Having spent 37 years in and around the probation service I have become used to dark predictions about its future. But when respected commentators such as Rob Allen tweets simply ‘RIP Probation’ and Tim Newburn talks about the ‘death knell for probation’ and a whole host of communications in the social media replicate that sense of despair that these new MOJ consultation proposals on probation have generated, despite my personal commitment to optimism, I do feel somewhat downhearted about the future for probation. Therefore I thought I would write this blog not as a carefully worded academic response to the consultation I have six weeks to produce that, though the track record of the current government actually listening to evidenced-informed practice is woefully poor anyway. But rather I want to focus on my gut level feelings as I strongly identify with those who spend their lives supporting, defending, promoting, working in and with probation and occasionally berating the probation service in all its successes and failures. Is time being called on the careers of so many dedicated and exceptionally skilled probation staff?
Probation has been described today as the cinderella of the criminal justice system. It has always had, either an achilles heel, or a genuine difficulty in describing itself effectively to the public. When I started as a probation officer circa 1977 I would be approached on the streets of my patch to be asked all sorts of questions about crime and disorder. Instinctively the public knew what probation was about then – individuals dedicated to sorting out as best it could, societies misfits and strugglers. It felt as if, though not easy to articulate, the public just knew what the probation service stood for in ways which was less clear for social workers, community workers or educational welfare officers for instance. We have lost that community awareness and support in the subsequent thirty years.
As the century drew to a close probation had been battered constantly by government for twenty years from Thatcher to Major to Howard and certain sections of the media had been complicit in presenting negative perceptions of its work. By the millennium probation was struggling to hold its position as a respected agency despite still providing a highly trained, high quality set of staff and services, vocationally committed to its mission. As a result of such attacks, slowly at first, and, following the demise of ACOP, just the lone voice of Napo, but it has become perceptively more vociferous in the last few years. Probation services through the PCA particularly, began to communicate its mission better, presenting statistical evidence of its effectiveness and shouting out loud that it was meeting every target that was thrown at it by government, whether based on useful practices or not and achieving awards and recognition for the quality of its work.
This appears to have counted for nothing in the ideologically driven moves contained in this consultation document. This paper is designed to denude the probation service of the supervision responsibility of large numbers of offenders in the community, possibly as much as 70% of its current 250,000 caseload. Yesterday and today looking at many tweets and blogs there is a genuine anger and complete amazement that government is just not listening to the evident successes of the probation service.
This government response seems to me to be exactly in keeping with the worst excesses of what I would describe as policy based evidence rather than evidence-based policy. Make your mind up first about what policy ideas you want to promote and search around for evidence to support it or simply make statements like ‘prison works’ or ‘charities and the private sector can innovate’ and simply abuse your position of power to pursue ideological goals. Within a day of this announcement there are proposals for new Titan prisons thus confirming that despite prisons being actually responsible for the high failure rate of short term imprisonment we should find more ways to lock them up and whilst we do we should blame the probation service for the high recidivism rates of such ex-prisoners despite there being no statutory or voluntary duty for probation to support such people and no resources to carry out remedial work, nevertheless attempted so successfully in multi-agency Integrated Offender Mangement (IOM) projects.
We now know a lot more than we did when I started working in the mid 1970s when my first lectures by Professor Keith Bottomley were shaped around the mantra the ‘death of rehabilitation is here’ albeit misrepresenting the research by Mathieson and Brady. Policy and practice in a range of areas have enabled practitioners, supported by applied research, to identify what works in resettlement and what combinations we can effectively put together in measures, programmes, interventions, pathways and case management structures both to protect the public, to reduce risk and to provide support for offenders to desist from offending. It is somewhat ironic therefore that in this hardly veiled blame game and criticism of probation focusing on short term prisoners released in the community that probation is to be removed from a task it currently does not do anyway.
In the cash-strapped nature of public sector provision there is no money for probation to deliver services to this group. This was recognised by New Labour when it abandoned its plans for custody plus, a measure very similar to what is now been proposed. The crucial difference being then to now is that the proposal is focused on handing over the control and direction of this initiative to the private sector as the prime provider of such services. I could describe the impact of integrated offender management (IOM) and point to research evidence and practice which has shown that the multi agency teams of probation, police, drugs agencies, the voluntary sector working in tandem with prisons, both public and private, has begun to tackle this problematic population. But evidence seems not figure at all in shaping the future. I would say too that I am not in principle against private sector participation in all this. If resources can be garnered from venture capital to enable the trained professionals to work with them and other providers to produce good outcomes then a mixed economy of provision may well work. The key agency that can deliver the quality management of this is probation. If the private sector lead it will only be by cajoling job-threatened probation staff into their agencies and ‘tupeeing’ across probation staff to deliver, under no doubt reduced conditions of service, the same services under pressure of financial penalty for ‘failure’.
Probation is a professionally committed, value driven, well-trained, well organised service with staff who are vocationally committed and willing to work with some of the most difficult and vulnerable people in our communities. It is institutionally committed to community care and since the Morison Report of 1962 is the only agency with continuity of care with responsibilities for the through and after-care of prisoners. The loss of the voluntary after care role in 1984 did not mean that the needs of that group coming out of prison disappeared. A makeshift set of agencies has offered intermittent, occasionally innovative and quality support, but without a framework of coordination and effective management of risk which probation is trained to provide. Pilots can be successful because their status is precisely that of a pilot with dedicated staff, resources and targeted populations. This is why the voluntary sector can be innovative not an inherent quality of those services as sometimes implied. The VCS is suffering a mission drift as it increasingly enters the world of statutory supervision and support. In doing so and seeking to provide comprehensive services it will suffer what probation has always suffered since it moved from being a voluntary organisation itself. When you have statutory responsibility you cannot cherry pick clients or park those who do not meet your requirements for interventions. You have a generic commitment to service all those under statutory orders. Listening to Grayling in parliament yesterday I got the distinct impression that not only will the private sector get their cake but will get to eat it as well. If risk categories change then probation will be responsible. If breach occurs, probation will take them back to court. Meanwhile PBR will reap rewards on those not causing problems to the prime contractors, probation will pick up the high risks. Probation cannot win in this situation. It is a depressing time.