Annex I |
THE PROBATION SERVICE: SOME CRITICAL OBSERVATIONS
BY A SERVING SENIOR PROBATION OFFICER
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
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 isthe 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.
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
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.