Relentless: The impact of working with high-risk offenders

The National Probation Service

Probation has been much more in the news recently.

Michael Spurr, the Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service acknowledged that through-the-gate support wasn’t working.

The Justice Select Committee has announced an inquiry into Transforming Rehabilitation, the name given to the government’s privatisation and split of the probation service.

Increased media coverage is likely to follow an upcoming Panorama on the poor performance of private probation companies known as Community Rehabilitation Companies.

However, almost all the attention is focused on the private sector part of probation with the National Probation Service (which is normally found to be performing reasonably well by inspectors) mainly ignored.

Today’s post, however, is solely concerned with the NPS, sharing the findings of a study published in a new virtual special issue of the Probation Journal focused on TR. As most readers know, the NPS works with offenders assessed as presenting a high risk of harm and the study:

“It’s relentless”: the impact of working primarily with high-risk offenders by Jake Phillips, Chalen Westaby & Andrew Fowler of Sheffield Hallam University.

examines the impact on NPS staff, most of whom now work almost exclusively with this group of offenders.

Working with high risk offenders

The study is based on interviews with 17 probation officers in one division of the NPS. The findings are presented split into two sections: positive and negative aspects of working with a high risk caseload.

Positive aspects

The researchers were interested to note that that a high-risk caseload was not seen as wholly negative by all of the interviewees:

Two interviewees openly acknowledged that they preferred to manage high-risk offenders. As one PO explains, she works with high-risk offenders because she likes the ‘challenges that that brings most of the time’, whilst another said:

. . . I would not be happy, I know I wouldn’t, working with the chaos and the drugs and the alcohol and all of that stuff that you get over there, in larger quantities. It’s just not what I like. So yeah, I only ever wanted NPS . . .

Another interviewee also referred to the idea that low-risk offenders are, in fact, harder to manage because they can be ‘ . . . so difficult to manage because they wouldn’t turn up’. Whilst a further two interviewees had found, slightly unexpectedly, that they had ended up with a more stable caseload in spite of its high-risk nature; describing offenders as more likely to turn up consistently and less chaotic.

Negative aspects

However, seven interviewees talked about the added pressure of working solely with high risk offenders, using such adjectives as urgent, intensive, and relentless:

To some extent you do because it’s kind of relentless if you know what I mean. Every sort of person you’re looking at is, has got fairly serious potential to do something serious to somebody. So there’s, I suppose, maybe more, I don’t know if worry is the right word, but, you know, obviously there’s concern. It plays on your mind and you need to make sure you’ve done what you can do.

Another finding was that a consequence of having to manage more high-risk offenders has led to POs conceding that they compared high-risk offenders with each other, to determine who will be prioritised:

And we now find that where you used to have say 5 high risk offenders you’ve now got 15 . . . because when we were as a Trust those 5 got the vast majority of your time and, you know, you were more careful about what you did and how you did it. But whereas now you’ve 15 and you can’t do it [and] you sort of grade the high risk; it’s grades within that. And so some of people who are high risk and you would know were previously getting more of your time are not getting it anymore because they can’t, we haven’t got the time.

The researchers note that probation officers don’t have an appropriate framework to allocate resources when all cases are nominally high risk with both interviewees and researchers comparing the role of a probation officer in the NPS with that of child protection social workers — operating under constant stress.

Conclusions

The researchers reported that:

participants presented serious concerns about the impact of the changes on their work with an acute sense of anxiety about the intensification and volume of cases who pose a high risk of harm. The high risk of serious harm and the imminence of that harm being committed by offenders on the caseload in combination with the volume of cases is clearly putting a strain on the wellbeing of NPS POs.

They concluded that the situation is untenable in the long term and should be a priority area for the organisation in terms of supporting its staff.

A workforce that suffers from high levels of stress, and that is not supported sufficiently, is unlikely to be able to deliver the high-quality work that is required of them. This is especially important when one considers the high-risk nature of the
offenders with whom our participants are working.

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