Tag Archives: probation

Community Sentences: A Problem With Perception?

18 Mar

“For too long community sentences have been seen as, and indeed have been, a soft option. This government wants to change this and make them a proper and robust punishment.” – The Prime Minister, March 2012

English: David Cameron's picture on the 10 Dow...

Prime Minister David Cameron

The government has announced more details of their plans to ‘toughen up’ community sentencing options. The ‘virtual prison’, as this blog has observed, trumps the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. New measures are now imminent, and may be formally announced in the Queen’s speech in May. They are reported to include:

  • Hi-tech electronic ankle tags (so-called “sobriety bracelets”) that can confirm whether the wearer has been drinking alcohol by measuring the wearer’s air and perspiration.
  • Electronic tags using GPS satellite technology which will monitor the exact geographical location of offenders using electronic tags, 24 hours a day.

These moves reflect an increased emphasis on punishment, with American style surveillance & control to the fore and rehabilitation being de-prioritised. The Prime Minister explicitly stated that community sentences lack ‘toughness’.

Probation could arguably do more to ensure that its public and political image accurately reflects the high quality and effectiveness of its intervention. Probation minister Crispin Blunt delineated the problem with his observation in February 2012:

“There is an issue around public confidence in community sentences. The public may feel that a person has got away with it with a community sentence.”

This, the minister argued, was not primarily about the reality of community sentences, but rather about how they are perceived. He qualified his comments by stating that:

“Community sentences can be extremely intensive and very demanding”.

While Blunt focused on the perception of community sentences, Prime Minister David Cameron concluded that community sentencing’s image was not just a product of perception, but also a reflection of reality:

“For too long community sentences have been seen as, and indeed have been, a soft option. This government wants to change this and make them a proper and robust punishment. Criminals given a community punishment should not just be able to enjoy life as it was before [doing] their sentence.”

This government strategy is not new. It was presaged by a 2010 report by the Policy Exchange (reputedly David Cameron’s favourite thinktank), which portrayed community sentences as the “weak link in the sentencing chain”. According to the report:

“… community sentences fail because they are fundamentally flawed, poorly administered and confused in their purpose. To be made better, community sentences first need to be refocused back to their core function of punishment and then radically reformed to improve compliance and administration.”

Top civil servant Louise Casey argued in the foreword to this report that it was “imperative” that community sentences were radically overhauled. She wrote:

“Central to this is the need to ensure that one of the foremost tenets of sentencing is no longer ignored in community sentences – and that is punishment. How on earth can we expect victims of crime and the public at large to back such reforms if they, rightly, have little confidence that community sentences actually punish wrongdoers?”

Casey even went so far as to suggest that some probation staff “see punishment at best as an optional extra and at worst as a dirty word”.

Society’s need for credible and effective community sentences has never been greater. Today, we have 87,870 people in prison in England and Wales. We imprison proportionately more of our citizens than any other country in Western Europe. The probation service supervised a total of 232,862 people on 30 September, 2011 – over two and a half times as many people as we imprison.

Community sentences are widely used by the Courts in England and Wales. In the year ending September 2011, no fewer than 178,763 people (or 13.6% of all those sentenced) were given a Community Sentence.

Thirteen in every hundred people sentenced at magistrates’ courts during this year were given a community sentences. Eighteen in every hundred people sentenced at Crown Court were also given a community sentence.

The fiscal case for community sentencing is strong. The average annual cost of imprisoning one inmate, according to Hansard,  is approximately £45,000 per annum. We can supervise up to 15 people on probation for a year for same cost. Probation’s domestic violence courses, for example, cost under £6,300 but help achieve a reduction in reoffending of up to one third.

A successful community sentencing policy, therefore, will not just safeguard society by significantly reducing reoffending. It will save taxpayers a huge amount of money.

The evidence suggests that community sentences are effective in reducing reoffending, particularly when compared to shorter prison sentences. Providing factual, accurate information about such sentences helps build greater public confidence in our justice system.

A well-informed public is less likely to automatically assume that community sentences lack toughness, or that community disposals are, in effect, a ‘let off’ for defendants. This public view of probation was confirmed by my own 2002 analysis of how public perceptions of community sentencing were constructed during one particular high profile example involving the footballer Jonathan Woodgate.

When Woodgate received a community penalty, the press (broadsheets included) were unanimous in equating the sentence to “walking free from court”, “escaping a prison sentence”, “avoiding prison”, receiving a “paltry” sentence, and so on. The exhaustive press coverage left the public in blissful ignorance of what community sentencing actually involved, other than the offender being freed.

Presumably, headlines such as “Committed probation staff deliver evidence-based intervention to reduce offending and safeguard the public” would were not thought to be sufficiently circulation boosting.

Probation is a key statutory justice agency but despite the scale of its endeavour, its impact on public awareness is limited. The average person in the street is mainly unaware of the scale of its essential contribution to public protection and rehabilitation.

This is not a new problem. I remember Beverley Hughes, then probation Minister in Tony Blair’s Labour administration, delivering her keynote address in 2001 to the new National Probation Service in London. I recorded her words for a piece which was published in the Probation Journal:

‘Public credibility is crucial to our success. Only if, together, we can convince communities of your role and your reliability will you be able to do your important job effectively’.

This remains true today. Perceptions of probation will only begin to advance when the political and public understanding of probation starts to echo its success in practice.

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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 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.