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On Probation

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The probation service has a Cinderella complex: misunderstood and overlooked next to its more attention-grabbing siblings, the police and prisons. It does more than its share of legwork but gets little thanks. Many people seem to have a loose sense of probation as the do-gooding counterpart to the prison system, but little grasp of the detail.

Probation is different from parole. The Parole Board is a decision-making body; it works a bit like a court, independent but sponsored by the Ministry of Justice. It decides whether certain prisoners – the minority who aren’t released automatically halfway through their sentences – can be released or progress to an open prison. It holds hearings in prison, taking written and oral evidence, questioning the prisoner, his (much less frequently, her) probation officer, prison officers and perhaps mental health staff. Victims should also have the opportunity to provide a statement. If the Parole Board decides release is safe enough, the probation service steps in to take the lead from the prison service. People on probation are still serving their sentences and can be returned to prison at any time. With indeterminate sentences – such as John Worboys is serving – that remains the case for ten years; if they go back to jail, re-release is never guaranteed.

The probation service was founded in 1907. Its history can crudely be divided into three: Christian-infused charity at the start; welfare-oriented alternatives to custody in the middle of the last century; and a hard swing to managerialism and public protection since the 1990s. Any remaining social work roots had been fully severed by 2000 when the Home Office defined it as a ‘law-enforcement agency’. Ever since it has been subject to restructure after restructure. The most recent was the most radical – 70 per cent of the service was privatised in 2014, against all advice, and the public barely noticed. The Justice Committee is now conducting an inquiry into these changes. The chief inspector of probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, published a highly critical report in December.

Against this backdrop, the graft continues. Probation staff work with people on community orders (sentences that don’t involve custody); they work with people in prison and after; they write parole reports and guide sentencing in court; they support victims; they run approved premises (hostels) for people just out of prison; and they play a central role in the multi-agency public protection arrangements that surround those who provoke the most fear. All important work, but not uncontentious. For one thing, it adopts a model of crime that places individual (as opposed to social) pathology front and centre. For another, it combines an offer of care with surveillance and correction. This leads to such confused organisational straplines as ‘Preventing Victims, Changing Lives’.

Anecdotally, a lot of probation officers say that they’re in the job because they think it matters and, that what matters most are the relationships they try to build with the people on their books. It may sound sentimental; it isn’t. Probation officers also say that the systems they’re working in compromise their ability to offer the most basic elements of these relationships: consistency and availability. Caseloads are enormous and bureaucracy is fetishised.

The 2014 changes split the service according to risk assessment. People judged to be low or medium risk are now supervised by private ‘community rehabilitation companies’. There are 21 of these, covering different areas of the country, and they are struggling to cope. Some probation officers have as many 200 cases on their books, and are reduced to talking with people over the phone or in an open office. People who are assessed to pose a high risk of serious harm to others – around 30,000 a year – are supervised by what remains of the state probation service. Beyond the alarming implications of privatising an arm of the criminal justice system, the most obvious flaw in the model is the idea that people can be put into low, medium or high-risk categories, and stay there. As Stacey said on the Today programme recently, people aren’t like that. David Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, once suggested that the phrase ‘people are not things’ be ‘emblazoned on the hearts and desks of every minister and official with any responsibility for probation’.

Our approach to justice is caught between demands for care and a focus on endemic injustices, on one side, and, on the other, reminders of the harm caused by crime and a desire to punish and control the guilty. Probation officers know that both sides are on to something: the pain someone is capable of inflicting is bound up with their need for help. The task is to negotiate this tension, not imagine it can be removed. It makes for difficult work under any circumstances. As it is, the service has been divided, officers are going without adequate supervision, and we’ve just got our fifth justice secretary in three years.

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