Tuesday 28 June 2022

Can We Dare to Hope?

We all know things are even worse post reunification and I thought this contribution from yesterday was interesting:- 

"We all know that the Probation Service no longer functions in a healthy way, doesn’t adequately keep the public safe or successfully rehabilitate the vast majority of our clients. Nor does it provide a safe or healthy place for staff to work. So I ask, how, as a group, we can come together to bring about change in a constructive and meaningful way. We know the unions are ineffective so it’s time to take a different approach. I suspect many reading this blog have views as to how to bring about collective change. I would love to hear your views."

Particularly in view of this event organised by the Institute for Government the very same day:-

Unification of probation services: one year on

The new unified Probation Service combined the previously outsourced management of medium- and low-risk offenders with the public sector National Probation Service, which managed high-risk offenders. Launched by the government on 26 June 2021, it was the fourth major restructuring of probation services in 20 years.

This involved hundreds of thousands of cases, thousands of staff across hundreds of sites, six companies and scores of sub-contractors – all with different ways of working.

One year on, how well has the transition worked? What more needs to be done to improve the running of probation services? And what opportunities – and challenges – could the next year bring?

To discuss these questions and more, the IfG was delighted to bring together an expert panel including: 
  • Jim Barton, Executive Director for the Probation Reform Programme at the Ministry of Justice
  • Suki Binning, Chief Social Worker at Seetec and Executive Director at the Interventions Alliance
  • Linda Neimantas, Head of Probation Inspection Programme at HM Inspectorate of Probation.
The event was chaired by Nick Davies, Programme Director at the Institute for Government.

and again the same day is possibly something of even greater interest, news of this:-

Rehabilitating Probation

Rehabilitating Probation is a three-year ESRC-funded research project, exploring the most recent iteration of probation reform in England and Wales. Probation services across England and Wales were reunified following a period of large-scale privatisation under Transforming Rehabilitation reforms implemented in 2013, which had led to the establishment of a publicly operated National Probation Service (NPS) and a number of private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).

In June 2020 the public and private arms of probation were brought back together under a newly constituted public Probation Service. This project explores this significant public service reform, the scale of which is unprecedented. Our research will capture the experiences and consequences of reform at:

(a) local, regional and national levels; and

(b) from a range of perspectives, both within and outside of the probation service.

Through a series of work packages and research activities that run in parallel throughout the project, our study is recording the impact of reform at local, regional and national levels and from a variety of perspectives, including: probation staff; senior managers; policy makers; people on probation and external stakeholders.


Lets all hope it's the beginning of a new probation age that can break free of civil service command and control!  

Sunday 26 June 2022

What Chance?

Clearly the current RMT dispute and rise to fame of Mick Lynch their General Secretary has very effectively turned a spotlight on wages generally and the sharply rising cost of living for everyone. Despite the best endeavours of both the government and much of the media to deliberately distort the basis of the dispute, it's quite likely Mr Lynch's plain speaking style will win the day and probably the claim. So, with other employment sectors rapidly joining the fray, including criminal barristers withdrawing their labour from tomorrow, where does this leave probation? 

I was particularly struck by this recent contribution:-   

The difference between the RMT union and Napo is that RMT members are more likely to honour a democratic vote to strike. From experience as a Napo member over 25 years to 2012, many members seem to take a democratic vote to strike as optional thus resulting in a lack of solidarity. As an occasional reader of this blog I note a constant thread of criticism of Napo and in particular of Secretary Lawrence. I ask you how can any trade union can function effectively without a membership committed to taking industrial action when required. Jim's blog is a great resource informing Probation staff and the wider world; however I feel that some commentators let it down by constantly sniping at Napo. I urge staff to join Napo, get involved, steer secretary Lawrence's efforts and give him some muscle in wage negotiations. As things stand, employers know that probation staff are a pushover and so you get shafted.

Of course it's long been true that probation staff have been very reluctant to strike and I'm afraid it's hard to escape the conclusion that as a result you get shafted. In May a joint union pay claim was submitted:-

UNISON, Napo, and GMB/SCOOP have submitted the following three-year pay claim on behalf of members in the Probation Service: 
  • A three-year award to cover 2022, 2023 and 2024 pay years
  • An increase in the value of all pay points of 3% above the Retail Prices Index (RPI) of inflation on 1 April 2022, 1 April 2023, and 1 April 2024
  • An increase in the value of all Probation Service cash allowances of 3% above the Retail Prices Index (RPI) of inflation on 1 April 2022, 1 April 2023 and 1 April 2024
  • Shorter pay bands allow staff to reach the top of their pay band in a shorter time
  • Removal of pay band overlaps
  • An increase in the HMRC Fixed Profit Car Allowance

While a wage keeping pace with the cost of living each year would have risen by 42.9% (compound) since 2010, pay in Probation has risen by just 1% over the same period, which means that thousands of pounds have been cut from the value of staff wages.

By ‘pay rise’, we mean an actual increase in the value of pay points. It is these values which have only gone up by only 1% in the last 12 years for probation staff.

Do not confuse your annual increment with a pay rise. Your increment is a contractual entitlement, not a pay rise.

Here is how probation staff compare with their police staff, local government and health service colleagues in relation to actual increases in the value of their pay since 2010:
  • Probation Staff: 1%
  • Police Staff: 15.8%
  • Local Government Staff: 14.6%
  • NHS Staff: 14.2%
Remember, staff in the police, local government and the health service have had their increments in addition to the pay rises above. It is no wonder that leaving probation for a job in a different part of the public sector has become so attractive.


Inflation is currently running at 9% (March 2022) which is the highest level in three decades. For the value of probation staff salaries not to fall back even further, they must at least keep pace with predicted rises in the cost of living, which Treasury forecasts put at 7.4% in 2022[1].

Staff have experienced an enormous surge in costs over the last year, including:
  • A 29% increase in gas bills;
  • A 21% increase in petrol prices;
  • A 19% increase in electricity bills;
  • A 10% rise in the price of buying a house and a 9% jump in rent for a new rental property.
These demands on pay packets will be even greater against the background of the 1.25% increase to National Insurance contributions over 2022/23.


I notice that Napo is showing solidarity with RMT in their current dispute. When they win, I wonder what chance there will be that probation staff will take similar action? Past behaviour is usually a strong indicator of future behaviour, so I'm guessing there will be some huff and puff; many staff will leave, but sadly most will be resigned to being continually shafted, now as mute second class civil servants. Probation has been very effectively neutered.

Saturday 18 June 2022

On a Wing and a Prayer

In between the desperate recruitment appeals and naff management foodie pics, I continue to find my probation Twitter feed full of excited upbeat guff about digital this and that, "hugely rewarding" team building days and most recently, a lavish London conference on modernising the criminal justice system where the minister Victoria Atkins didn't even mention probation at all! 

By way of contrast, I see Matt Tidmarsh, an academic at the University of Leeds, has published via Twitter some interim findings of his latest research:-  

1/ For the last few months, I’ve been researching prof. identity, culture and practice in probation after TR. I’ve interviewed 35 staff so far, with just three more to go. Since data analysis is not as fun as I remember, here are some procrastinatory preliminary findings:

2/ Feelings are mostly mixed on reunification: staff are happy that TR has come to an end but frustrated that so much money was wasted on ideological indulgences. Some have spoken of TR through the lens of grief

3/ There is a sense that the ‘two-tier’ nature of TR, with CRCs and their staff viewed as inferior, persists. However, lots have also commented on how reunification has restored a sense of professional identity, as ‘we’re all one service now’

4/ Probation is not a good fit with the Civil Service. With TR, there was an obvious ‘bogeyman’ (Grayling) on whom to pin frustrations. In the absence of such a figure since unification, a grey, faceless ‘Civil Service bureaucracy’ has come to (partially) occupy this role

5/ Skills/attributes required to be good at probation can be split into the interpersonal (e.g. empathy, emotional intelligence), organisational (e.g. report-writing), ability to cope (e.g. resilience) and personal factors (e.g. values)

6/ I should say skills/attributes is arguably the most ‘preliminary’ of these findings, and I need to do much more work/thinking on these categories – so any feedback appreciated

7/ Quite a few staff (mainly men) want to see more men recruited. Often, this has been tied into calls for a greater diversity of life experience in the service. This includes hiring people with lived experience of the CJS, as well as more people from minority ethnic backgrounds

8/ The feminisation of probation is interesting and, in my view, has been underexplored. On why, responses can be separated into three: pay, the demography of (social science) courses from which many are recruited, and the ‘caring’ nature of the role

9/ Feminisation is difficult to write about as you’re never too far from gender tropes. To be clear, I’m not saying that women are prepared to work for less than men, that they’re more suited to probation because ‘caring is a woman’s work’, nor that fem. is necessarily a problem

10/ Rather, the need to have an ‘appropriate’ degree for the PQiP has meant a pipeline has been established between it and social sciences courses (like criminology) dominated by women. This, added to poor pay in the service (more below), has meant far more women enter than men

11/ Again, I’m not saying this a problem, but most staff are glad that the need to have an ‘appropriate’ degree has been scrapped. Hopefully, this will help attract a much broader range of individuals into probation work

12/ While those on the PQiP speak highly of it, general prof. development is not fit for purpose. Mandatory e-learning does not adequately reflect the different learning styles of staff – ironically, something the service prides itself on in its work with people on probation

13/ The main barrier to entry, though, is pay. There is a strong sense that pay/caseloads simply do not correspond to the level of responsibility practitioners have. An obvious point, perhaps, but this has been the most common lament

14/ Working conditions generally are not good. Staff are overworked; many have expressed the view that it is bad for clients and dangerous for the public. Senior management are aware and are working to fill vacancies, but ‘we can’t magic probation officers out of thin air’

15/ Consequently, the (voluntary, private and statutory) services that orbit probation have never been more important. More work should be done to collaborate/share resources so that these dots are better connected - see me and @iancriminology

on this: https://mmuperu.co.uk/bjcj/articles/beyond-marketisation-towards-a-relational-future-of-professionalism-in-probation-after-transforming-rehabilitation/

16/ ‘Probation values’ persist. This is not a particularly original finding given the weight of research in this area. Yes, some argue that they have been ‘lost’ (again, hardly original); but beneath that, staff still enter the profession for the same reason - to help people.

17/ The last point should give hope for the future. Many of these issues will take time to fix – one senior manager suggested 3-5 years. The points mostly relate to practice/experiences of change, and I've yet to do much of the heavy lifting on identity and culture

18/ I hope some of these (very preliminary) findings find resonance with people working in/on probation; and, if not, then they at least find them somewhat interesting! ENDS

Matt Tidmarsh is a lecturer in Criminal Justice at the School of Law, University of Leeds. He completed his PhD on staff experiences of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms to probation services in England and Wales, at the School of Law, University of Leeds, in November 2019. His research interests are interdisciplinary, drawing from criminology, sociology, and penology – with a particular focus identity, culture, and practice in probation.

Friday 17 June 2022

Doing the Right Thing

A funny thing happened yesterday. By a strange historical quirk, for many years I've been a shareholder in a smallish regional Housing Association and they've started having shareholder engagement briefings held under 'Chatham House' rules. I decided to roll up and found it absolutely fascinating in several respects, not least the care with which they had supported staff forced to work remotely through lockdown; the way in which the sector was becoming a target for government attack, but most interesting, the thought that was being given at Board level to the culture of the organisation in being able to do the right thing in terms of serving the needs of their client group. The comparisons and contrasts to the probation journey could not be more stark. 

Here was an organisation reminiscent of my old locally-run Probation Service, trying to do its best to deliver quality services to ordinary people within an incredibly challenging political, economic and social policy environment, but with such care and thought. What really struck me was that such a process was only possible because it was not a monolithic, bureaucratic command and control structure. As is so often the case, it got me thinking about our predicament and how we must do something! This had been on my mind for several days:-     

"Does anyone actually read those journals? They are so dry and so removed form day to day reality of the job I doubt many do, unless maybe they are retired and missing the stimulation of Probation World. On another note when I told my manager how I felt about the post CRC world and inability to keep up with everything I was pretty much told by him to look for another job. Demonstration of great management skills and motivational interviewing. Next time a POP tells me they are struggling to cope with their life I should maybe take a leaf from his book and say ' stop whingeing and get on with it or ship out you loser'. I'm sure as long as I put a load of twaddle on my Delius entry, smile inanely and get my OASYS in on time, not forgetting the 4 pillars I would get top marks from the performance Police!"

What on earth is happening to the probation culture? Well, this contributor has been reading a journal:- 

"There's a great piece in the Napo Journal about values and ethics: stirred my soul and I recommend it, not least as the authors argue that doing the right thing, based on principles of social justice and basic decency within the all important professional/supervisory relationship is not only rewarding for all involved, but actually effective. I have become so polluted by the current culture that when I cast my mind back to better probation days, I pulled myself up on the basis that I was having a great time, I was having fun. I can predict the slough of irate criticism that might greet that observation, that it was fun. My lord, what have we come to, when the idea that work might be fun, that we could have a laugh, that we enjoyed our work, is anathema. If you can harness the bubbling optimism and creativity of people, you get stuff done. It would be an act of glorious rebellion to have fun in a probation office."

It's probably heretical to admit, but I too find academic journals somewhat dense and no matter how well crafted and argued, unlikely to move the political dial nor focus of public opinion and media attention. To be honest it's why I've stuck to the blog as an attempt in this direction and in the somewhat naive belief that a charismatic probation champion of integrity and wisdom would emerge to make the compelling case to save our distinct ethos and before the flame is finally extinguished. But in the meantime, here is an extract from that article in the latest edition of the Probation Journal 'Probation and the ethics of care' by Jane Dominey and Rob Canton.  


Discussions of probation's values can be enriched by an appreciation of care ethics. This approach is explained with attention to its emphasis on relationships and individualisation. The implications for probation's work are explored, including its significance for the supervisory relationship, its challenges for the management of the organisation and the value of individualised approaches. Care ethics argues for practice shaped not by rules and processes, but by people and their circumstances in all their diversity. Care ethics offers a principled and effective approach to probation's work.

Care ethics and the work of probation

Since its early days, probation has explained itself in terms of help and support, has described itself as a caring profession and defined itself in contrast to other criminal justice agencies judged to be punitive; the founding aims of the probation service were to advise, assist and befriend (Vanstone, 2004). However, the responsibilities of probation practitioners also include public protection and the enforcement of court orders. While the notion that care and control are necessarily in opposition is unhelpful (Canton and Dominey, 2020), the idea the probation service should care for offenders sits uncomfortably with political rhetoric that has a focus on punishment, a reluctance to attribute crime to problems in society, and a desire to be on the side of the (ideal) victim.

Yet, as a moral grounding for probation practice, care ethics has much to offer. Probation is a relational activity requiring tough decisions and care ethics has a great deal to say about making moral choices in this context. Shapland et al. (2012), writing about quality in probation practice, make a clear link between ethical practice and the quality of supervision. They contrast utilitarian approaches (conceptualising good practice as that which leads to desired outcomes, often narrowly determined as reduced re-offending in the short term) with rights-based approaches with a focus on ‘commonly agreed good processes of interaction with service users’ (p.10). They then acknowledge the relevance of virtue ethics to probation practice, suggesting that quality practice might be linked to the virtues and character of the supervisor together with the exercise of practical wisdom. They do not explicitly consider the interplay between care ethics and the quality of supervision. Implicitly the link is there; one of their concluding points about factors important for quality prescribes ‘building genuine relationships that demonstrate “care” about the person being supervised, their desistance and their future, and not just control / monitoring /surveillance’ (p43).

However, while some insights from care ethics enrich thinking about probation, others challenge existing probation culture and practice in important ways. Three areas that merit further exploration are the nature of the supervisory relationship, the extent to which a caring organisation is necessary for caring practice, and the insistence on individualised (rather than rules-led) approaches to people and to decision making.

The supervisory relationship

Care ethics is about relationship. In some understandings of probation work relationships are at its heart too, and perhaps even constitute part of the definition of its practices (Canton and Dominey, 2017: Chapter 7 and especially 124ff.). The ability to develop ‘good working relationships’ was the first quality identified by the respondents in the study undertaken by Robinson and her colleagues (2014) - and indeed recognised as a precondition of many of the skills and characteristics that marked best probation practice.

There was some concern that probation's embrace of evidence-based practice (‘what works’) in the 1990s (Home Office, 1995), with its focus on process and programmes, might suppress the importance of relationship. Programme integrity requires that interventions are delivered in accordance with their intended aims and principles: it would otherwise be impossible to compare and evaluate outcomes. Yet a bureaucratic focus on a particular script might leave no room for emotionally literate and flexible practice, reducing the possibility of working in an engaging and responsive way and thus violating the responsivity principle. Proponents of ‘what works’ sought to resolve this tension, arguing that programmes should be delivered in ways that incorporated relational elements of practice alongside staff skills in areas like motivation, modelling and reinforcement. The importance of relationship factors in achieving positive programme outcomes was accordingly reaffirmed (Bonta and Andrews, 2010).

Empirical evidence also points to the importance of good supervisory relationships for outcomes including compliance and legitimacy (Robinson and McNeill, 2010; Ugwudike, 2010). McNeill and Robinson (2013) build on this evidence to argue that the supervisory relationship is central to and crucial for development of legitimacy in probation practice; they warn that this legitimacy, in the eyes of the supervisee, ‘is hard-won, easily lost, and almost impossible to recover’ (p133).

Policy documents and practice guidance for probation describe supervisory relationships as goal-achieving tools:
‘Our planned approach to Sentence Management is based on building strong, meaningful relationships with supervised individuals that provide them with comprehensive support throughout their probation journey, with the aim of achieving better outcomes for them and enhancing public protection.’ (HMPPS, 2021: 54)
However, care ethics insist that trusting and respectful relationships are important not only because the supervisory relationship is an effective tool for achieving correctional outcomes, but because this is the moral way for practitioners and service users to work together. Unlike virtue ethics, which has a focus on the character of the individual actor, care ethics argues that moral choices are shaped in interactions. Ethical probation practice, therefore, requires practitioners to have caring and attentive relationships with the people they supervise.

Relationships in probation are shaped by the power inherent in statutory supervision and by expectations about professional boundaries. Care ethics stress relational mutuality; something identified in the literature about quality probation practice (Shapland et al., 2012) but rarely discussed in policy. However, care does sometimes flow both ways, with service users feeling committed to their relationship with their supervisor (Lewis, 2014; Rex, 1999). Similarly, reporting on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on supervision, McNeill (2020) noted that, where there was a strong pre-existing relationship between individuals, supervision by telephone need not be perfunctory but allowed for mutual expression of concern about health and family.

Care ethics does not see the building of caring relationships with service users as a passive or infantilising process (Brown Coverdale, 2018). Rather, good supervisory relationships enable people to develop their capacity to treat others with care and respect. They can play a role in the identity shift associated with the process of desistance (Maruna, 2001). Brierley (2021), bringing together insights from professional practice and lived experience, argues that relationships comprising presence, attunement, connection and trust, have to be at the heart of work with young people with backgrounds shaped by neglect and trauma. Caring and consistent relationships create the space for change. In a similar way mentoring – including and perhaps especially peer mentoring (Nixon, 2019) - often has a decisive influence on the processes of desistance. And mentors do more than offer advice and support; they inspire and can act as a role model. The concept of modelling has been influential in modern probation practice with an awareness that acting ‘pro-socially’ can bring out the best in people (Cherry, 2017; Rex and Matravers, 1998). Yet certainly this is unlikely to ‘work’ unless there is this congruence of action, thought and feeling; without that, interactions will be - and will be felt to be - insincere, condescending and false. Care ethics, then, asserts that the supervisory relationship is morally, not merely practically, important.

Probation as a caring organisation

The quality of probation practice depends on more than the skill and approach of the practitioner: it is shaped by organisational culture. Tronto (2010) considers what it means for an institution to be caring and makes several observations that are relevant to the probation service. She argues that institutions are not caring well when there is evidence of commodification of care, when service users are excluded from decision-making, and when organisational structures hinder rather than help care-giving.

The commodification of probation is most clearly seen in the privatisation that followed the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) reforms (Dominey and Gelsthorpe, 2020). However, the impact of commodification extends beyond the use of market mechanisms to procure services; it has consequences for the way that rehabilitation and care are conceptualised. Tronto (2010) argues that it is a mistake for organisations to think about care as a commodity rather than a process. Her view that care is not best managed by the market is in line with much criticism of recent probation reform (see, for example, Burke and Collett, 2020).

The TR reforms accelerated the commodification of probation, creating a system that depended on contracts, supply chains and the purchase of fragmented and discrete packages of intervention. The reforms diluted the thick network of relationships (Dominey, 2019) that provide help, support for desistance and the possibility of community integration. The shortcomings of the TR model have led to its further reform (Carr, 2020) and a reduction in the reliance on out-sourced provision. However, under the new operating model (HMPPS, 2021), rehabilitative interventions are still conceived as a product to be provided by and purchased from approved voluntary and private sector organisations.

The insistence from care ethics that caring is a reciprocal process, with importance attached to the voice and response of the care-receiver, may appear to sit uncomfortably in organisations like probation with clear demarcations between staff and service users. The organisation has the power to set the framework for supervision, constraining the actions of the supervisors and leaving little space for the preferences of the supervisees. There are indications, however, that service user involvement is being taken more seriously, while thoughtful commentators who have worked hard to incorporate co-production and participation into their practice highlight the complex and demanding nature of this work (Armstrong and Ludlow, 2020; Weaver et al., 2019). Care ethicists ask probation to move beyond asking service users to complete surveys and give feedback to take seriously the creation of an organisation which includes all stakeholders in the development, delivery and evaluation of services.

Tronto (2010) also asks whether senior managers are attentive to the needs of staff and service users, and whether they care sufficiently about the work to ensure that it is properly resourced and supported. Brown Coverdale (2020: 3), arguing for the applicability of care ethics to the practice of imprisonment, explains that decision making requires the people involved to 'to reason together about how to proceed in the context of other responsibilities and needs and almost always in the context of limited time, resources, and knowledge’ (emphasis in original). As a result of the twin assaults of public spending cuts and the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, probation work has not been adequately resourced and supported over the past decade. Probation supervisors are not able to work at their best if their caseloads are too large (HMIP, 2021). Where practitioners are stretched too thinly, they are not able to create supervisory relationships that demonstrate care and build trust. Good practice requires more than the commitment and skill of staff; it cannot be achieved in organisations where people are being asked to do too much work with too few resources and where staff have no sense of being cared-for. Above all, the commitment to care should infuse the whole organisation: managers and practitioners should demonstrate this care to one another in support of the agency's commitment to care for those who use its services.

Individualised approaches

Finally, care ethics calls for a practice approach that is inherently individualised and responsive to the situation and distinctive circumstances of the service user. In this sense, it aligns comfortably with desistance-focused practice with its stress on the importance of individualising support for change, led by those striving to desist who will bring their own distinctive aspirations to this process (McNeill et al., 2012).

Current approaches to practice (shaped by standards and rules ostensibly intended to achieve consistent treatment for service users and uniform behaviour by staff) struggle with the notion of individualisation. Allowing practitioners to step outside guidelines appears to risk the possibility of inappropriate discrimination. Staff do have discretion to depart from the standards, but this discretion is subject to monitoring and managerial oversight. Individualisation is identified by practitioners as part of good quality probation practice (Robinson et al., 2014) and intrinsic to approaches shaped by care ethics; it fits less well with rules-led practice models.

Care ethics also challenges the way that probation practice deals with the assessment of need. The care ethics perspective takes more account of needs than rights or abstract principles; it insists that the moral approach is to allow individuals to identify their own needs. Noddings (2015) acknowledges the complexity of this (needs are not the same as whims or preferences) but counsels against trying to define needs precisely. She warns care-givers against confusing their needs with those of the other and of making assumptions about needs. She identifies that needs arise together and not in sequence (someone can need both food and respect). Tronto (2010: 163) argues that ‘the process of determining needs is one of the foremost political struggles of any account of care’ (emphasis in original).

In the probation world, need is often defined by the organisation and squarely linked with the ‘criminogenic need’ associated with ‘what works’. Criminogenic needs are those factors assessed as underpinning offending behaviour. They are the targets of correctional interventions (including cognitive behaviour programmes and drug treatment interventions) and easily reconceptualised, not as needs but as dynamic risks (Ziv, 2020). Proponents of ‘what works’ do not argue that non-criminogenic needs should be ignored, but rather that criminogenic needs must be the focus of interventions intended to reduce recidivism. Yet this over-narrow definition of needs ignores the social injustice that underpins much crime, reframing disadvantages as dynamic risk factors, as well as ignoring issues of difference and diversity.

Probation practice makes assumptions about service user need and, in turn, service users have limited opportunity to identify their needs for themselves. The assessment process is shaped by tools that prioritise dynamic risk factors and is driven by timescales set in national standards. There is limited scope for individualised assessments in which service users are enabled and encouraged to explain how their period of supervision might be made most helpful. Among the insights of desistance theory is that change is best supported by attending to strengths and to aspirations which must not be set aside because of preconceived notions of problems and what would be a solution to them.

Care ethics argues for practice that is shaped not by rules and processes, but by people and their circumstances. The argument is not that current practice never permits staff to respond with latitude and discretion but rather that it is often too hard to depart from the rule or standard given that adherence to it will always be ‘defensible’, however wrongheaded. However, calling for increased opportunities for practitioners to respond to service users as individuals is not the same as advocating for practice that is unaccountable and without scrutiny (Eadie and Canton, 2002). Such practice does, though, require investment in and commitment to the systems that support the use of professional discretion. Wise and accountable use of discretion is most likely in situations where staff bring knowledge, skills and values to the professional dilemmas they face. Training (both for newly appointed staff and as part of continuing development) is important here, as are a reflective orientation to practice and a transparent approach to decision making. Practitioners benefit from opportunities to share practice dilemmas with colleagues and staff supervision arrangements that allow space for reflection alongside the management tasks of monitoring performance and adherence to targets (Coley, 2020).


The argument here is not that codes of ethics and practice guidance have no part to play in ensuring good quality probation practice, nor does it suggest that the probation service should pay no attention to the outcomes of its work. However, drawing on the principles of virtue ethics and care ethics, it does advocate an approach that takes seriously the relational element of practice, that considers the circumstances of each case, and that has an unapologetic focus on care.

Viewing probation practice through the lens of care ethics suggests that probation values emerge from principled people (at all levels in the organisations) trying to do the right thing in a caring way in difficult circumstances. Both care ethics and virtue ethics focus on the characteristics of the practitioner and, for care ethics, on the interaction between the practitioner and service user. Both approaches are sceptical that probation values could be understood simply as a set of prescriptions that simply need to be applied in each case and in each situation.

To put caring at the centre of probation practice does not produce easy answers to the ethical dilemmas faced by practitioners, which often involve not just the interests, rights and concerns of service users, but also those of past and potential victims of crime and of the wider community. Identifying the course of action that best communicates care and meets needs requires debate and reflection; different people may come to contrasting conclusions.

Care is as much about how work is undertaken as what is done or what outcome is achieved. For example, service users have been found to accept most probation interventions as legitimate. Even monitoring, which might be supposed to be a resented intrusion, can be perceived as an indication that you matter, that somebody cares about what you are doing, especially when it is acknowledged as a legitimate aspect of the role (Dominey, 2019). And a corollary of the acceptance of monitoring is that sometimes the service user will be found to have been in default and enforcement action taken.

There may be objections to the idea that caring is the ethical way to approach probation practice. Perhaps ‘offenders’ do not merit care; perhaps care has no place in punishment. The arguments from care ethics, and from this article, push in the opposite direction: care deserves consideration as a guiding virtue of probation. It is not the case that according more care to ‘offenders’ leaves less for ‘victims’; ethical practice is concerned about the needs of everyone in the community. Further, the victim/offender dichotomy is misleading; insights into the trauma and abuse that form part of the life stories of so many service users (Anderson, 2016) highlight the extent of the victim/offender overlap and demonstrate that probation practice should, drawing on Tronto’s (1993) framework, include caring about, caring for and care giving.

A signal advantage of a care ethics approach to the work of probation is its promise to align ethical practice, effective practice and the motivations that inspire so many probation staff. Although our main line of argument has insisted on the ethical merits of a care approach, we have also seen that it turns out to be effective in terms of the purposes that are often set for probation – in particular, compliance, reduced reoffending and even the management of risk. Any successes that probation might achieve in reducing reoffending and in public protection amply fulfil its responsibility to show care to everyone and not just those under its supervision.

Care ethics, like virtue ethics, insists on doing the right things for the right reasons. For all the political attempts to disavow caring, it remains the case that large numbers of people join the profession because of a commitment to help and care for vulnerable people (Cracknell, 2016; Deering, 2011; Mawby and Worrall, 2013). The principle of care engages these motives, aligning them with both effective and ethical practice, bringing a coherence and integrity to probation's work.

Jane Dominey and Rob Canton.  

Friday 10 June 2022

Can Probation Be Rehabilitated?

This was the direct question posed by Gwen Robinson, Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Sheffield and the academic invited to give the 24th Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture to an invited audience at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology yesterday. 

I joined the presentation remotely and the sound wasn't very good, but I did catch the following assertions "the Service is a post-traumatic organisation" and there is "systemic workplace harm". Blimey, just let that sink in for one moment, somewhat contrasting as it does with the endless upbeat social media back-slapping and foodie pics that passes for leadership via official HMPPS accounts nowadays. The trouble is, 'good leadership' is felt to be essential for any rehabilitation to take place.

So, with the job actually being a health hazard to its staff, it might just help explain the accelerating resignation figures highlighted by the workforce stats recently. 

What about RAR days? Rehabilitation Activity Requirements? Basically a waste of time and should be done away with as we all know probation is a people business. What was needed was a return to probation's core business - supervision! 

Was being part of the civil service a good idea and helpful with staff unable to speak openly? No. I'm pretty sure I heard someone from the Probation Institute confirm this. What about training? An Inspector in the audience made it plain they thought current training was woefully inadequate! Was there ever a golden age of probation? Apparently not and nostalgia was felt to be somewhat unhelpful, viewed as it often is through rose-tinted glasses and the subject of selective positive memories. 

Now, readers at this point might be forgiven for being somewhat surprised to hear that the keynote speaker felt that probation can be rehabilitated! To be perfectly honest I struggle to see how this is likely and any supporting evidence for that view must have passed me by completely.

Finally, I couldn't help but give a wry smile hearing Irish probation and CEP President Gerry McNally say in the same breath that whilst nostalgia was not helpful, the Probation of Offenders Act of 1907 was still operational on the Emerald Isle and he remained mindful of 'advise, assist and befriend'!  

I rest my case.