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On the treadmill: probation officer experiences of mass supervision
Matt Cracknell's research on the deskilling caused by mass probation supervision.

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Practitioner perspectives

Interesting new research by Matt Cracknell (@mattcracknell85) published in the latest edition of the European Journal of Probation, examines the impact on probation practitioners of supervising large numbers of people released on licence from short term prison sentences. Regular readers will be aware that the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme (now disbanded) introduced (through the Offender Rehabilitation Act (ORA) 2014) a new duty on probation services to supervise prisoners released from short prison sentences of less than 12 months. This considerably increased the number of post-release service users managed by probation in the community, climbing from just under 40,000 on 31 March 2015, to 68,863 on 31 March 2020, a rise of 74 per cent.

Mr Cracknell interviewed staff in one Community Rehabilitation Company area to identify the impact on probation staff of this increase in caseload.

The research explores the way that this CRC allocated resources to prioritise those assessed as being higher risk, now common practice within the probation service. However, it transpired that it was often the case that low risk short sentence prisoners were in need of more resources, as one probation officer quoted in the research explains:

“In general short sentence people tend to be more problematic than higher-risk people, you tend to do more work with them. With a higher risk person there tends to be more agencies you’re working with. With the lower-risk people, they tend to have no job, no home, so there’s a lot more practical work that you’ve got to do.”

The research describes how this situation played in practice with CRCs and their staff dangerously under-resourced:

“The multi-systemic issues that many individuals serving a short sentence presented with, labelled this cohort as particularly unique and challenging within the system, requiring unique levels of support in turn. However, simultaneously the short sentence was often the most common sentence on practitioners’ caseloads, making them extraordinary in needs, yet ordinary in numbers. This was compounded by the lack of resources the CRC had to adequately address these needs, relegating the short sentence cohort as an undesirable figure of practice.”

The sheer scale of numbers meant that developing the quality service which so many people released from short term prison sentences needed proved impossible. Instead the focus was on managing this large caseload administratively, completing assessments, maintaining case records, rather than engaging with people on licence.

The research describes how probation staff moved away from the time-honoured practice of building a relationship with the person they were supervising. Instead Mr Cracknell describes “a more distant model” of probation supervision where the practitioner primarily referred individuals to a range of different helping agencies. The deskilling impact of this approach (increasingly noticeable in a range of probation inspectorate reports) was clear:

“By concentrating on practical issues and breaking resettlement down into a disparate set of needs to be met, important elements of skilled practice, such as the motivational and therapeutic aspects of supervision became neglected.”

Conclusions

Mr Cracknell is clear about the disastrous impact of this emerging practice which amounted to the bureaucratic processing of large numbers of people on licence rather than facilitating and supporting them on desistance journeys. He highlights three key themes of this mass supervision approach:

“Firstly, it inhibits innovative practice; secondly, it necessitates a more limited model of supervision that undermines practitioner autonomy and the reach and scope of the supervisory relationship; and thirdly, mass supervision corrodes the values of probation staff, leaving many experienced practitioners struggling ethically, practically and emotionally. The experience of mass supervision is compared to a treadmill by several practitioners and employed as a metaphor to analyse practice in the confines of mass supervision as generic, monotonous and relentless.”

 

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It will be fascinating to see if the new Community Rehabilitation Companies can reduce the reoffending rates of short term prisoners now that they have the first opportunity to provide supervision to this group.

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