Probation's role
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Probation in the criminal justice system: the glue that is coming unstuck?

Probation services occupy a unique place in the criminal justice system. As the only agencies to work with offenders from the start of the court process through to the implementation of sentence and termination of statutory supervision, probation has been described as the glue that keeps the system together.

But as the service adapts and flexes to the changing demands of its partners, political leaders and societal changes, is there a risk that it loses sight of its own purpose and mission?

In the final of three seminars, leaders from across the sector discussed how to define probation’s role and galvanise support for its mission at an event in Gravesend on 21 November 2018. Facilitated by former probation officer and inspector of probation, Andy Smith, representatives from community rehabilitation companies (CRCs), the National Probation Service (NPS), the probation officers’ union (Napo), former and serving probation inspectors, academics and retired colleagues discussed the service’s core purpose and the challenges ahead.

“My chief job is to keep people out of prison”

Contributing to a book over 30 years ago to promote a career in the probation service for school leavers, Andy Smith recalled how he described various probation roles including “writing court reports, advising, assisting and befriending and even marriage guidance”. Smith provoked discussion at the seminar by opening with the observation that at the time he wrote that advice, he characterised the “chief” role of a probation officer as being to “keep people out of prison”.

One retired practitioner recalled that government policy in the early 1990s supported that view, with the government declaring prison to be an “expensive way of making bad people worse”. Seminar attendees who were working in the sector at that time agreed that “breaching people [to return them to prison] would be almost unheard of” and would have initiated in-depth discussions and some consternation within a team.

This approach did not endure. In 2000, during Labour’s attempts to re-brand probation as the “community punishment and rehabilitation service”, Paul Boateng the Home Office minister responsible at the time stressed probation’s role as a “law enforcement agency”. Greater emphasis was placed on adopting an “heavy-handed and rigorous” approach to supervision. And, as one community rehabilitation company leader commented, by the middle of the 1990s, the prison population had already begun its rise from “the mid-40,000s to 85,000 today”.

More recently, the split of the service between CRCs to supervise low and medium risk offenders and the NPS to supervise high risk offenders has eroded sentencer confidence and led to an even greater emphasis on penal enforcement, argued a representative of Napo in comments echoed by others in the room.

The changing political weather also coincided with changing societal trends and norms. As one senior practitioner noted, the service has a “unique window” onto society. The rise of food banks over the past decade, a shortage of housing and changing trends in street drugs have required probation officers and providers to be flexible and adapt. While neither food poverty nor housing is within probation’s direct remit, these may be factors that “contribute to someone’s offending behaviour”.

Role Reversal

One former inspector noted that if what the service is expected to deliver changes each year, it can “become very difficult”. The emphasis for probation services has swung between primarily being agents of change, putting in place measures to help to reduce someone’s likelihood of offending, to becoming more focused on enforcement. In this environment of changing demands, priorities and approaches, the risk according to one CRC leader is that “stakeholders can pick and choose what they want you to be at any given time”. They argued that keeping sight of probation’s core competencies and role is of vital importance.

And the expectations from some in the room is that the role of probation services will continue to expand. One serving inspector noted that CRCs remit may start to include “preventative work” to see “how a conviction can be stopped in the first place”. This as participants from CRC and NPS leadership teams raised the increasing complexity of the existing caseload, particularly regarding people with mental ill-health, problems with substance misuse and rising homelessness.

As one academic observed, although the framework for the discussion is the role of “probation within the criminal justice system”, probation sits “within a number of different systems in health, treatment and accommodation”. They argued that the impact of “austerity is severe indeed” and it is challenging to “glue together things that are shrinking away from you in all different directions”.  In this context, a participant from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) cautioned probation providers from “trying to do too much”.

 Continuity of role

One former inspector of probation remarked that the message from the inspectorate to probation providers on their core purpose had remained relatively consistent over the past fifteen years. They are expected to do three things; implement the sentence of the court, reduce likelihood of reoffending and minimise risk of harm to others.

The participant suggested that although the purposes are not “over-complicated”, it is right to say that the work is “not straight-forward”. Moving people forward on a desistance journey to help them to become less likely to reoffend is complex, a “process” and takes considerable work to “understand the factors that build towards someone’s offending behaviour”. But although working with other agencies is important – such as in a community hub where people subject to probation services can access multiple services as one CRC leader reported in their region – probation must “hold onto things that are our purpose” within the overall system rather than over-reaching into areas outside of probation’s remit. Where probation providers work with agencies from other sectors, it’s because they “have a shared objective” which will help to “achieve at least one of our three purposes”, the former inspector argued.

Because the reality for probation is that while multiple agencies – including from the voluntary sector – may be involved in delivering the service, it is still probation providers that have ultimate oversight and responsibility. As one participant commented, probation “holds the ring” in terms of managing the risk a person poses and is where others will turn “when things go wrong”.

Probation’s legitimacy

One academic reminded attendees that the source of legitimacy for probation services and its role to take action – especially when things go wrong – remains remarkably constant. People under probation supervision consistently say that they’re there “because the court said”.

And yet, after the split between the NPS and CRCs, representing the probation service in court is now exclusively the preserve of NPS officials, even in cases led by a CRC probation worker. For many years, courts were at the heart of probation practice and so this split has led to some challenges within CRCs, with one leader reporting that some newer probation officers don’t immediately recognise that the courts are the source for caseloads.

As for the magistrates, one participant noted that it is very difficult for them to confidence in CRCs because they are an “organisation they never see”. A serving inspector of probation noted also acknowledged this problem saying that sentencers “don’t know if their sentences are working”.

To tackle this distance between sentencers in court and probation officers implementing sentences, one CRC leader explained that they now shared a bulletin for sentencers which details sentencing data with local information. This gives the judges and magistrates greater visibility and feedback on the programmes delivered or community payback hours served. The programme had worked so well that sentencers have now requested the data for the cases they have personally ruled on.

New contracts: sticking plaster or superglue?

It was the contractual framework that drove a wedge between the CRCs and elements of the criminal justice system – such as the courts and probation hostels – which was unhelpful in maintaining a commonly understood purpose for probation. But despite this fragmentation, all attendees agreed that probation has continued to “punch above its weight in the criminal justice system”. One participant wryly observed that the image of probation in the police service used to be as a rather  ineffectual “brown-sandal brigade” whereas now probation takes a leading role in multi-agency public protection arrangements and integrated offender management.

But participants voiced their fears that the sector – and its standing in the criminal justice system – would suffer without a clear purpose for probation supported through the right targets and metrics. One attendee suggested that the targets currently in place suggested that national commissioners “do not understand” the inspectorate’s three purposes of probation and what outcomes they are trying to drive across the sector. A Napo representative said that the sector needed to build “common cause” because despite their opposition to outsourcing probation services, this “transcends arguments about privatisation” and is about “what works”.

One participant argued that regardless of the targets and metrics put in place in the new arrangements, the challenge for providers will be to “shoe-horn” those targets into a clear purpose for their staff and their organisation. As attendees discussed, probation sits at the heart of many systems – not just criminal justice – in which many organisations compete for the service’s time and resources. A clear purpose will provide a mechanism to decide what and perhaps more importantly, what is not, inside the remit and scope of the service. Regardless of the contractual arrangements put in place, this will be ever more vital in the context of rising demand that is likely to continue to intensify.