Probation: An Invaluable Public Service

17 Feb


“The Probation Service is one of the UK’s most vital public services, and it is high time we recognised the huge contribution that it makes to our national life. For one hundred years, the service has helped damaged and vulnerable people rehabilitate themselves and rebuild their lives, while reducing reoffending and protecting society.” –
Brendan Barber, General Secretary, Trades Union Congress (Boroughs et al. , 2007:86)

Probation staff currently supervise 241,500 individuals, a significant proportion of whom are high risk individuals and therefore pose public protection issues. They do so not just by containing and monitoring them (difficult enough in itself), but also by directly engaging with them in a bid to lessen the risk that they pose, and reduce the risk that they might reoffend.

In terms of its effectiveness compared with prison, reconviction rates following a prison sentence are 66%, whereas from probation orders without requirements reconviction rates drop to 50%. They drop further, to 34%,  for people on probation with a condition of a community programme.

The skills and abilities of frontline probation practitioners mean that – when they are successful – communities benefit and further victims are prevented. In addition, the lives of many probation service users are irrevocably changed for the better. This is undeniably crucial work, of immense social value.

The breadth and scale of the task that frontline probation staff face should not be underestimated. The Social Exclusion Unit gave a flavour of the immensity of that task when they observed that

“The failure of mainstream agencies to deal with… social exclusion means that the Prison Service and Probation Service are in many cases being asked to put right a lifetime of service failure.” (Social Exclusion Unit 2002 p.18)

Even if we consider only the fiscal realities, which will always preoccupy governments and (some) taxpayers, the service manages a very substantial caseload of offenders, at a cost which, offender for offender, represents a huge saving on the cost of imprisonment. Depending on the type of probation supervision, around fifteen people can be supervised on probation for the cost of imprisoning just one inmate.

The Conservative-Liberal coalition government has stated that it values the social contribution made by probation. The prisons and probation minister Crispin Blunt, who addressed probation staff at the Napo (National Association of Probation Officers) conference in Scarborough on October 8th, 2010, said that he wanted to clarify:

“… my attitude to the probation service as a whole. I recognise and celebrate the highest level of public service that motivates the members of the probation service. Day in and day out, you manage some of the most damaging and damaged members of our society on behalf of the rest of us. You do it in our interest, but also in their interest. I hugely appreciate what you do… I need no convincing of your economic and social value to the country.  Your profession, on both counts, plays an essential role in our society.” (Blunt 2010)

The government minister with responsibility for probation may well publicly “celebrate” the job done by probation staff (though the immediate ironic standing ovation from the audience of around 600 probation practitioners which greeted this paean acknowledging their social contribution indicated that practitioners were less than convinced of the wholeheartedly sincerity of Blunt’s endorsement. In any event, the warmth quickly dissipated when the minister laid out his plan for the de facto privatisation of  parts of the services delivered by probation. Y He  could have been left in no doubt that they felt undervalued and unappreciated.

While Blunt may have needed “no convincing” of the value of probation staff, practitioners that I spoke to as part of my research on probation culture (coming soon) were not so sure that they were highly valued in the popular consciousness. A recurring theme in my research with probation staff was the disconnect between how they believe they are perceived by the public and portrayed in the media, and the content of and value of the work which they do. There was a widely held sense of being misunderstood and undervalued, despite the demanding and potentially risky nature of probation intervention that they undertake on a daily basis.

Blunt, too, acknowledged that the public remains for the most part unaware of the invaluable contribution made by probation. He reflected on probation’s public and media image, and the (sometimes unachievable) expectations that are projected onto probation by politicians:

“At times misunderstood and under-valued by the public, too often misrepresented by the media, and mistrusted by previous generations of politicians who seemingly wouldn’t grasp the basic fact that you can never completely manage away risk. And so much of what you do is about risk management.” (Blunt 2010 p.2)

Blunt suggests that probation is “at times misunderstood and under-valued by the public”. In the course of my interviews, the Daily Mail was frequently mentioned by probation staff as a paper which in their view misrepresented the work of probation and was also perceived to report crime inaccurately. A typical comment came from a London probation officer with 25 years of experience who told me, in a tone of weary cynicism:

“You’ll get one side of the story from someone who writes the Daily Mail. You don’t get many other sides of the story.”

In my next post, I look at how the Daily Mail has portrayed probation.

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One Response to “Probation: An Invaluable Public Service”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Probation in Statistics « Crime, Justice & Criminology - December 2, 2012

    […] conclude the snapshot of probation in figures, it is worth recalling an earlier post on this […]

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