Sunday 19 May 2024

An Important Read - Part Two

Continuing with serialisation of a recent article by Professor Rob Canton and published in the latest edition of the Probation Journal. Essentially this article convincingly makes the case for a fundamental review of how the probation service should operate because it is clearly failing as part of HMPPS and under civil service control. In election year it requires urgent attention by probation staff past, present and future, together with politicians and opinion formers everywhere. 

Care and control

For much of probation's history, practitioners, policymakers and commentators have wrestled with the problem of trying to reconcile its duties of welfare (originally ‘to advise, assist and befriend’) with its responsibility to enforce the orders of the court. Being ‘sentenced to social work‘ and thoughts of compulsory help jarred with many. One solution might be to argue that while compliance was compulsory, help could be optional (Bryant et al., 1978). Commonly this debate was framed in terms of an opposition between care and control and it was felt that unless this circle could be squared probation would have to abandon one of these missions (Harris, 1980). Any tension between these functions might have been less marked in the paternalistic times of probation's beginnings: for the wayward, to control was to care. The possibility that care might be the best way (not indeed to control but) to enable probation to secure compliance and reduce reoffending has been less considered.

The concepts of care, control and the relationship between them have been under-examined in these debates. A first thought is that ‘care’ and ‘control’ are an improbable pair of antonyms, seldom if ever set in opposition in any other context than this. One can look in vain in a dictionary or thesaurus of antonyms to find control and care as opposites, whether as nouns or verbs. The most common antonyms to care are words like carelessness, negligence, disregard or neglect; opposites of control include chaos, helplessness and (interestingly) neglect. This paper goes on to argue that both care and control have been misrepresented and the relationship between them – often presented as a stark incompatibility - has been especially misunderstood. In particular, their place in the work of probation is just the same as in (other branches of) social work.


Robert Harris defined care as ‘concern for the well-being of another and a desire to sustain or enhance that well-being in a manner and direction agreed between carer and cared-for’ Robert Harris (1980: 169). Is there any respect in which care in this sense is at odds with the work of probation? There is never a time when concern for the well-being, rights and interests of the probationer (and a desire to sustain or enhance that well-being) should be set aside. A harder question is that of the ‘manner and direction agreed’. It may be that a probation officer will encourage and sometimes have to insist upon courses of action directly opposed to the preferences of the client. Skills of persuasion and methods like motivational interviewing may be used to try to reach sufficient agreement, although they may not succeed. Nevertheless individuals should always be consulted before decisions are taken that will affect them in important ways. To proceed without conscientious regard to their views would be negligent and care-less.

None of this is to say that where their rights, interests and preferences conflict with others’, the probationer's should prevail: it will depend on the rights and interests at issue. Yet, more often than commonly supposed, the interests of probationers and of the wider community coincide. In particular, most people with convictions aspire to a future when they are not offending (Shapland and Bottoms, 2011; Shapland and Bottoms, 2017) It is the task of probation to encourage and support them in that endeavour. In that case, ‘the manner and direction’ of enhancing well-being are open for negotiation between officer and client and Harris's conditions of care are satisfied. Similarly, the misleading dichotomy presented by Straw, in his insistence that the client (intended beneficiary) of probation work is the public rather than the offender, dissolves: probation works in the interests of both and usually simultaneously.

There are, to be sure, affective qualities associated with care, for instance empathy, warmth and kindness. These too are practitioner qualities that can be shown to conduce to reduced reoffending (Dowden and Andrews, 2004). These findings chime with the experiences of both staff and service users. Rex (1999) found that probationers felt that officers who took a personal interest in them helped them towards desistance; staff believe relationships are at the heart of their practice (Deering, 2011; McNeill et al., 2005). Moreover, care is reciprocal: experiences of care nurture a capacity to treat others with care and respect (Brown Coverdale, 2018), which might be thought invaluable by cultivating the moral constraints that discourage people from crime. The persistent reluctance of governments to acknowledge these findings calls into question pretensions to be led by evidence and can best be explained by the belief that the connotations of care – and the corollary that social work must be kept at a distance – are inimical to control and punishment.

Respectful attention to the rights, interests and expressed preferences of the client, then, should be at the centre of a conception of care in probation's work: there is no sense in which this is opposed to attempts to bring about changes in behaviour. Many other branches of social work are in just the same position. In work with vulnerable children and their families, for instance, there will be times when decisions must be taken contrary to the wishes of some individuals, but it would be remiss to fail to consult them or to take account of those views. On the contrary, their preferences are an indispensable element in the assessment and planning of safeguarding. Care, then, is accomplished by a conscientious and sensitive attention to the rights, interests and views of everyone involved. This includes (but is not restricted to) discussions with service users. To practise in these ways is to be care-full, to fail to do so care-less.


Control is an exercise of power. The word usually connotes physical constraint, manipulation, and orders or demands backed by threat or maybe inducements. These connotations distinguish control from other modes of influence like persuasion or encouragement. The notion that some people should control others, encroaching on fundamental rights of autonomy, ought to arouse suspicion: in almost all circumstances, attempts to control are deplored and may lead to criminal prosecution, especially when done coercively.

There are, it is true, more benign conceptions of control. For instance, while there should be profound misgivings about a controlling state, social contract theory rests on the idea that citizens are prepared to give up some autonomy for the sake of peace, good order and social flourishing. Yet there are some areas into which the state may not trespass and unless limits are put upon its controls it will be accurately described as totalitarian. Again, many people approve of the idea that parents may and ought to control their children, although others would prefer to speak of guidance and direction. This is normally accepted as legitimate - because it is rooted in love, concern for the children's future and, crucially, because it is recognised as a means of instilling self-control as young people grow up. External controls are progressively superseded by internalised self-direction. In the best cases parental instruction is backed by explanation, enabling young people to understand not only what is expected of them but why, so they can apply such principles to new circumstances as they increasingly come to take charge of their lives.

Good parents offer guidance and sometimes restraint, but allow children the latitude to work out their preferences and projects for themselves. Where there is undue reliance on external control, the mutual trust and confidence that marks a good relationship are imperilled. There is no attempt here to assimilate the relationship between parents and children to that between probation staff and those under their supervision. There are, nevertheless, some points of comparison. In particular, the endeavour should be to replace external controls with self-direction. Consultation and explanation - the care-full involvement of individuals in decisions that affect them - are central to this process.

Within the penal system, the usual justification for control is the legitimate project of crime reduction. But because impositions are often burdensome they also match the demands of retributive punishment: irrespective of its effectiveness, control sounds satisfyingly tough. Yet punishment and control, so far from being allies, are often in opposition. Indeed typically the first distinction in the philosophy of punishment is between deserved (retributive) punishment and (crime reductive) control as purposes and justifications. And empirically the evidence that punishment can reduce offending is extremely thin (Bottoms and von Hirsch, 2012). Punishment turns out to be a weak, ineffective and usually temporary mode of control, while many conventional punishments are, so far from controlling, criminogenic (Canton, 2017).

Another legitimate aim for probation is to ensure that court orders or conditions of release are properly respected. Politically this topic has often been discussed in the reassuringly tough language of enforcement. Yet there has been a dearth of evidence that strict enforcement leads either to enhanced compliance or reduced reoffending (Hedderman and Hearnden, 2000; Hearnden and Millie, 2004). Bottoms (2001) urged greater attention to normative considerations for cooperation, rather than reliance on threat: a relationship marked by trust and mutual respect is the basis of legitimacy. When orders or instructions are given without explanation, authority is exposed as bare power - and resented accordingly.

Insisting on compliance is an inescapable part of the duties of probation staff, fulfilling the expectations of the court and a precondition of any useful work. It will always involve some degree of monitoring and sometimes breach action. Yet how this is undertaken seems crucial: decisions must be and be seen to be fair, with due regard to the interests of those under supervision. Where individuals can see that their interests have not simply been set aside - even if these must sometimes give way to others’ - the most unwelcome decisions may be accepted as legitimate (Ugwudike and Raynor, 2013; Dominey, 2019). Even (perhaps especially) the most controlling practices, then, can and should be undertaken care-fully. This attention is an indispensable component of effective engagement.

Nobody wants to be ‘controlled’. If care elicits a reciprocal care, control will meet evasion, furtiveness and attempts to escape. Compliance and cooperation depend upon trust and mutual respect (Ugwudike and Phillips, 2020); officiousness, scolding and punitive threatening will encounter resentment and resistance - a hopeless basis for constructive community supervision (Weaver et al. 2021). Encouragement, kindness, good humour and attempts to establish warm relationships are not only reductively more efficacious, but are part of what it takes to get the job done at all.

It is doubtful, then, that it is ever morally acceptable to seek to control other people. It is legitimate to try to manage behaviour and sometimes this will require external measures. Here, it is better to use words like restraint, prevention or restriction. These are words that call for specificity – restraint (from what?), prevention (of what?). Control, by contrast - both at the level of the state and within the criminal justice system - is at risk of overreach, inherently expansive and incessantly pushing at its proper boundaries. It is this unbounded nature of ‘control’ that should cause the most consternation. Just as there must be limits on a state's justifiable control of its citizens, crime reductive interventions should not seek to control any aspect of an offender's life unless it can be shown to have a bearing on the chances of their offending.

Yet however the word control is to be understood in this context, its meaning is just the same in (other branches of) social work. Probation has to administer a sanction for a crime, to that extent setting it apart from other branches of social work, but many of these other branches also have to exercise the authority of the law in their own distinctive area of responsibility. While social work has often felt uncomfortable with these associations, its functions include activities that are backed by the insistence of the state and are to that extent coercive (Handler, 1943). The most obvious examples are child protection, where children may be separated from their parents, and mental health, where people may be compulsorily detained. The preferences of the clients may be overridden by the interests of others or in their own interests when they are believed to be incapable of recognising these for themselves. These activities, both in probation and other social work contexts, can and should be managed carefully with due respect for and attention to the interests of all parties.

To summarise: a misunderstanding of the concepts of care and control has confused the debate. Control, without assiduous attention to its moral boundaries, is an unworthy objective; care involves respectful attention to the rights, interests and preferences of those concerned. This is both a moral imperative and a precondition of effective engagement and the reduction of offending. Working care-fully is likely to encourage compliance with legal requirements and changes in behaviour which will be sustained much more reliably than when induced by external controls. Care elicits a reciprocal care which is a sentiment to be cultivated among people who have not always shown sufficient concern for others; control generates resistance and resentment. Here, probation is in the same position as most other areas of social work: social workers have to care and ‘control’ in just the same ways and to just the same extent.

Rob Canton

(to be continued)


  1. I couldn’t agree more.

  2. There should be significant concern about how OASys risk levels were intentionally reduced to support case allocation so that many prisoners were reduced to Medium Risk of Serious Harm when correct assessment would place them as High. This also happened to a significant level when CRCs existed to help redress case allocation and income for the privately run CRCs. To be clear, this allowed probation managers to allocate more cases to POs and PSOs upon release plus community cases and it also allowed prison managers to allocate higher cases loads to staff in establishments. I believe this is one of the reasons case loads became unmanageable and contributed to SFO levels. However this comes home to roost now as staff try to assess at the correct risk levels and clearly demonstrates why so many staff are concerned about this accelerated early release / free up prison bed space scheme. We all know this happened and be clear it was at the direction of senior management who appear incapable of strategic thought. Absolute utter disgrace and they have never been accountable for this.

  3. This isnt directly on topic, but it is close. Redolent of the governments belief that people can be punished out of poverty and disadvantage: "Some schools in England are sending police to the homes of children who are persistently absent, or warning them their parents may go to prison if their attendance doesn’t improve, the Observer has learned."
    Its also why any institution whose purpose is or outght to be about care and nurture needs to get as far away from the civil service as possible. " From September, all state schools in England will have to share their attendance records every day with the Department for Education."

  4. Not another history lesson! Can all these academics and experts get together and tell it to the government, media and public.

    We had a probation service that worked. Qualified probation officers working on the ethos or advice, assist and befriend. Then it all fell apart because successive governments over the past two decades handed probation to the whims of private companies, the third sector, the prison service and the civil service.

  5. "For much of probation's history, practitioners, policymakers and commentators have wrestled with the problem of trying to reconcile its duties of welfare (originally ‘to advise, assist and befriend’) with its responsibility to enforce the orders of the court."

    A Tory government will always see Advise Assist and Befriend as State provision for the undeserving, and an extension of the welfare state.
    They just can't square the concept with their ideological paradigm.