Criminal justice identities in transition
A recent article in the British Journal of Criminology threw a different perspective on what it’s like to be a probation officer in the new split probation service.
The authors, Gwen Robinson, Lawrence Burke and Matthew Millings, present their findings from an ethnographic study of the formation of one Community Rehabilitation Company – basically they hung around and interviewed a lot of probation staff as they went through the process of moving from their probation trust to the new CRC.
The article’s full title is: “Criminal Justice Identities in Transition: The Case of Devolved Probation Services in England and Wales”. I can’t attempt to do justice to the academic texture of their arguments here but there were some interesting issues to pick up on.
“We are all on a personal journey in a situation not of our choosing”
The authors set probation staff’s experience in the context of other workers who have been transferred from the public to private sector. They describe the uncertainty felt by most probation staff in the face of the most fundamental overhaul in the history of the probation service which also took place in an extremely short period of time.
A number of key issues are highlighted, frequently in sociological language.
Liminality and insecurity
Unsurprisingly, insecurity emerged as a key theme in the authors’ interviews with probation staff.
For a start, many probation staff didn’t know whether they would be transferred to the National Probation Service or their local CRC. In addition, they were also unsure about their future terms and conditions of employment, who their future employers would be (and their potential palatability), where they would be based, and what new model of work they would be delivering.
But what is liminality? It’s an anthropological concept (derived from the Latin for threshold) used to describe rites of passage in identity construction such as becoming an adult or getting married.
The authors argue that many probation staff were stuck in a halfway house, operating in the temporary domain “betwixt and between” the two worlds of of the old Probation Trust and whatever the CRC would turn out to be. This is particularly true for the nine-month period when probation staff were transferred to a CRC which was still effectively part of public probation and run by the same managers.
Separation and loss
Interviewees often described a sense of loss, talking about the experience of being forced to transfer to the CRC as a bereavement or divorce. Many staff were extremely angry and upset at being forced out of the public sector whose values they explicitly espoused. There was also a strong sense of loss at being separated from long-time colleagues who were being transferred to the National Probation Service.
Many CRC staff talked about a loss of identity; they were probation officers who were no longer in a probation service. This loss of identity was closely linked with status anxiety and the feeling that CRCs would either be , or would be perceived to be, second-class probation services.
Loyalty and trust
In their second round of interviews with staff, the researchers asked participants to rate their loyalty to the CRC on a simple 0-10 scale. The responses varied widely, but more interesting than the scores themselves were the comments:
“I’m not loyal to the CRC. I’m loyal to the profession. I’m loyal to the offenders. I’m loyal to the courts” (PO).
“I would say about a 5. I’m loyal to the team that I work with and to the staff members that I manage, because I can see the hard work they do. I can buy into the bigger operation and the bigger picture and I’ve got a lot of time for what they’re trying to do […] But in terms of if someone offered me a job tomorrow that I thought would fit me then no, I’d be gone, so about a 5” (Middle manager).
“Loyalty? I’ve always struggled with that. I would say I’m loyal to my profession […] In terms of CRC, I’m not sure because I don’t know who the owners will be.” (PSO)
In my view, it’s not surprising that staff struggled with the concept of loyalty when they had no idea of who their new employer would be and how loyal the new company would be to them.
Liberation and innovation
The researchers concentrated on themes of loss, separation, status anxiety, insecurity and mistrust, but they did also see glimpses of positives with a number of interviewees also expressing hopes that they would be able to work in more innovative, effective ways.
Several participants, especially at the start of the Transforming Rehabilitation process, expressed the hope that they would be liberated from their computers, from cumbersome data management systems and the bureaucratic straitjacket of National Standards.
Looking towards the future
The researchers found that many staff were stuck in this halfway house as it was far from clear how CRCs would evolve and what it would be like working as a probation officer in them. They recognised the emergence of a survivor’s or resilience identity among CRC staff which became increasingly explicit as the TR process moved forward.
The article concludes by wondering how long established criminal justice working cultures would adapt, mutate and endure within the new private sector.