I guess it's time to get back to some serious business and as a start I've been ploughing through the written submissions to Bob Neill's Justice Committee Probation Inquiry. There's a veritable treasure trove of stuff in there, but to kick things off I think this from two highly respected former probation officers, turned academics, rather neatly sets the scene and is nothing if not forthright:-
Maurice Vanstone worked in the probation service for twenty-seven years and is currently Emeritus Professor of Criminology at Swansea University. His research and writing has focused mainly on several probation related topics, in particular, the effectiveness of community sentences, and the history of probation. From 1976 to 1985 he was Director of the Pontypridd Day Training Centre (one of the four centres in the original Home Office experiment)
Philip Priestley has been a probation officer and academic. He helped pioneer services for victims including mediation; and to pilot probation day-centres as alternatives to prison. He has written on prison history, and developed cognitive-behavioural programmes, shown to reduce re-offending by up to 25%; widely used in prisons and probation in England & Wales, Norway, Sweden, Lithuania, and the Netherlands.
They are joint editors of two books on probation in England & Wales:-
- Priestley, P. & Vanstone M. (2010). Offenders or citizens? Readings in rehabilitation. Cullompton, Devon. Willan.
- Vanstone, M. & Priestley, P. (2016). Probation and politics: Academic Reflections from Former Practitioners. London. PalgraveMacmillan.
In this submission we address Point 1. of the Inquiry’s terms of reference: To what extent do the steps taken by the Government address the issues facing probation services? Our answer to this question is ‘Not at all’ - followed by constructive responses to Point 4. ‘What needs to be done?’
Four themes are elaborated:-
1. The purpose and values of historic probation in England & Wales as a non-punitive alternative to prison.
2. The adaptability of historic probation to changing requirements from the courts and departments of government.
3. The political destruction of historic probation.
4. What needs to be done to restore probation to its rightful and proper place as part of a plural response to the complex problem of crime in the community.
Purpose and values
1. The political destruction of ‘probation’ in recent decades has taken the form of conflating the diametrically opposed values of probation and prison; redefining probation as ‘punishment in the community;’ referring constantly to people on probation as ‘offenders;’ and abolishing ‘professional’ training. More recently, the probation service has been drastically reduced in size, re-positioned as the out-door branch of the prison service, and apportioned the task of supervising and managing in the community highly troubled and, to use the current label, ‘high risk’ people (Burke & Collet 2016). At the same time its traditional rehabilitative role has been fragmented and allocated to newly created Community Rehabilitation Companies recruited from the private sector. These manoeuvres have been carried out beneath the banner of the so-called ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ - a mis-spoken label for policies that have virtually terminated in practice what little rehabilitation remained in the system.
2. Against this backdrop it is worth recalling that probation, which began in the US and in England & Wales as an alternative to prison and in effect an alternative to punishment, initially offered a court social work service, its functions defined in England and Wales as ‘to advise, assist, and befriend’. It has often been denigrated as a ‘soft option’ that lacks concern for victims, but essentially this is a populist-fuelled myth. From its inception, the probation service has been focused on helping people to lead crime-free lives by attempting to resolve those problems that have contributed to offending while at the same time increasing opportunities to lead a constructive life within the community. Helping to protect the public and limit the chances of future victims being harmed, therefore, has been at the core of probation work. In recent years, in response to evidence about what is more likely to be successful in this respect, practice has changed to incorporate an approach to cooperative rehabilitative endeavour involving empathic responses fused with realistic efforts to encourage self-responsibility and improve decision-making and problem-solving skills thus increasing the scope for offence-free resolution of problems.
3. In contrast, prison has always served different purposes; public protection via removal and confinement of dangerous individuals; punishment via the deprivation of liberty; financial loss; public obloquy and stigmatisation. At different times over the past two hundred years it has also claimed to be an agency of moral change - the ‘penitentiary’ model of the early nineteenth century which failed; the ‘disciplinary’ model which followed it and failed in its turn; and the ‘treatment and training’ model of the twentieth century which was never properly implemented and is now permanently stalled under the pressure of increasing population figures. Despite these repeated failures, prison has never faced the kind of accountability laid at probation’s door - the demand to demonstrate effectiveness, a challenge that probation has readily accepted in the past forty years or so. Being effective is a driving principle of probation practice, but it has to be based on humanistic values and a sense of genuine vocation within its personnel.
4. The need for positive change is acknowledged by those interested in the future of the probation service but the recent commercialisation of its core function has undermined the values and purposes outlined above and has been counter-productive. Consequently, there is an urgent need for the values, professional ethos, and working practices of probation to be restored, not as an act of antiquarian piety, but as a practical, progressive, forward-looking, evidence-based agency for reducing re-offending - one that stands for a more humane and results-oriented approach within a plural system of criminal justice.
A Service Receptive to Change
5. Since its inception the probation service has held at its core the principle that positive change is possible for people on probation, and consistent with that principle has been its adaptability to change within its own organisational structure. In response to social and political demands, the lessons of ineffective practice, and the lure of new, often untested methods it has embraced transformations in its functions, duties, responsibilities, theoretical foundations and practice. It is, therefore, no stranger to change. That change has encompassed practice methods and their rationale, the types of work undertaken and how they have been managed, as well as the organisational shape of the Service; but it has not altered its fundamental values encompassing as they have the notion of offering people who have been convicted of crime the humanistic opportunity of rehabilitation. The latter point, perhaps, has ensured that for the greater part of its history the Service has occupied a constant position within the criminal justice system and been valued and endorsed by governments of different political persuasions. The fact that successive governments have deemed the Probation service useful in so far as it allowed some expression of compassion within the processes of criminal justice has, perhaps, led to a reciprocal adaptability by the service in relation to its purposes, work and governance that has contributed to its survival.
6. This is apparent from the range and variety of duties it has fulfilled from marriage guidance to guardian ad litem, and supervision of the payment of fines to resolving disputes between neighbours (Bochel, 1976; Jarvis 1972). However, greater adjustments were required when probation officers were allocated prisoners released on parole in 1967, the oversight of community service orders in 1973, and responsibility for experimental day training centres in the same year. Each development led to different models of practice and method; new concepts such as risk, restoration, and diversion from custody; significant adjustments in responsibilities and duties; the introduction of new grades of staff; and in the case of parole and the day training centres, engagement with people more entrenched in often chaotic, criminal life styles (Vanstone 2004). In addition, the Service has responded positively to the cessation of some responsibilities as with supervision of juveniles in 1969 and court welfare duties in 2001.
7. It is not overstating the case, therefore, to say that the probation service has been suitably cooperative, constructive and flexible when faced with political demands and instructions. Governance, though, has intensified since the time when, through the introduction of probation rules, successive Home Secretaries from a distance laid down expectations relating to levels of contact with probationers, the keeping of records, keeping probation committees informed about work undertaken, and submitting annual returns, leaving chief officers to govern in their own way and probation officers to do the job and make decisions largely unencumbered by bureaucracy. In contrast, late twentieth and early twenty first century governance has been characterised by information systems and computer programmes, politically re-ordered objectives and priorities, National Standards, and new organisational structures. Much of this, it might be argued, introduced necessary improvements in the way the Service was organised and managed as well as in the practice of probation officers: those subject to intervention by probation workers need it to be skilful and well informed as do the communities within which they live. There is no argument against change that demands professional accountability from managers and practitioners alike and raises expectations that practice should be informed by evidence of effectiveness. Equally, it is not unreasonable to insist that changes made by government should be driven by knowledge and evidence rather than ideology. What we have witnessed in the last few years are transformations emanating from a neo-liberal political philosophy that have led to the near extinction of a state agency with a hitherto distinguished history.
The political destruction of probation.
8. Although it suits the interests of the ‘justice’ system to present itself as a monolithic and settled set of institutions dating from ‘time immemorial’ (legally defined as 6 July, 1189), in order to cement its social authority as an impersonal and impartial arbiter of the social conflicts we now call ‘crime,’ in reality its purpose and procedures have been, and remain, the subjects of fierce conflict and controversy - it is an ongoing battlefield of ideas and methodologies. The struggle between punitive and non-punitive approaches to criminal justice in Anglo-American jurisdictions is often characterised as a ‘pendulum’ - swinging first this way and then that. Huge and unprecedented hikes in prison numbers in the US over the past fifty years and the more recent abolition of probation in England & Wales can be seen as parts of an attempt to interdict the swing of this pendulum; to stop it in its tracks: to settle the argument once and for all in favour of punishment.
9. We think this is a bad thing for the following reasons:-
1. Crime is not a simple matter - it is a complex social and psychological phenomenon. It cannot be ‘cured’ simply by applying more and longer prison sentences (if that were the answer, crime would have disappeared from the world long ago.)
2. Punishment expresses a pessimistic and negative view of human beings and their behaviour which is at odds with what modern, civilised societies profess to be about.
3. Probation in both its historic forms, and how it might be restored, asks and tries to answer the question ‘how can people be helped not to offend in future and to become contributing citizens?’
10. Probation in England & Wales had nineteenth century precedents in the work of Matthew Davenport Hill, Recorder of Birmingham (1839-65) who used recognizances and ‘bindovers’ to avoid sending people to prison; and the efforts of ‘police court missionaries’ who followed the example of John Augustus the Boston (Ma) cobbler in assisting people overcome their drink and other problems in the community (1841-59) where they could continue to shoulder their personal and family responsibilities. The statutory recognition of these efforts by the Probation of Offenders Act of 1907 set up devolved agencies, answerable to local magistrates. They became the ‘human face’ of justice and offered a social work service to the courts and the people they placed on probation.
11. Because funding for the local probation services was provided centrally via the Home Office it was inevitable that centralisation of control would follow in terms of the tasks demanded of it and the organizational structures required to deliver them. Among the first of these changes were the transfer of prison welfare posts to probation personnel in 1966 and the strengthening of after-care arrangements for adult prisoners. There were those in probation who welcomed this opportunity to inject the leaven of social work values into the innermost workings of the punitive prison but boos greeted one of us (Priestley 2016) when he asserted to a NAPO conference that the service was taking a ride on the back of a tiger that would one day swallow it whole. In part this came true because of the iron laws that govern the fate of differently sized human institutions pursuing similar social objectives - the larger mass attracts and then absorbs the lesser one. But there are laws, and then there are lawyers, politicians, and functionaries who bring personal convictions to their work. John Patten, MP, was Conservative Minister of State for prisons from 1987 to 1992, the year in which he opined that ‘as we grow up each individual chooses whether to be good or bad,' (Spectator 16th April 1992) - the doctrine of original sin restored to contemporary politics.
12. Michael Howard, barrister and Conservative Home Secretary (1993 - 1997), also brought ill-will to the party. He held the professional aspirations of the probation service in contempt; abolished academic training for its practitioners; and advocated the recruitment of ex-service personnel to provide disciplined supervision for probationers. Both of these ministers contributed to a final push towards the extinction of probation as an alternative to prison and a repository of liberal values and social work ‘do-goodery’.
13. When Labour came to power in 1997 those of a ‘progressive’ persuasion harboured high hopes of changes in policy and practice - but it was not to be. New Labour coined the slogan ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime;’ introduced some welcome but incidental shifts of emphasis; and then proceeded not only to honour the prison population growth targets of their Tory predecessors but to double them. Home Secretary Jack Straw (1997- 2001) took a particular dislike to the politics of NAPO, and during the New Labour administration that ensued the fumbled creation of the National Probation Service (2001) and the catastrophic creation of NOMS (2004) proceeded apace.
14. And when the baton of law-and-order was returned to the Conservative Party in 2010 its anti-probation forces were marshalled by Justice Minister C. Grayling for the end game, and the service ceased to exist in recognisable form following the passage of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014.
The Restoration of Probation
15. Where planet probation once orbited the central purposes of criminal justice in England & Wales there is now a moral, social, and functional void which needs to be re-occupied as a matter of urgency:-
1. Prisons are so overcrowded that they have lost the capacity to work constructively with the vast majority of their cases. In addition the moral space within prisons has been all but surrendered to an inmate culture powered by drugs and driven by gang violence; with a worrying growth of influence from sectarian and religious extremism. Prison inspectors say they are unsafe places for young prisoners. It is a profound indictment of current penal philosophy.
2. A dedicated, personalised, social-work service to convicted individuals living in the community is essential for reasons of public safety. Authentic probation is predicated on respect for the individual; is optimistic about the possibilities of personal change towards the assumption of positive citizenship; and in recent years it has developed empirical approaches to promoting desistance from crime that can be monitored and used to improve future performance and effectiveness.
3. Probation work is non-punitive in nature and makes a positive symbolic statement about the kind of society we aspire to live in - a message worth repeating many times.
16. We propose a three-point plan for the restoration of probation to its rightful place as part of a plural response to the complex problems of crime in the community:-
1. Re-establish probation as a separate public service run by local/regional boards and incorporating the existing Community Rehabilitation Companies; managed by probation professionals; cleansed of punitive terminology; informed by a traditional social work ethos; committed to restorative justice procedures that address victim need (Priestley 1970); and tasked with using evidence-based methods to reduce re-offending rates.
2. Establish local offices as Day Reporting Centres modelled on successful schemes throughout the United States (Parent 1990); which in turn derived from the Probation Day Centres that flourished in England & Wales for more than thirty years but were allowed to die by the last Labour administration (Vanstone 1993).
3. Link all local work to vigorous national programmes of research into ways of improving effectiveness. We suggest that, as a starting point, 5% of all criminal justice expenditure be devoted to research and development.
17. It will be no easy task to reverse the ideologically inspired scorched-earth tactics deployed to destroy the historic Probation Service in England & Wales but a start must be made to restore our last best hope of responding rationally and humanely and more effectively to the problem of crime in the community. Our safety and our social wellbeing depend on it.
Bochel, D. (1976) Probation and After-care: Its Development in England and Wales. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
Burke, L. and Collett, S. (2016) ‘Transforming Rehabilitation: organisational bifurcation and the end of probation as we know it?’, Probation Journal, 63, 2, 120-135.
Jarvis, F. (1972) Advise, Assist and Befriend: A History of the Probation and After-Care Service. London: NAPO.
Parent, D. G. 1990. Day Reporting Centers for Criminal Offenders: A Descriptive Analysis of Existing Programs. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
Priestley, P. (1970). What about the victim? Cheltenham. NACRO Regional Paper.
Vanstone, M. (1993) ‘A missed opportunity re-assessed: the influence of the Day Training Centre Experiment on the Criminal Justice System and probation practice’, British Journal of SocialWork. 23, 1, 213-229.
Vanstone, M. (2004) Supervising Offenders in the Community. A History of Probation Theory and Practice. Aldershot: Ashgate.