have minimal impact on recidivism, but the quality of regimes matters. Jimmy Boyle's book The Pain of Confinement provides testimony of the types of conditions that encourage positive change.


    As regards the ratio of probation to prisoners and the assertions about international comparisons, it would be interesting to have a link provided to the actual data. But, as noted in the Guest Blog, the probation profile is just one variable amongst many, so you cannot make any causal connections.

    When 'Nothing Works' was coined wasn't probation going through its psychodynamic phase, doing lots of psychotherapy with individuals and families, but overlooking poverty and social exclusion? There has always been evidence that employment and affordable housing reduced rates of offending, that the availability and price of alcohol is linked to alcohol-related offending, that early intervention with families facilitates integration. There is also evidence from around the world that criminal justice systems oppress indigenous minorities and are prone to institutional racism – from the USA to Australia and places in between.

    The key issue in my view is not recidivism, but imprisonment in the first place – the inputs rather than the outputs. The sentencing environment has become harsher and sentences have become longer through an interplay of heavy-handed legislation and media hysteria. The three strikes mentality crossed the Atlantic with ease and we now see the Clintons distancing themselves from its excesses.

    Despite the gross economic and social inequalities, in general if ex-offenders manage to get a job with some prospects, a decent place to place, if they receive appropriate support, if they don't suffer discrimination, then they tend to do quite well – of their own free will.

    1. I am much obliged to you for the link and sharing your knowledge.

      Some numbers
      There were 148,398 people on probation in England and Wales on 31st December 2014 — there were more probationers in just three other countries: 289,082 (Turkey); 184,115 (France) and 156,358 (Germany).
      These figures can be compared with the total number of probation staff: 17,070 in England and Wales; 3,643 in Turkey; 4,339 in France and 2,158 in Germany; 1,010 Scotland; Northern Ireland 360. (Other Sources give totals England and Wales: 16,601, Scotland 2,025)

      Prisoners Incarceration Rate
      United Kingdom: England & Wales 85,753 148
      France 66,678 100
      Germany 61,737 78
      Turkey 65,458 91
      Scotland 6,872 134
      Northern Ireland 1,375 79

      I am to lazy to do the sums but obviously no correlation between Probation Officers Caseload and Incarceration rate.

      I agree with your other comments.

      There has been no program that involved families and friends. "Scared Straight" is quoted but it included an expert on family relationships giving talks that's all.

      The EU is oppressing an indigenous minority the Inuit, despite being a signature to a United Nations convention, and a WTO ruling. The destruction of the market for Seal Furs 1007/2009 condemned the Inuit to a life of Welfare Cheques and alcohol.

      Recital 11 of the act states:
      (11) Although it might be possible to kill and skin seals in such a way as to avoid unnecessary pain, distress, fear or other forms of suffering,

      {Given the conditions in which seal hunting occurs, consistent verification and control of hunters’ compliance with animal welfare requirements is not feasible in practice or, at least, is very difficult to achieve in an effective way, as concluded by the European Food Safety 6 December 2007}

      The section in brackets is false. its not in the EFSA report and could only be written by someone who knows nothing about how the seal hunt is monitored.

      According to the treaty of Amsterdam if a quote in a recital is false, the act must be voted on again by the whole parliament. I petitioned parliament they swept my petition under the carpet.

      In the UK European law is discussed by a joint parliamentary committee, and then they issue a "prayer" to make it UK law (Called a prayer because it st starts I pray) The joint parliamentary committee were given 3 days instead of the usual 30 to consider the act so I didn't have a prayer to let them know.

      So when you vote in the Eu referendum remember that they lie and cheat and ignore their treaty obligations.

    2. Also remember that Grayling wants out...

    3. He who sups with the devil needs a long spoon.

    4. Note when Greenland left the EU their average salary rose above that of Britain, Germany and France. Simply the common fisheries policy plundered their wealth. The reason Iceland will not join the Eu. Norway and Switzerland outside the EU have the highest standards of living in Europe.

  5. Reflecting on yesterday! It occurred to me, what you don't know, is what you don't know - get over it!

    1. .... there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know ... Donald Rumsfeld

      But the worst is to think we know and are mistaken

  6. to add to Netnipper - 1015- I have always believed that people will only change when they are ready to change, and if support systems are there, then chances of change are better. But if they believe that their criminal lifestyle is the place to be, then you just have to let them know that you are there when they decide they want to change direction,and often their peer group in particular,- not easy.

    I once supervised a 18-19 yr old, who kept bouncing back to me, and one day said 'I wish someone had talked to me years ago, they way you are doing now'. I told him it probably would have made little difference, as he wasn't ready to change. I said, I could not make him change, but I would do my blooming best to support him while he got the job he needed, the training and the other bits which make life worthwhile. 2 years later, as I was leaving the office about 8pm, a figure loomed out of the dark, and it was George,in work gear. He shouted, 'see you're still working late helping people M?' He was delighted to tell me he was no longer breaking the law, had graduated away from the temptations of 'friends', had a job and a new family. And he thanked me for listening, when he needed it.

    I have had similar experiences with other clients over the years, and for a PO, or related role, there can be no sweeter music. But so sad it didn't work for all of them.

  7. As a current practitioner functioning in the post TR world the one commodity that would rock the probation world and move mountains...or let us be effective, is TIME. In my view time spent directly with my offender/service user/client is never, ever wasted.
    Most of what a Probation Officer in England and Wales (Northern Ireland has changed less and remains different and should not be forgotten) does is computer facing not people facing... might I suggest that is the real difference?
    NPS PO

    1. I have never worked in you field. A long time ago before there was an Internet I worked on complex electronic systems. Most of my shift was spent as a human data logger with no time to think about the data you were recording. The only time the data was useful was after a catastrophe, then you could look at the data and see what had been failing slowly before the catastrophe.
      I have no idea how you capture your data, but voice recognition software is very good now. Unfortunately artificial intelligence to analyse it has hardly advanced in fifty years.

  8. Just as a drug addict will only give up drugs when they have reached that place where they want to, so someone committing crime will only give up committing crime when they want to. Inside I met several people who were there for importing drugs which they did as a lifestyle choice because it earned them considerable sums. They viewed prison sentences as the price of doing business and it was therefore hardly a deterrent. The current system completely fails because no government has invested the necessary resources to actually develop rehabilitation that works and until they do the current way of doing things is simply doomed to failure

    1. Don't agree with your sweeping statements in my experience it's far more complex than that and variable that's why we work with individuals and not " cohorts" what works for one doesn't necessarily work for all I consider myself to have had a lot of success helping individuals desist from offending

  9. Ml you are do right. Loads od research to support what you say. Ie. Just one reliable person who is prepared to listen and support can make a huge positive impact. Keep it up. One of my chaps called me today to say he ess worried his licence finishes soon and he williss the support. I have referred him to other agencies but they are not reliable!

  10. thank you Tonto. But I also agree with 1646 who promotes TIME, which automatically comes with caring for the clients. You need time to get to know them, and to gain their trust. And some lives are so complicated, it takes time to unravel it all. I have seen bolshy resistant clients come in, and stay bolshy until one day they give in, the tears explode, they reveal some nightmare about which they would say they had never told anyone else, and then the quality work and the road to healing hopefully starts. Time, respect, care, understanding, compassion, listening, trust and effort,and firmness with fairness. I retired 5 years ago but I still think of most of them and wonder where their life is at.

    The best PO's and PSO's in the world sadly just cannot provide that support in the cruel uncaring money-grabbing way the job is run now. And that must be killing many of them.

  11. ml back, 1857 - I missed out a word - empathy - understanding without helpless sympathy.

  12. You are tight again ML. I'm one of the do called deadwoods who would rsther be sat with a setvice user than in front of a computer. Most offenders are a product of their upbringing and environment. So many of the people i work with, mainly men, have been brutalised by their upbringing. Often we are the first person they have been able to open up to. It's highly complex work and not everyone could do it.

  13. You are tight again ML. I'm one of the do called deadwoods who would rsther be sat with a setvice user than in front of a computer. Most offenders are a product of their upbringing and environment. So many of the people i work with, mainly men, have been brutalised by their upbringing. Often we are the first person they have been able to open up to. It's highly complex work and not everyone could do it.

  14. BBC website:-

    More than 100 probation jobs are being cut in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, a union has claimed. The National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) says contractor Working Links has told it 40% of jobs in the counties will go.

    Working Links won the contract for the counties in the part-privatisation of the probation service in 2014. The firm said it was still in consultation but it expected "fewer jobs being lost than those stated".

    Mike McLelland of Napo said a 40% cut meant a total of 117 jobs being lost. "Napo is concerned these staffing cuts will result in far less face-to-face contact with offenders," he said. "The consequence of this will be to seriously compromise the ability of probation providers to both assess and manage risks of serious harm and reoffending."

    Working Links said: "We are still in consultation but latest projections show fewer jobs being lost than those stated. "Our front line delivery will not be negatively impacted by our proposed changes. At all times we will ensure we deliver a safe service. We are committed to reducing reoffending and protecting the communities in which we work."

    A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "Public protection is our priority and we continue to work closely with probation providers to maintain appropriate staffing levels and to rehabilitate offenders effectively."

  15. Blah, blah, blah, broken links. We are fed up hearing about what you are or are not doing. 40% cuts or not 40% cuts. Admin hub here or there or everywhere. All talk and no real action. Oh, how about another road show or a tele conference from the cpo telling us exactly...bugger all. You are a shameful waste of public money and could not organise a piss up in a brewery. Take the money,screw it up and run. You will be handing back the keys once you have emptied the coffers, got rid of the best assets, the staff, and basically shafted us all! What a bloody farce. This government are complete criminals. They should be thr ones on trial and banged up in rat infested prisons not some of the poor sods we see banged up because they have had a shit life, been abused and let down by everyone. It is absolutely shameful. I am disgusted with the lot of them. Blood suckers.

    1. Well said! I feel exactly the same!

  16. I could say alot worse but i'm not sure it could be published. It has gone beyond being intellectual! Let me just say 'even arseholes are functioning and integtal to a human being' so I won't use that term to describe working links. If anyone has any good newd about them please write it on a postage stamp and stick it somewhere!

    1. You mean news or nude?

    2. "Our front line delivery will not be negatively impacted by our proposed changes". It already is people are leaving and going off sick in droves it is a total unmitigated mess with morale rock bottom . WL seem to have no idea want they are doing or how to treat their most valuable asset -staff. Shameful

  17. I have enjoyed reading this bog tonight more than I have in a long time as so many entries are reflecting true probation values that have to survive our current nightmare. I am working with Circles of Support and Accountability at present through Circles UK,their unberella organisation, and am pleased to report that despite difficult challenges they are surviving and diversifying. Although statutory support is less guaranteed at present funds from other quarters are being found. If anyone would like any further information do contact me at Circles UK - contact details on our web site.

    1. Dear Maxine,

      I sincerely wish you great success in your new post and particularly your circles achieve their aims in full. I only irregularly attend friends meetings but I will be looking for your pot when I do.

      You wrote "I have enjoyed reading this bog", I must worn you not to read on the bog. Many years ago I worked as a civilian on a USAF base in the arctic. There were no doors on the latrines. Men sat with their pants around their ankles holding a newspaper. They couldn't have been reading them they were months out of date, just maintaining their dignity.

      Occasionally a comedian would walk down the row of readers holding the flame of his zippo lighter below the bottom of the page, resulting in a row of readers standing up with their pants down, cursing the comedian whilst trying to shove the inferno they are holding down the pan. It is funny the first time, but the joke goes stale after that.

  18. One minute reading about the evil ways of working links and then about spell casters. I wonder if there is a supernatural remedy to the WLs of this world - perhaps an effigy and a box of pins would be a starting point...

  19. We are all doomed, as I listened to radio at 6.30am-out with dogs, I hear the term now associated with being a head teacher is now a CEO, WTF? I suppose with corporate academies comes the shite hierarchy with it! When I was at school, a wonderful comprehensive, the pupils were the important people!

  20. Something just doesn't add up here. Why is the bbc remaining tight lipped about all this? Just a dribble of stories coming through. Why no major revelation about the corruption involved in this privatisation racket? Are the media being paid off or silenced? I just don't understand why no one is prepared to speak out. Not even corbyn! What the hell is going on. I don't just mean probation but schools and nhs etc.