The jewel in the probation crown?
Probation has always had an image problem. Ask the public to think of the police, and you’ll get a range of visuals from custodian helmets, to the traditional blue lamp, and on to police cars. Think of prison, and you’ll get images of bars, heavy doors and walls. But probation? Not so much. In general, this is because probation is tucked away in offices, behind desks. But the one image that may flicker in the public’s consciousness is the one part of the service which happens in public, namely unpaid work (sometimes called community service or community payback). This is people on probation working in the community (possibly in orange bibs) picking up litter or repainting a community centre.
A bumpy ride
The last ten years have been bumpy for people delivering unpaid work. In the early 2010s, unpaid work was privatised in London, an experiment which by all accounts left almost no one happy. Then it was part of the probation service cleaved off into the twenty-one community rehabilitation contracts areas in 2015, and when that did not work, it was brought back into a new national, public service. And, of course, as they were coming back into public ownership in 2020, covid-19 hit, tripling an already growing backlog of unworked hours.
So it seemed to us the right time to look at unpaid work again. In our new report, ‘The Future of Unpaid Work: Payback with a Purpose’, we identify a number of really important trends— not least that as community sentences have declined in use over the past ten years, the unpaid work population has been slowly getting older, more complex and the offence profile of those carrying it out has trended toward more serious offences. Looking to the future, there are consistent predictions that we will need to provide more hours of unpaid work over the next few years, as a result of more community sentences that will flow from having more police officers on our streets. And yet, as the Chief Inspector of Probation has recently stated, chronic staff shortages and high workloads in probation are putting at risk both the recovery from the pandemic and building new capacity for this future demand.
We have also been lucky enough to interview unpaid work staff in all the regions of England and Wales. The work that probation has done during the pandemic has not generally been recognised but what we found was an understandable sense of pride in the resilience of probation to meet the challenges of covid-19 that in particular impacted on its ability to deliver unpaid work. Moreover, the teams were enthusiastic that, with the injection of additional funds and new national and regional contracts to deliver more unpaid work hours, probation could make real dents in the backlog.
But we also found frustrations, not least that as the unpaid work teams have been absorbed into the new national service they have faced bureaucratic barriers that stop them operating nimbly. We found that many of those we interviewed who had been employed as part of a Community Rehabilitation Company had become accustomed to ordering equipment for unpaid work jobs which would then arrive in days. They now experienced significant delay as a result of an overly centralised, slow and bureaucratic procurement process. One interviewee stated it bluntly: “We wait ages to get equipment we used to get the next day.”
Disappointingly, we also found that unpaid work supervisors clearly feel their work is under-appreciated by both fellow probation staff (especially qualified probation officers) and ‘the centre’. This is despite the evidence clearly suggesting that purposeful unpaid work can only be achieved when skilled unpaid work supervisors help people on unpaid work to change their lives.
The purpose of unpaid work
Perhaps most excitingly, however, our research also gave us the opportunity to help probation colleagues step back from the pressing demands of the backlog to think about where unpaid work should be in the medium term. There was a heartening consistency across regions about what unpaid work ought to be: purposeful, visible, and vibrant. These values (luckily or by design) accorded very closely with what the admittedly patchy academic evidence says about effective unpaid work: that good unpaid work tends to be give people on probation skills and involves them in restoring places of benefit to the community.
Away from the political debate about unpaid work (with its myopic focus on sounding tough: “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs”), there was a wide spread interest in unleashing the value of unpaid work as a means to engage local communities in public safety. We heard time and again this cannot be done from the national HQ, nor even really from the regional headquarters but instead requires investment at a ‘hyper-local’ level. It’s why we recommend in our report investment in developing partnerships with groups and organisations in communities especially affected by crime, to engage and involve them in identifying work that needs to be done locally, and in promoting the work carried out to visibly demonstrate that the justice system pays back.
This new commitment to hyper-local partnerships is just one part of our broader call for building ‘payback with a purpose.’ This plan involves devolving decision making and purchasing powers down to the regions, diversifying placements in order to respond to changes in the unpaid work cohort and more clearly recognising the value of unpaid work staff and to promote the varied contributions unpaid work makes to communities. A former head of the national probation service once described unpaid work as the “jewel in the crown” of the probation service. We hope our report, and the plan for payback with a purpose it advances, will go some way to making that jewel sparkle again.