Policing: A Commodity To Be Bought And Sold?

3 Mar

Government plans to privatise huge elements of police work indicate a decisive shift to private provision within the criminal justice system. Is community safety a commodity to be bought and sold?

We are now closer to large scale privatisation of policing than ever before. The Guardian has revealed that West Midlands and Surrey police (two of the biggest forces in England) have offered a contract worth £1.5bn over 7 years, which will allow private firms to investigate crime, to detain suspects and to patrol the streets.

Should other forces become involved, the figure for the contract may rise as £3.5bn. This indicates that the previous £200m deal made by G4S and Lincolnshire police to run a police station look like the tip of the iceberg.

West Midlands police also contracted out some of its anti-terror operations to G4S, but this again pales into insignificance compared to the proposed scale of privatisation in the West Midlands and Surrey forces.

This is clearly a sea-change in the shift to private provision within the criminal justice system. The West Midlands and Surrey  forces (two of the biggest in England) have invited bids from private companies, including  G4S, to deliver a range of services previously undertaken by the police.

The Guardian has had sight of a  26-page “commercial in confidence” contract note sent to potential bidders to run all policing services that “can be legally delegated to the private sector” (i.e. excluding the power of arrest). The anticipated start date for delivery of these new privatised services is thought to be in February 2013.

Home Secretary Theresa May told the  Conservative Party conference in October 2011:

“We’re also going to help police by making sure that as we reduce budgets, we cut waste, not frontline services… there is no reason at all why frontline police services should not be maintained and improved.”

It is now becoming clear that what she meant: increasing private provision in policing, in addition to the biggest cuts in police numbers in a decade.

What might privatisation involve in practice? As early as next spring, we might expect to see private companies running a range of police activities, including the investigation of crimes, the dentention of suspects, the management of high risk offenders, the investigations of incidents, the support of both witnesses and victims, the support of both victims and witnesses, and the street-level patrol of individual localities.

Surrey Chief Constable Lynne Owens is quoted by the BBC as denying that there will be privatised street patrols:

“Any suggestion that a private sector company will patrol the streets of Surrey is simply nonsense. It would be no more acceptable to the public than it would be to me.”

However, the Guardian has published a extract from contract note for potential bidders for police services, which explicitly states the activities that a private sector company will undertake can include

“manage public engagement – patrol neighbourhoods”.

The Association of Chief Police Officers lead for workforce development, Chief Constable Peter Fahy, placed the privatisation moves in an economic context, observing that chief constables could not ignore the backdrop of the financial crisis. He indicated that other police forces nationally would be carefully observing the results of the tendering process:

“Police forces face an enormous challenge, particularly when you look at the cuts in the financial year 2013/14 and beyond. It is clear that only radical and fundamental change will allow forces to cope with this and maintain protection of the public. Politicians and the public have made it clear that they will not allow forces to merge and so economies of scale and efficiencies have to be sought elsewhere.”

Private security staff already manage major public events licensed by local authorities, for example, or monitor CCTV covering public space. In addition, privately employed store detectives currently detain shoplifters. In ACPO’s view, some policing functions could be undertaken by private companies:

“The office of constable and the discretion and independence of the police officer is a fundamental safeguard for the public but does not mean that others cannot take up functions which help protect the public and bring offenders to justice.”

From ACPO’s perspective, there are some tasks in a criminal investigation, such as gathering CCTV evidence or checking phone records, which do not necessarily need to be done by a police officer, and Fahy offers the reassurance that

“the investigation itself would always be overseen by a police officer in much the same way as a doctor oversees treatment of a patient although other healthcare professionals carry out particular tasks.”

Policing is already privatised in many areas of the USA. Proponents of privatisation in America have argued that it brings down costs, while simultaneously giving detection rates a boost. The justification for privatisation is laid bare by research by the Policy Exchange think tank (a favourite resource of the government).

While privatisation will arguably neither increase accountability nor raise performance, what it will achieve is the the maximisation of shareholder profit and ensure a small number of individuals become very rich. The loser may be social justice and community accountability.

The Policy Exchange (a favourite government think tank) have pointed to the increasing cost of the police, and argue that policing in England and Wales is among the most costly in the industrialised world. To support this assertion, they argue that UK police expenditure in 2010 cost more than that in the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Under the heading ‘Inefficient Police Workforce‘, the Policy Exchange concludes that the case for an increased number of police officers is ultimately unconvincing, as it is rooted in the what they view as the “flawed” assumption that “more police officers mean more officers available to fight crime through performing front line, warranted roles.”

From the perspective of the Policy Exchange, the police service continues to be “monolithic – growing in size but not become more flexible or efficient with its staff. With respect to the police’s primary investment – its own people – this has led to a service with a large amount of wasted assets”.

Opposing voices come from shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and Unison official Ben Priestley. Cooper responded to the Guardian’s report by noting that the police had confirmed

“They are pursuing these contracts as a result of the financial pressures they face. Yet the possibility of including the management of high-risk individuals, patrolling public places or pursuing criminal investigations in large private-sector contracts rather than core professional policing raises very serious concerns. It is fundamental to British policing that it has the trust of the people. That means policing decisions are impartial, in the interests of justice, stopping crime and catching criminals.”

Priestly concludes that privatisation will have the inevitable result of making the police less accountable to the public:

“Bringing the private sector into policing is a dangerous experiment with local safety and taxpayers’ money. We are urging police authorities not to fall into the trap of thinking the private sector is the answer to the coalition’s cuts.”

Police Federation vice-chairman Simon Reed also voiced his opposition to the cuts:

“This is an extremely dangerous road to take. The priority of private companies within policing will be profit and not people… This would have catastrophic consequences for the high level of service the public rightly expect and currently receive.”

A frontline policing perspective is provided by police blogger the custody record:

“Policing is a NOT FOR PROFIT organisation. We cannot outsource such work to private companies. They are not interested in policing. They are not interested in community safety. They are interested in bottom line profit returns and happy shareholders… corners will be cut, standards will be lowered and the people who will ultimately suffer are you.. the public and the officers out on the streets.”

These views notwithstanding, private provision of policing in the West Midlands and Surrey at least, will take a huge leap forward by this time next year. With the tectonic plates shifting in favour of privatisation within the criminal justice system with both policing and prisons, can the probation service now be far behind?

The Conservative/Liberal democratic coaltion government emphasises the centrality of markets and market processes.  The government is both ideologically inclined to, and strongly supportive of, privatisation.

We should hardly be surprised that competition for the running of police, prison and probation services may become an inevitable part of this process of wholesale marketisation.

Prison And Probation In America

1 Mar

America locks up over two and a quarter million of its citizens – a greater proportion than any other country. What is less well known is that almost five million people are also subject to probation and parole supervision.

America leads the world in imprisonment.  The nation’s 5,000 plus jails and prisons incarcerate over two and a quarter million people. It remains a paradox that the planet’s richest nation, the ‘land of the free’, locks up a quarter of all the prisoners on planet earth. This means that one in every 100 adult American citizens is behind bars.

These statistics, which reflect America’s umbilical attachment to incarceration, are well known to criminologists the world over, yet they still maintain their capacity to shock. The USA’s imprisonment rate is up to 10 times greater than that of most developed, industrialised countries.

Republican and Democratic governments alike have turned to imprisonment as their penal policy of first resort. Key factors that have contributed to imprisonment’s relentless rise include:

  • longer prisons terms as part of the war on drugs;
  • ‘three strikes’ laws, which mean long mandatory prison sentences for those convicted of a felony at least three times;
  • mandatory minimum sentences, which leave no room for judicial discretion in imposing lengthy prison sentences.

At the end of 2010, the prison population very slightly declined (by 0.6 percent). This however, was the first fall in the total population behind bars in nearly four decades, and a decline in prisoners has yet to establish itself. American remains the incarceration nation.

As George W. Bush blithely asserted in his gubernatorial campaign in Texas prior to his presidency, ‘Incarceration is rehabilitation’. The Orwellian clarity of this statement neatly summarises the entrenched perspective on penal policy within the Republican party. (If Texas was an independent country, it would boast the world’s highest imprisonment rate – not to mention the most frequent use of the death penalty in any US state.)

While academic attention has long focused upon America as the global leader for incarceration, less criminological notice has been taken of the widespread use of probation intervention.

Almost 4.9 million people were supervised in the community on probation or parole at the end of 2010. This staggeringly high figure is is the equivalent of probation supervision for 1 in every 48 US adult citizens. It also helps explain why America employs  over 93,000 probation officers and correctional treatment specialists.

Though probation was traditionally regarded as most appropriate for low-risk offenders in the USA, probation staff have begin to supervise offenders who pose a higher risk, both of reoffending and to public protection.

The maximum duration of a period of probation supervision is five years. Officers with caseloads of 200-300 clients are no longer unusual, which clearly limits the work that may be done to address the mix of complex issues which many contribute to reoffending. The average person on probation may have no more that 15 minutes contact time with their supervisor.

This reflects penal priorities  in the USA; over nine tenths of the correctional budget is spent on imprisonment, despite the fact about around 7 in every 10 offenders are in the community. People on probation (4,055,514 in total) account for the majority (83%) of all of those subject to community supervision. Parolees (840,676 in total) accounted for a smaller share (17%) of those on supervision.

As with the prison population, the number of people on community supervision population is now beginning to very slightly decrease. The number of people on probation fell slightly, though the number of parolees increased. People who breached the conditions of their probation during 2010 were incarcerated at rate of 5.7%.

About threequarters of people on probation were male, and a quarter were female. Over half of the probation population was white, while 30% was black and 13% was Hispanic. Both black people and Hispanic people are disproportionately represented in the probation population (just as they are in the prison system).

Around three quarters of people on probation and four fifths of parolees are on ‘active probation’. The means that they must report in person on a regular basis to a probation or parole authority in person (or sometimes by telephone or email).  Property offenders make up 28% of those on probation, while drug offenders comprise over a quarter of probationers. Just under a fifth of people on probation are supervised for a violent offence.

One area in US probation would be unrecognisable to UK probation practitioners: the collection of ‘user fees’. Charging the user for the privilege of being supervised is growing in popularity in America. Some American probation services users have to pay a supervision fee of up to $100 per month.

This is not new; Michigan was charging fees to users as early as 1929, and more than half of all US states were collecting fees by 1990. In the state of Texas in 1990, probation supervision fees charged to probation service users raised a total of $57 million, which was more than half of the entire supervision budget.

Probation service users who are already coping with a range of problematic social issues in their lives, finding $100 to pay for their next probation appointment is often not prioritised. Failure to pay can mean a return to court, and then incarceration. The imperative to collect fees may also impact on probation staff’s capacity to support rehabilitation.

Many American probation officers now carry guns. While firearms are not universally used, most US states have provision for armed officers. Within the federal justice system, too, most districts allow federal probation officers to carry guns.

The harsh economic climate has hit US probation hard. Some 31 states made cut their corrections budgets in 2010. This has hit programmes geared at changing offenders’ behaviour hard.

Nevertheless, probation still enjoys substantial political and popular support. It remains the preferred sentencing option in the US criminal justice system.

Further reading:

Teague, M. 2011. Probation in America: Armed, private and unaffordable? Probation Journal, 58. pp.317-332

Curated web resource on US prisons

The ‘Virtual Prison’ Trumps The Rehabilitation Revolution

25 Feb
David Cameron aims to make non-custodial  community sentences tougher. Downing Street, not the Ministry of Justice, is understood  to be the driving force propelling the proposed changes.

Changes are in the pipeline for community sentences. Downing Street’s support of Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s rehabilitation revolution has been so lukewarm that it has found it itself in the position of having to deny reports that the Ministry of Justice is about to be axed.

This reflects attitudes which are widely held within some sections of the government. Last year the  Policy Exchange  (Cameron’s favourite think tank, according to the New Statesman) published ‘Fitting The Crime’, a report which asserted that public confidence in community sentences is low. Louise Casey noted in her foreword to the report:

“We need to change who will be in charge of overseeing these sentences, removing it from the Probation Service, some of whom see punishment at best as an optional extra and at worst as a dirty word.”

This perception that the community justice system is insufficiently punitive is echoed by the influential ConservativeHome blog, which quotes Rachel  Sylvester’s report:

“At one meeting, called to discuss improving non-custodial sentences, Downing Street strategists were horrified to see the civil servants from the Ministry of Justice wincing whenever the words ‘punishment’ or ‘retribution’ were used. Every time one of the department’s officials talked about ‘managing offenders’, someone from No 10 mentioned ‘punishing criminals’ just to make a point”.

According to the Evening Standard, Cameron is now “very clear” that he wants community sentences to be “tougher and command public confidence“.

The growing perception that the Conservative/LibDem coalition lack a coherent overall crime strategy appears to have been influential  in influencing Number Ten to propose changes in community sentencing to the Ministry of Justice. Like one of his predecessors, Tony Blair, Cameron may have concluded that being seen to be tough on crime has no electoral downside.

The media is awash with references to the imminent construction of what has been labelled a “virtual prison”. Offenders would be electronically tagged to guarantee their compliance with curfews for 16 hours a day. Breaching the curfew would mean a return to court, then to prison. Plans to confiscate offenders’ credit cards, driving licences and passports have also been mooted.

These developments appear to reinforce the suggestion that it is David Cameron rather Ken Clarke in the driving seat. The virtual prison, it appears, trumps the rehabilitation revolution.

Though the plans have yet to published and have not been definitively confirmed, a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman has stated:

“We want to reform community sentences to ensure that offenders are properly punished for their crimes and effectively rehabilitated and we are still considering a variety of options. We will publish a consultation setting out our proposals in due course.”

In the courts in England and Wales, community sentences are the most widely utilised sanction. The media context for the moves on community sentences are pretty clear. The Daily Star cuts to the quick with its typically nuanced analysis headlined: ” Worst Crims Being Let Off “.The article goes on to assure us that “Thousands of criminals with 15 or more convictions are being let off with a slap on the wrist.”

The Daily Mail weighs in by reassuring its readers that the criminal justice system is just as soft as the Mail has long insisted: “4,500 serial offenders are let off with caution despite committing at least 15 crimes each… as Cameron pledges tougher community punishments”. (This continues  in the grand tradition of “Criminals ‘laughing’ at community sentences ” which was reported by the Mail some 3 years ago, and confirms that the middle-market tabloid is at least consistent in its analysis).  More on the Mail’s uniquely balanced reporting on probation here.

There is already evidence that existing community sentences are effective. According to evidence given the the House of Commons Justice committee last year by Juliet Lyons of the Prison Reform Trust:

“Community sentences are outperforming short prison sentences by 8%, which is an achievement, but if the mechanism is not there to promote that and to provide more opportunities for the courts to have those community sentences available to them, you could argue that Government are not capitalising on their success.”

Neither the mechanism nor the political will appears to be there. Populist punitivism means there will be no hesitation in allowing the electoral advantages of a tougher community sentencing policy to take precedence over the hard evidence of its (lack of) penal effectiveness.

Portaits of Prisoners: 1902-1904

19 Feb

These fascinating and poignant images of prisoners, with their crime chalked on the boards which they made required to hold for the photograph. All were all brought before the North Shields Police Court (in the north-east of England) between 1902 and 1904.

By the 1870s, the courts and the Home Offices regarded photographing those who came before the courts as essential. They aimed to assembled detailed records of offenders.

Both police forces and prison authorities began taking photographs of offenders in an organised and structured way. Photos were usually taken before a prisoner was tried as they could then be used to identify offenders who had committed previous crimes.

The offenders pictured were typically people living lives of pressured poverty and harshness. It is poignant to realise that when we look at these photos, we may be gazing at the only photographs ever taken of the individuals portrayed in their whole lifetimes.

The photographs are selected from an album of photographs of prisoners in the collection of Tyne & Wear Archives. The photos are used courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Alfred Thompson, arrested for larceny on 31st August 1902.

Charlotte Branney, arrested for larceny on 5th January, 1904.

James Dawson, arrested for indecent exposure on 9th June, 1902.

Jane Thompson, also known as Gordon, arrested for theft on 13th July, 1904

Mustapha Irola, arrested for false pretences on August 19th, 1904.

Mary Scott Wilson, arrested for larceny on 14th December, 1903.

Andrea Laudano, arrested for larceny on 21st July, 1904.

Alice Caush, arrested for larceny on 31st October, 1903.

Inspector Gadget And The Politics Of Gender

18 Feb

“The Maddest Diversity Nonsense Ever”

Women make up 51% of the overall population in England and Wales. However, women’s representation in the major agencies which constitute the criminal justice system varies.

In the Crown Prosecution Service, for example, women represented 66% all staff on 31 March 2010. The Magistracy comprised 51% women in 2009/10. Women were just over 12% of senior judges. Data for the Probation Service indicate that women represented 71% of probation staff in 2009.

In policing, however, women are under-represented. They comprise just 26% of the 143,734 police officers in post (based on full-time equivalent posts) in 2009/10. At senior ranks, it was rarer still to find women officers. Only 13% of senior police officers were female.

Frances Heidensohn,  in her chapter on Gender and Policing in the ‘Handbook of Policing’ edited by Tim Newburn, argued that the police have had a clear awareness of gender, though it is understood in an explicit male way. She summarised police attitudes by pointing to the “world of old fashioned machismo” within which they function.

Old fashioned machismo notwithstanding, one might be forgiven for expecting rational human beings interested in equality to be concerned about any situation where women were not equally represented in the workforce. This is the concern that was articulated by Denise Milani, Director of the Diversity and Citizen Focus Directorate in London’s Metropolitan Police Service.

Earlier this week, she informed staff that she was “keen to learn staff views on the progress the MPS has made around gender equality”. To mark International Women’s Day 2012, she invited officers and police staff to be creative and record their views in verse.

Poems had to focus on the themes of recruitment, retention and progression in the MPS; creating a gender sensitive working environment; or successfully managing gender diverse teams. They had to provide the DCFD director with insight on the progress made with the ‘Gender Agenda’ and a offer a positive future vision for the MPS.

This poetry competition clearly aimed to sharpen the focus on the dynamics of gender within the Met. Responses have been illuminating, and show the depth of cultural resistance to gender equality within the Met. This has been well illustrated by the outpouring of neanderthal masculinity that has surfaced on Inspector Gadget’s blog.

The Inspector’s blog has been offering its subversive take on modern policing for 6 years. Gadget is thought to be a serving inspector in a southern English force, which he calls  “Ruralshire” in the blog. His Twitter profile accurately describes him as dispensing “weapons grade cynicism” and he claims (with some justification in terms of the blog traffic statistics) the title of “Britain’s most widely-read police Blogger”.

Gadget’s blog notes that it has chalked up almost 9 million hits, which suggests that his acerbic observations resonate with a very wide audience. His blog, he notes online, received the accolade of being  named one of Britain’s Top 40 blogs by The Times, who noted that his writing was ‘provocative stuff, and as an insight into life on the policing front line in 2010, it’s invaluable’.

Gadget cheerfully labels Milani’s poetry initiative as a “piece of utter nonsense”, while simultaneously acknowledging:

“I love this kind of stuff. It lends such credibility to my claims that senior officers are all mad, and they have completely forgotten what policing is all about.”

His comments do not quite amount to an admission that he hankers for a return to the days when police officers were men and women knew their place, but he is not far from saying so. He positions himself as a realist, unburdened with politically correct notions of diversity which in Gadget’s world appear to be a gross irrelevance in terms of the daily lived experience of police officers.

“I particularly like reading internal communications like this when I have just come in from a 10 hour marathon shift during which the local drunken yobs have been trying to give us a good kicking, or if we have been dealing with a fatal road crash.”

Alternatively, as that great paper of record, the Daily Mail, observes, “It’s enough to make the hard men of the Sweeney choke on their cigars and double whiskies.”

More than 500 comments have been added to Gadget’s blog in a short period. Clearly his views resonate with many. Stereotypical attitudes towards gender are given free rein.  Some of the all-too-predictable comments made included these:

From Jeremy Beadles Withered Hand comes the assertion that diversity initiatives are a kind of smokescreen for gay women to gain preferment: “A WPC friend of mine got invited to a similar women in policing conference and told me that in actual fact it was literally just a meeting for butch, man-hating lesbians to talk about how much they hate men and how they can use their sexuality to get promoted, and then tried it on with her.”

What these critiques of gender equality initiatives may lack in subtlety, nuance and reflection, they make up for in their strength of emotion. Two of the milder examples are from Taff Taff and Bobby.

From Taff Taff: “Anyone who seriously takes part in this competition is a twat who needs to be put into a a rocket and fired into the sun, I am sick of this type of shit.”

From Bobby: “That beggars belief. I am stunned at that. What a pile of shite. Walks off shaking head.”

The comments would have been incomplete without a man indignantly asserting that it is, of course, men who are the real victims of discrimination within the police.  An example from the many who make this assertion comes from Pathe: “No real research has been carried out into how men are discriminated against in the Police”.

Inspector Gadget adds a coda to his orginal comments: “I have just read the post again. I can categorically say that this is the maddest diversity nonsense we have ever featured on this Blog…  I would like to hear from more female officers to see what they think of this, in between making tea for the lads of course!”

The police have made considerable strides in the past two decades on the way in which crimes such as sexual abuse and domestic violence are policed. Even so, the response to Gadget’s blog suggests that the dawn of gender equality appears to be some way off. It clearly remains a live issue. There are a range of entrenched views and a cultural reluctance to acknowledge diversity as an issue.

Anyone who remembers Roger Graef’s classic ‘Talking Blues’ on police canteeen culture may conclude that, if supporting gender equality amounts to “the maddest diversity nonsense”, then two decades down the line from Graef’s original account, not a great deal has changed.

The Daily Mail On Probation

17 Feb

“A significant proportion of a largely uninformed public has always held the service in contempt, branding its officers as naive do-gooders.”  – A probation officer, now retired, with 31 years experience (Golby 2007)

If we consider a cursory selection of probation-related headlines from the Daily Mail (a middle-market tabloid which is the UK’s second biggest selling newspaper, and now also the world’s most popular news website) over the last 5 years, it may help to illuminate why the public may misunderstand or undervalue probation.

Reflecting how public perceptions, punitivism and the popular press may combine to construct a particular view of community justice, a recurring theme for the Mail is the multiple errors that probation are perceived to have made, particularly in the area of offenders on either probation or licence who go on to reoffend:

“Almost 100 murders by offenders on probation in the last two years” Daily Mail 05/12/2006

Home Office figures had indicated that there had been 98 murders by offenders out on licence from 2004-6. In the Mail’s view this represented a “significant surge in killings by criminals”. When probation was supervising over 220,000 people (on probation, parole and suspended sentence) and 14,000 of them were considered to be high or very high risk to the public, just 0.6% were involved in a further serious offence.

This may have reflected the reality that serious offences have always been committed by people on parole or on probation and indeed this is not unexpected given their conviction history. On this occasion, at least, Napo’s Harry Fletcher was quoted to balance the Mail’s account.

“Criminals freed on probation commit a murder a week” Daily Mail 13/12/2007

Over a 3 year period, 158 murders and 54 manslaughters had been committed by offenders who were on licence.These were, wrote the Mail, “committed by convicts supposedly being monitored in the community”. Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, is quoted:

“… to have hundreds of rapes and hundreds of murders is catastrophic and completely unacceptable. It is clear the Probation Service cannot cope… The police service are in despair, the victims of crime are in despair and the public is living in a fear not known since the Second World War.”

 “One ‘killer’ in seven is on probation for another crime, figures reveal” Daily Mail 15/06/2009

Ministry of Justice statistics had shown that 107 people were charged with murder or manslaughter while under probation supervision in 2007-08.

“Probation Service overhaul after criminal on early release kills taxi driver” Daily Mail 07/11/2006

The then Home Secretary John Reid had announced a review of probation by the probation inspectorate after an offender killed a taxi driver after being released on licence.

The Mail observes that “probation officers had been warned repeatedly about his killer” and observes that the death was “one of a raft of new public protection scandals – which also included paedophiles being allowed terrifying access to young children”. In addition, the paper reports, the then Home Secretary had labelled the probation service “poor or mediocre”.

“It’s cheaper to let thugs out to commit crimes than to keep them in jail, says probation boss” Daily Mail 12/07/2010

In fact, this was not a ‘probation boss’ as the Mail suggested, but the independent chief inspector of probation, Andrew Bridges. What Bridges actually said in the context of the economic crisis was, ‘At a time when public expenditure is under especially close scrutiny it would be wise to consider the price paid for this rather drastic form of crime prevention, both financially and otherwise.”

‘Early release prisoners allowed foreign holidays while on probation’ Daily Mail 18/06/2006

Home Office minister Baroness Scotland had removed overall travel restrictions for offenders released on licence. Previously, they had been allowed to travel abroad only in exceptional compassionate circumstances. Restrictions were still in force as those on licence still required permission from a senior probation officer before travelling, and this permission would only be granted after a detailed assessment of whether they would present a risk to the public while abroad and whether or not they would return to the UK.

“’Sexual predator’ on probation raped teenage girl” Daily Mail 07/12/2006

A sex offender who at the time of the offence was subject to supervision had raped a 17 year old female.

These representations of probation in the press may reflect what a probation officer (talking to the The Guardian, rather than the Daily Mail) suggest was inevitable. Probation attracts no media interest unless something goes wrong: “Our job is strange in that when it goes right, nothing happens. But when it goes wrong, then it’s a big media situation.” (Benedictus 2010)

The Mail has also reported with particular relish on probation officers who have themselves committed offences:

“Probation officer responsible for setting up sex offender database jailed for possessing 3,800 obscene images of childrenDaily Mail 16/05/2008

The man referred to was an IT expert who had been responsible for setting up ViSOR, a national database of offenders. He had previously been a probation officer, though he was, in fact, no longer one. The Mail story also, somewhat gratuitously, mentioned that his wife was a probation officer.

“Drink-drive probation officer escapes jail after she’s caught over limit twice” Daily Mail 09/08/2007

This referred to a senior probation officer who was responsible for delivering rehabilitation courses for drunk drivers.

Even the language used by probation staff in the course of their professional assessments is picked over:

“A wife’s a wife, not a partner, judge tells probation officer” Daily Mail 24/10/2009

The Mail’s concern was focused on the perception that “The trendy term (i.e. ‘partner’) downgrades marriage” (in keeping with its often expressed outrage at what it labels as ‘political correctness’). Judge George Bathurst-Norman, who at the time was dealing with the case of a man accused of breaching an order not to molest his wife, was concerned with the language used in a probation report. Bathurst-Norman had previously distinguished himself by arguing that undermining the public’s faith in the judiciary would eventually lead to “anarchy and… in due course for the equivalent of a police state.” 

“Probation offenders let off with community service commit 1500 serious crimes a year” Daily Mail 06/06/2009

This was arguably more a criticism of the courts than probation. The indignation is summarised by the notion then that offenders sentenced to community sentences are being “let off” and have in some way escaped the consequence of their actions.  These were “shocking new statistics” in the perception of the Mail.

“Probationers ‘commit 10,000 crimes a month” 14/05/2006

The Mail notes that 10,000 crimes a month are committed by offenders who are subject to probation supervision. Any mention of the vastly greater number of offenders who do not commit offences on supervision is conspicuous by its absence.

In a particularly creative example of guilt by association, the Mail links a sexual attack by a rapist with the fact that the rapist’s probation supervision had ended six weeks earlier. The conclusion was not that the probation supervision had been of such high quality that he not offended while under supervision. In any event, the supervision commenced and ended in accordance with the direction of the court, not the probation service.

“Rapist attacked schoolgirl six weeks after his probation ended” 12/01/2007

The contested nature of the Mail’s depiction of probation and the tensions surrounding this area are illustrated by the text of a letter which Andrew Bridges, who was then HM Chief Inspector of Probation, sent to the Mail following a leading article which they had published on April 17, 2006. The article rather ludicrously insinuated that he was proud of the offences which had been committed by service users who were subject to probation supervision, and even complacent about them:

“Your front page article and leader on 17 April puts an incorrect interpretation on my comments about the 100 serious crimes per year committed by people on Probation supervision. Far from saying anything about being “proud” of this figure, I made the point myself that every one of these crimes is a major personal tragedy for those affected.”

“My point in quoting what a “tiny percentage” they were of the 200k people under Probation supervision at any one time was to emphasise what a difficult problem this is to tackle. And my aim is precisely to drive up the quality of this work.”

“Far from being complacent on this matter, the Probation Inspectorate has striven in the last two years to redress the balance by ensuring that proper priority attention is given to the Probation Service’s public protection responsibilities. On behalf of the taxpaying public we will continue to work hard to achieve this.” (Bridges, 2006)

Penal Populism and Popular Culture

The Mail’s representations of probation fit neatly into a context of penal poupulism and penal culture. The UK’s adversarial political culture arguably promotes a need for politicians of every hue to justify punitive responses to criminal and community justice, and reinforces a climate of populist punitivism. It fits well with Green’s analysis that

 “media representations (emphasising the most extreme, sensational crimes, often failing to contextualise the particular offence in question, and focusing on the emotional impacts of crime from victims’ points of view) compete with the more rationally and systematically accumulated criminological knowledge – those concerned with questions of crime causation, prevention, and the effectiveness of penal sanctions.” (Green 2008 p.95)

Certainly, there is virtually no exploration of – or indeed explanation of – the effectiveness of probation intervention in the Mail’s portrayal. Attempts to contextualise the offences are limited.

While research on the media and public image of probation is relatively limited, the evidence that we do have suggests public understanding of the role of probation ( its breadth, its scope and its effectiveness) are relatively limited (for example, Allen and Hough 2007; Teague 2002). Whether the Mail’s coverage accurately reflects the invaluable work done by probation for the social good of all is a question which remains.

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.