What next for probation?
Revolving Doors has just (4 April 2022) published the first report from its Lived Experience Inquiry into Probation. The report is based on the views of 141 people with lived experience of probation and 35 probation practitioners. The report focuses specifically on on people in the” revolving door”, those who commit repeat and often low-level crime that is driven by poverty, trauma, unmet health needs, and its purpose is to:
“support the development of a probation service that is responsive to both the root causes of crime and its consequences, such as mental ill-health and problematic substance use, that drive the revolving door of crisis and crime.”
The report highlights areas of service design and systemic and cultural issues which, the authors (Philip Mullen, Nathan Dick & Andy WIlliams) argue can make a real difference to the success of the probation service. The report focuses on four key elements of the probation service:
- The culture of probation
- Probation’s role at court
- Probation in the community
- Prison resettlement
The culture of probation
The Inquiry reports a strong feeling that the traditional probation balance between assessing/managing risk and supporting rehabilitation had shifted to be much more weighted towards risk management, to the neglect of providing or signposting people to the support needed to address root causes (such as homelessness and drug & mental health issues) that drive crisis, crime, and reoffending.
A significant number of people consulted for the Inquiry described probation as a form of policing, and in some cases as an agency that actively spied on them, significantly reducing their willingness to openly discuss their needs and the help they need to better manage these.
There was also widespread frustration at the number of times their probation practitioners changed over the course of their supervision, limiting their ability to build the positive and trusting relationships necessary to feel comfortable in talking openly about their needs, any setbacks, and the kinds of support they needed.
“For me, the probation service is like another arm of the police service, they just check on you, check on your tag… these guys are like the police services, and it’s not about rehabilitation.”
Interspersed with these criticisms were many examples of probation practitioners described as going above and beyond what people under supervision expected of them, for example through sending letters to them whilst they were in prison to build the foundations for a positive relationship, taking the time to listen to their aspirations and ambitions and researching opportunities to help them reach these, and taking the extra care to send letters, make phone calls or attend appointments.
“It helped that my [probation] worker stuck with me, they were not going to give up on me and put structures into place. It also helped that they were real, upfront and honest with me, and that they helped me access the support workers and medication I needed.”
Probation at court
Interestingly, most people were unaware of the role probation played at court and did not see them as present or visible within the court setting. Only a small number of people understood what a PSR entailed and recalled having an in-depth conversation with a probation practitioner to inform a PSR.
The inquiry heard “countless” life-changing descriptions of Probation, of proactive probation practitioners going above and beyond to facilitate people’s access to services to address their needs
and support them to reach their aspirations.
“My probation officer, it’s a calling to her, she has too many on her caseload but she goes further and beyond.”
However, there were also many accounts of when probation officers were unable to effectively advocate for their access to vital local services, such as housing, because of insufficient knowledge about these services or how to refer into them, or simply because of a lack of time to take joint steps (e.g., a telephone call together or accompanying them to a meeting) to help address barriers in accessing services.
Several people described their relationships with probation as “tick-box”, with meetings rarely lasting more than 5 to 15 minutes.
“You should be getting something out of probation, not just going there as a punishment. You need to be given time [to talk].”
Almost all the people consulted for the inquiry had experience of multiple short prison sentences of less than 12 months. Most experienced the same issues when it came to their release from prison; preparation happened too late, communication with their probation practitioner was challenging and happened too late, and there was a lack of support around practical issues including housing, healthcare, and securing an income (either through employment or social security).
“Most offender managers don’t get involved until 28 days before your release. How can you build a relationship in that time? You need someone you can offload to and get all of the s**t out to.”
The report sets out four key principles aimed at improving this situation:
- Providing consistent relationships throughout custody and on release.
- Being proactive in communication.
- More careful planning for the day of release.
- Explore the potential of departure lounges.
The views of probation practitioners
Probation practitioners echoed some of the same views as people with experience of being on probation. Many felt a fairer and more equal balance between risk management and supporting rehabilitation needed to be struck. They highlighted lack of resources as a key reason for this, citing high caseloads and a feeling of being excluded from policy development.
As we have big caseloads, we are not spending as much time with people, bogged down with a load of paperwork. We often have to sacrifice time with someone else to give a person time.”
The report includes 21 recommendations for the development of a probation services more informed by the experiences of people on probation although the authors are careful to credit the Probation Service with an existing commitment to follow this path through its Engaging People on Probation (EPOP) programme.
Thanks to Aron Visuals for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash