Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


Annex I

THE PROBATION SERVICE: SOME CRITICAL OBSERVATIONS BY A SERVING SENIOR PROBATION OFFICER

INTRODUCTION

  I am a serving Senior Probation Officer with a good number of years experience of a wide range of jobs gained from two Probation Services. This paper addresses my observations of the Probation Service generally, and its role and that of probation officers within the Criminal Justice System. It is a gravely critical expose of an organisation which, while constantly reinforcing an "honourable and respectable public image", is in reality, little short of a national disgrace and responsible for a confidence trick of immense proportions played on the public, the judiciary and the Home Office.

  These may appear to some as harsh words and smack of disloyalty and dissent. The reader may also question as to why the author remains working as a probation officer if such strong sentiments are felt, or they may ask, can this be justified? I should point out therefore, that this paper is not intended as an act of devilment, nor is it the ramblings of an acute malcontent. Rather, I firmly believe in the effective supervision of offenders, but it is my contention that the Probation Service and probation officers, as they currently exist, is not the right organisation nor are they the right people to do the job. The supervision of offenders is a very serious matter, and only by strong words can one hope to challenge those who have a vested interest in perpetuating the myths, the half-truths and the ideology of protecting and colluding with offenders. I remain in the job therefore, in the hope that change can be stimulated from within, and that our political masters can be courageous enough to "grasp the nettle" and recognise the sham of the Probation Service for what it is.

  That said, this paper is presented anonymously. While we wittingly or unwittingly champion the needs and problems of offenders under the guise of a liberal, caring organisation, it is also an organisation which will not and cannot tolerate any form of criticism which is deemed to affront our hallowed integrity. To speak out publicly is viewed therefore, as tantamount to treason or heresy, and in these days when redundancy selection can rest upon how senior managers view the "attitude to the job" of staff, I personally cannot afford to lose my job. Conversely, I recognise that if the Home Secretary ever took my arguments seriously, I could end up out of a job along with all of my colleagues. That, in many respects, would be far more acceptable than to lose it because the Chief Probation Officer took my criticisms to be of a disciplinary and sackable nature. Loyalty is something to be admired and respected, but it is my view that stating the truth far outweighs any misguided sense of loyalty or pretensions for truth.

  The Probation Service—"a national disgrace; a confidence trick of immense proportions; a sham",—these are powerful statements to use and yet, all perfectly true. The previous Home Secretary Mr Michael Howard and some of his Ministers and MPs were getting very close to recognising this publicly. From the Audit Commission Report in the late 1980s and the Coleman Report on Probation Training around about the same time (which incidentally, was nicely filed away and out of sight because it was too critical) the truth about the Probation Service has been suppressed. Primarily, this has been due to Chief Officers, ACOP and NAPO, but also at office level, where main grade officers have clung desperately to their almost universal and dogmatic belief in what they are doing, despite a total lack of evidence to support their activities and public pronouncements.

  The true facts about the ineffectiveness, outright deceit and our philosophy which, in effect, means "probation officers are the professional excuse makers for other peoples' bad behaviour" have, for at least two decades, been deliberately masked or completely ignored by Chief Officers in particular. Over the years I have raised the simple fact that "there is barely a shred of evidence to support the work of the Probation Service as being of any use whatsoever" with certain CPOs and ACPOs (ie colleagues with whom I have felt safe enough to raise this with). Some baulk at the very mention of statements such as this and respond with the usual rhetoric. Others, if caught off guard and in private, will acknowledge, in varying degrees, just how accurate this is, but rarely do they openly accept it. Rather, they refer to statements such as "we know people can change" and then proceed to support this with no more than anecdotal tales about so-called successes. The former rely on management-speak and references to successful completions of orders (addressed below) and statements along the lines of "the survival of the Service is paramount etc", for their glib rhetoric. The fact is, most of these people either believe unquestionably or they have been peddling the myths for so long they cannot possibly back track because to do so would expose them for being responsible for the lies and deceit played on the public etc.

  If nothing else, every Probation Service in England and Wales are good at one thing. That is, telling anyone who will listen, via a Public Relations set-up, as to how successful we are in supervising offenders. Say it often enough and with apparent honesty and professionalism, and people begin to believe it. Staff believe it too!

  To demonstrate this, one only needs to look at how Probation Services record information in relation to the KPI on "successful completions". (I am aware of changes proposed to this KPI, but these changes will only divert attention away from years of deceit). Annual Report after Annual Report from Services up and down the country show successful completions of probation orders, for example, as being in the 80 per cent to 90 per cent bracket. To the unwary, this could be seen as evidence which shows a tremendous success rate by probation officers in supervising offenders. These statistics are a blatant lie, and have been for many, many years.

  They hide the true levels of reconvictions by offenders on probation or licence which, by a guesstimate, could in fact be as high as 60 per cent or 70 per cent plus and they say nothing about the levels of re-offending.

  The Chief Officers invariably invoke statements such as "PROBIS cannot cope" or, "we do not record reconvictions unless they are serious enough to warrant breach and/or a custodial sentence." The fact that a house burglar placed on probation and who is then charged with "commercial burglary" and then dealt with by the Court by way of a Community Service Order and left on probation is seen as a success is incredible beyond belief. Yet this is the nub of the confidence trick we play. Probation Services quote the so-called successes as if they were quoting absolute truths. They have done it for years and they continue to do so now.

  Part of this is down to Pre-Sentence Reports, and they are no different to their predecessor, the Social Inquiry Report, in terms of being a tool to fool Magistrates and Judges into believing that the Probation Service can offer effective supervision of offenders. Of course there is an element of truth in the notion of effective supervision, but this tends to rest with the small numbers of first-time or minor offenders. When it comes to the persistent offender who is unmotivated to change, it is usually a different matter. However, we have a culture which does not believe in punishment (despite National Standards) nor the imposition of custody, except in the cases of the most heinous of offences. As such, probation officers offer the Courts all manner of "wonderful plans for supervision" and promise any manner of packages designed to change the behaviour of offenders. That the Courts accept this rubbish is purely down to the fact that they have been convinced that "Probation Works" by an endless barrage of PR and so-called success rates.

  The reality is—the Probation Service would not stand-up to close and rigorous inspection and examination. By this, I do not refer to the traditional HMI-type of inspection. I have been through several of these over the years, and while they may cause a bit of a shake-up, they do not even begin to expose the truths of ineffectiveness, unaccountability, collusion and a system geared to perpetuating the myths of protecting the public and preventing re-offending. The latter is trotted out time and time again, and yet we have no real idea as to how to achieve these aims. Seeing an offender for 20 minutes a week in an office is not going to prevent him or her re-offending, nor is it protecting the public! But we tell everyone it does. An inspection which truly examined such issues could, I believe, come to only one damning conclusion.

PROBATION OFFICERS

  By and large, most of the probation officers that I have ever met work hard. They follow an unwritten but implicit code regarding their job of working with and supervising offenders. These are not unintelligent people and yet they foster a belief about the benefits of their work with offenders which has, in reality, no substantive foundation. Even where they do question their function they still go through the motions, and still try to convince the Courts that we have the answers and are more effective than prison.

  But it goes deeper than that. The placing of probation officer training in the hands of CCETSW/Schools of Social Work and the introduction of CQSW and later, Dip SW, was an act of extreme folly. Likewise, just when it looked as if training was at last being removed from the clutches of politically motivated social work lecturers, it seems as if it is to be returned to them under the guise of NVQ. In effect, for the last 20 years or so we have turned out probation officers who have embraced political correctness to such an extent that many are so embroiled in notions of anti-discrimination that they are unable to grasp the fact that they are supposed to be supervising offenders. The opportunity to change the culture of the organisation has been lost.

  If I say probation officers in general tend to work hard, this is true. But it is equally true to say "they are well meaning and good intentioned but also incredibly naive and grossly misled!" By this I refer to our culture in which we believe that we are actually achieving results. Comments that morale is low in the Service have nothing to do with a recognition of how ineffective we are. Rather, they are related directly to threats about the future and reduced budgets. "We want to be left alone to carry on with our good deeds."

  Then we hear the old line—"we are cheaper than prison." What a wonderfully naive statement. At the most basic level of course this is true, but it misses the point completely. By placing the "persistent and unmotivated offender" under community supervision the Courts are in effect granting a "licence to re-offend". And offenders do. If they have a drug habit they must offend daily, often several times a day for every day of the year. This is the tragedy of it all. In public, Probation Services engage in some very convincing rhetoric about how we are reducing crime and protecting the public. It is simply not true!

OFFENDERS

  These are what it is all about. For most offenders placed on probation their view at best is that it has saved them from going to prison (and business as usual therefore), and at worst, turning up to see the probation officer is little more than an inconvenience to their daily routines. If the public sometimes think that probation is a soft option, then many offenders actually know it to be so. The statement that probation is a "punishment" is an absolute joke.

  If offenders make the effort to turn up at the office on a fairly regular basis they know that there is a very good chance that the probation officer will collude with their excuses for their failures. National Standards are universally manipulated to give the impression of successful supervision while in reality many offenders play the game and keep on offending.

THE FUTURE

  Imprisonment is expensive, or at face value it appears that way. In reality prison is the only way to protect the public, and that means a huge saving in social costs, ie, from all the crimes not committed whilst an offender is incarcerated. My view is that we need more prisons and that resources currently wasted on community supervision should be directed to improving regimes in prisons. Offenders become open to being confronted about their offending behaviour whilst in prison in ways that are impossible while they are at liberty in the community.

  County Probation Services should be disbanded and a national Correctional Agency should be established. Existing senior managers should not be allowed to be employed in this new organisation. It must not embrace the so-called social work ethos. This Agency would monitor and supervise offenders very closely, and may include electronic tagging. Welfare needs of offenders can easily be accommodated by voluntary and non-statutory community organisations.

  In addition to this, the probation order should be scrapped. Offenders could be categorised as:

    1.  first time/early signs of criminal career developing

    These are the offenders that can possibly be diverted from a life of crime and community supervision should be targeted at them.

    2.  persistent/change possible

    These offenders should be supervised by way of a community sentence which has the effect of being on bail. If conditions are breached, offenders will be arrested and put before the Courts immediately.

    3.  persistent/unmotivated to change

    These are the group of offenders who commit the most crime and re-offend at every opportunity while under supervision. Custody with increasing lengths of sentence for further convictions is the only answer.

  Offenders must accept that they, and no-one else, are culpable and responsible for their criminal activities. While the Probation Service as we know it continues to make excuses for offenders and openly lies to the public there is not a chance of reducing offending. Changes must be radical.

CONCLUSION

  This paper has been much shorter than I would have wished it to be and I am aware that I have skirted around some crucial issues. I hope however, that it will be found to be provocative and as a result, it will be received by minds that are open enough to enquire further. My observations are shared by many colleagues but few are prepared to make this sort of statement.

  Do not be fooled by the eloquent, persuasive and almost seductive charm of ACOP and individual Chief Officers. They wish to see (and I quote from experience) "the survival of the organisation is our goalirrespective of results."

  The confidence trick must be stopped.

(Anon)


 
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Prepared 25 August 1998