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How big should probation caseloads be?
New ⁦HMI Probation⁩ report shows how the quality of probation delivery falls when practitioners are responsible for managing more than 50 cases.

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Concern over rising caseloads

Last week (19 March 2021), HMI Probation published a new research and analysis bulletin on: Caseloads, workloads and staffing levels in probation services. Myself, in partnership with Chris Fox and his team at the Policy, Evaluation and Research Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University (@MMUPolicyEval on Twitter) undertook a Rapid Evidence Assessment which contributed to the report. The purpose of the report was to inform inspections which include standards which emphasises the need for sufficient staffing levels to meet workload and caseload demand.

The timing for this work is important as the date for the reunification of the probation service (26 June 2021) is coming rapidly over the horizon. Inspections of both Community Rehabilitation Companies and divisions of the National Probation Service over the last five years have found many examples of inadequate staffing levels. Indeed, in its submission to the 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review, the inspectorate clearly set out its concerns:

“probation staff are struggling to manage high numbers of offenders – 86 per cent of staff in CRCs and 33 per cent in NPS divisions are responsible for more than 40 cases. In our opinion, it is difficult for even experienced practitioners to deal with 60, 70, 80 or more cases properly. Financial pressures have also led to some CRC providers replacing qualified probation officers with less experienced staff who are still training towards a qualification.”

Key findings

  • When probation practitioners hold a caseload of fifty or more, they are less likely to deliver high-quality work meeting the aims of rehabilitation and public protection. 
  • A precise target number for caseload cannot be set as there are too many inter-connected variables in relation to case complexity, the available administrative support, and the interventions and services that can be accessed.
  • However, there was a consensus among staff and senior managers that between 50 and 60 cases is the maximum number that can be managed well.
  • Less than half (46 per cent) of probation practitioners believed they had a manageable workload, while just over half (54 per cent) considered that team workloads were actively managed. Probation officers were less positive about their workload than probation services officers, and those working in Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) were less positive than their NPS counterparts.
  • Senior managers in both the CRCs and the NPS agreed that workloads were unbalanced and resulted in stress and anxiety for many staff. Probation practitioners told us that high workloads were exacting a high personal toll upon them in the form of stress, sleeplessness, and fear of making serious mistakes through overwork.

Positive developments

The report says that in addition to existing HMPPS plans to recruit more staff, there are other promising developments for reducing workload pressures for probation officers working on the frontline:

  • The creation of administrative service hubs, which, if implemented well, can relieve practitioners of many support functions and thus free up time for one-to-one work.
  • Improved ICT and management information, facilitating faster access to case information, improving partnership working, and avoiding duplication of administrative efforts.
  • Improved access to accredited programmes and structured interventions, preventing the need for probation frontline workers to make up for gaps in provision with time-consuming and sometimes less effective one-to-one work.
  • Improved access to wider services, particularly through co-location and the creation of community hubs which put individual service users at the centre of service provision.
  • Employing support workers with lived experience, helping to engage service users.
  • Evaluating the potential value of remote supervision and new digital interventions.

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5 Responses

  1. It’s disappointing that this review does not look at the gender of service users. It is widely acknowledge that women have on average far more complex needs than men under probation supervision, and good practice is often for probation officers with mainly female caseloads to have smaller caseloads. It is a missed opportunity not to have researched that in this review.

  2. Interesting point, Isabel. What you say is true, but as the person who reviewed the international literature for the Rapid Evidence Assessment which forms part of this research bulletin, we did not find a study on probation caseloads which separated out the data by gender. There clearly is a need.
    Best Wishes

  3. Some time ago I asked a group of sentencers with a great deal of experience in making community sentences, what do you consider a reasonable Probation Officer caseload given your expectations of work undertaken? Their (easily agreed) consensus was 25. They referenced the work that was set out in the proposals they considered when deciding upon sentence. They also made a point of taking into account the fact that no one works 52 weeks a year. The reality was a great disappointment to them.

  4. We need a better way of looking at workload. Often those with complex needs are tiered at a much lower level than the hours needed to support and work with theses often medium risk cases. The current system means that often on paper it looks as if officers have capacity when this is far from the case. Also we are only given waiting for parole reports and post recall reports after these have been completed. Again it gives managers a wrongful impression of the workload that probation officers are managing at a particular time. Often causing experienced confident staff to question allocations as there is insufficient time to complete induction work as well as parole reports. However, where there is not good communication or a lack of confidence staff often find themselves under immense pressure. Prior to TR twice I handed back over 100 hours toil as there was no way I could take the hours owed. This was accrued only from 1/10/2005 when I qualified. I am currently off sick with Long Covid which I am sure was made worse by the work related stress that I had normalised

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