Next month sees the broadcast of a new three-part drama on BBC1. Public Enemies, written by Tony Marchant, features the story of 28 year old Eddie (Daniel Mays) who is released from prison after serving ten years for murder. He attempts to settle back into his old community – a community that doesn’t want him. One of the few people he can talk to is his probation officer, Paula (Anna Friel), a woman who’s only recently come back to work after a suspension: one of her offenders murdered again while under her supervision.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about this new show is that it features a probation officer in a leading role. There are thousands of movies and TV shows centred on the criminal justice system. In recent years the focus has broadened beyond police officers and defence lawyers to include prison staff (who can forget “Bad Girls” starring Shirley out of East Enders), judges (John Deed), even the Crown Prosecution Service (Law & Order UK), as well as dozens of shows about crime scene specialists, pathologists etc.
As far as I can tell, the last TV series to focus on the work of the probation service was the work of ATV (“the voice of the Midlands”), the eponymous “Probation Officer” screened between 1959 and 1962.
This lack of broadcast exposure is related to what I consider to be the biggest challenge to the probation service – no one really knows what it does. The lack of public visibility enables the wider media and the general public to characterise probation officers as people who are soft on crime, despite the much greater emphasis on restriction of liberty and public protection in the twenty years since I last wrote a court report.
The probation service has always been pivotal to the criminal justice system whilst lacking the political clout of police officers (through their size, there were still over 250,000 people working for the police service in March 2011 compared to less than 20,000 probation staff) and sentencers (through their connections to the political elite).
So, as a small but vital player in the criminal justice system, how can the probation service make the general public aware of what being on probation really means?
In an earlier post in this series, I described the way that over 500 police officers regularly used Twitter to give local people a realistic idea of their day-to-day work whilst also providing helpful information about local issues, scams to avoid, traffic jams etc.
Unfortunately, probation trusts aren’t nearly so active on the web. I could find less than a dozen probation officers tweeting and probation bloggers are few and far between – although don’t miss Violet Towers who blogs reliably, if anonymously, about life in the probation service for the Guardian.
There are, however, signs of some trusts putting their toes in the water. Thames Valley and London Probation both have YouTube channels which show videos of the work of the service – featuring community payback in particular, but also looking at hostels and reducing re-offending groupwork.
The Probation Association (who do tweet regularly: @ProbationAssoc) also has a YouTube channel which gives a good insight into community sentences and offers interested parties the chance to have a local presentation delivered by a magistrate and probation officer. The Probation Chiefs Association is also worth following on the little blue bird (@ProbationChiefs).
Finally, the Ministry of Justice lets you nominate local work that you think could be done by offenders on community payback.
Staffordshire and West Midlands is an example of a probation trust that is moving forwards in this area. In addition to its own YouTube channel, it has encouraged staff to post pictures and descriptions of recently completed community payback projects on its website and has its own Facebook page. The Trust is developing its Twitter presence; at present, only the Chief Executive tweets (@CXSWM) but the Trust has developed close working links with local police divisions who re-tweet on their behalf, typically about good news stories – reduced re-offending figures, awards for local staff etc. The Trust, which is the second largest in the country and has the advantage of a three person communications team, is keen to develop its online presence more.
However, most other probation trusts are making very little progress towards using social media to promote themselves. This is despite the fact that the probation work force has got progressively younger over the last decade with many staff adept in the workings of social media in their personal lives. At an operational level, many probation trusts are aware of the value of accessing the Facebook pages of serious offenders whom they are supervising. Their Human Resource Departments (like those in most large organisations) also access staff’s social media sites for disciplinary purposes, when required. But on an institutional level, progress is slow – one of the biggest stumbling blocks is that very few staff in any probation area have access to the Internet at work.
It is an interesting fact about our criminal justice system that the police, who are often characterised as having a traditional/conservative view of the world are much more ready as an organisation to be innovative and embrace new developments than their more ‘forward thinking’ counterparts in the probation service. The day when front line probation staff tweet about their work and communicate the reality of what it means to be on probation supervision, attend drug treatment on a DRR or be subject to MAPPA still seems a long way off. Until then, we’ll have to make do with discussing how Anna Friel’s competence at risk management.
This is the second in a series of occasional blogs in which I will be looking at the use of social media in all parts of the criminal justice system – prison, CPS, courts and defence lawyers are still to come. If you’d like to contribute your own post, please get in touch.