Diversity and ‘Anti Discriminatory Practice’: Towards 2020

Published 13/03/2002
Type Article
Author(s) Mark Oldfield
Corresponding Authors Mark Oldfield, Kent Probation Area and University of Hertfordshire

That the criminal justice system is discriminatory, is a fact that is probably disputed by very few in recent years (Knight, Dominey & Hudson, 2008). Statistics for the number of black and minority ethnic individuals who are either locked up or on supervision have been available since 1984 and section 95 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 enshrined in legislation the duty on the Secretary of State to publish data annually to enable the judiciary to know the consequences of their sentencing decisions. To paraphrase the language from a Probation Trust, still cited in a link in a new Community Rehabilitation Company website: public sector duties have been outlined in the Equality Act 2010 to give due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimization. Organisations must advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between those who share a protected characteristic. This is a noble sentiment and we argue that the new forms of language need to incorporate the original concepts of discrimination, difference and equality.

The language used by probation staff can influence how offenders are perceived by the judiciary, with Whitehouse, back in 1982 warning that stereotyping of Rastafarian offenders resulted in court reports being damaging to the client in terms of prejudicial language. Gatekeeping of reports was a process that enabled staff to share and question suppositions made in the workplace. Denney (1992) in his research on court reports found that white probation officers tended to conceptualise black offenders more in a ‘correctional’ manner than an ‘appreciative’ one. The need to constantly revisit practice in terms of understanding and challenging unwitting prejudice was evident from the HM Inspectorate of Probation Report (2000) Towards Race Equality, written after the Macpherson Report had been published, and which found that a much lower percentage of reports on African/African Caribbean offenders were considered satisfactory compared to white offenders (49%-63%). Just as worrying was that equal opportunities had been
translated into ‘treating everyone alike’ (p.22). The practice that emerged during this time to address the growing evidence of differential treatment, was referred to as ‘antidiscriminatory practice’ (ADP) and became embedded in training programmes and practice assessment at that time. Whilst this term has largely disappeared from the lexicon of probation, we choose to use it here because it accurately describes the work that was needed, and is still needed, to address injustices perpetuated with certain groups of offenders within the system. The current terminology of ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ in our
opinion, does not adequately address the power differentials between different ‘diverse’ groups of people in society.

Probation staff had earlier learnt that adopting a ‘colour blind’ approach did not help and clearly over the years this message needed to be relearnt and reinforced. Practice improved through a combination of gatekeeping of reports (understanding that only information that was relevant to offenders should be included) and considering the particular needs of certain groups of offenders. For example, in terms of gender, the Corston Report (2007) very eloquently made the point that equal outcomes for men and women required different approaches. This prompted responses from government and an
acknowledgement that the system at the time was not favourable to women.

Now that there is a major shift in the structural arrangements for work with offenders there is a danger that what has been learnt could be forgotten again to the detriment of service users and front line staff. Of course anti-discriminatory practice also applies to the recruitment, support, career structures and opportunities for staff. There must not be a glass ceiling for some, whether this is in terms of race, gender, religion, sexuality, disability and the many other factors that can be used to disadvantage individuals and groups. The minimization of risk of reoffending has supplanted many other aspects of work with offenders and there is a danger that individual differences can get lost in this process. “Risk assessment characteristically treats race, class and gender as controllable variables” (Denney, 2005:131).

The new world of probation and community rehabilitation is more complex in many ways and the splitting of one service into two hopefully has not lead to any inadvertent disadvantaging of any groups. We are not aware of whether this has been examined? In the new world of supervision the introduction of payment by results needs to be examined to ascertain whether it has the potential to lead to discrimination. Why might this occur? Rees, Whitworth and Carter (2013) examined this in the field of welfare to work and argued that discrimination does exist driven by cost pressures, performance targets and overly diverse claimant groups. In particular they refer to the concepts of ‘creaming and parking’, which they explain as follows:

”Creaming’ refers to providers skimming off clients who are closest to the labour market and targeting services on them in the expectation that they are more likely to trigger an outcome payment. ‘Parking’ refers to the opposite process, where those individuals deemed to be unlikely to generate an outcome payment are de-prioritised, perhaps receiving the minimum service specified in the contract.’ (2013:6)

These concepts can be transferred to the criminal justice sphere and the dangers of a new system that is not carefully scrutinized for discrimination are apparent. If practitioners look for easy ‘wins’ and do the minimum with others then the system will fail the most vulnerable and/or those who ‘appear’ to be least able or willing to change. This appearance might be because new staff do not know how to interact with some groups and indeed may be fearful of them. Staff development and training remains key here. Offenders whose ‘difference’ may not be immediately apparent to the practitioner, e.g. their sexual orientation or disability, may struggle to disclose the impact of their identity and any discrimination they have encountered, to a staff member who appears too busy or lacking the knowledge to understand. Any help or guidance offered to these offenders may fail to meet their needs and they may continue to offend if the underlying causes of their offending are not addressed within supervision (Knight & Wilson, 2016).

Payment by Results (PbR) can have unintended consequences that ironically increase the likelihood of reoffending. Addressing diversity and working in an anti-discriminatory way with all offenders takes time, care, resources and knowledge and may present as cost ineffective if the assessment of practice is merely the measurable outputs of reporting and attendance. Goodman (2012) linked this to a loosening of National Standards for community supervision. This could mean that the level of contact between the offender and their supervisor is decreased or made more superficial.
The following table highlights key hopes, fears and insights that function around working with diversity and good anti-discriminatory practice (ADP) as we move forward towards 2020. It requires a positive and open commitment by agencies and practitioners to be critical, reflexive and open to challenge however uncomfortable it might make individuals feel. Coupled with this is the imperative that this is a constant exercise that has to be ongoing and never allows complacency. This will only operate successfully in an organization that places such ideas at the centre of models of good practice and offers clear policies, staff training and support, and on-going systems of quality assurance.

The matrix of diversity and ADP in the field of offender supervision

Hopes Fears Insights
Diversity is seen as a resource rather than a problem Minority groups get ignored in favour of easier clients – creaming and parking Diversity featured very little in TR considerations
Strong diversity practice comes from constant, critical debate informed by current thinking from campaigning groups The language is adopted but not the practice which is seen to be too time consuming and resource intensive For example, trans campaigners have highlighted the particular discriminatory impact of a binary gendered criminal justice system
Knowledge/understanding is shared and developed across NPS/CRCs It takes time and care which are squeezed There is potential for new ways of working in CRC/NPS
To ensure practitioners and managers continue to be representative of the whole community We forget the insights and progress painfully made over the years Inclusive practice originating in diversity benefits everyone
Gender demographic of workforce in both NPS/CRCs recognised as a positive resource worthy of analysis, debate etc. Anti-discriminatory practice becomes irrelevant, unnecessary, too expensive etc. Gender of workforce and clients/offenders still matters
Diversity and ADP continue to be central to both pre and post qualifying training Never forget that any gains are by their nature temporary and will be superseded by new and emerging issues of diversity; you never reach solutions it is a constant journey Very little is known about the qualifying training arrangements for the new CRCs

The above matrix indicates the hopes, fears and insights to be discovered in relation to diversity and criminal justice supervision. Time will tell whether there will be a positive outcome in terms of supervision as performed by probation staff across the NPS/CRC organisations. What is essential is that there is no assumption that because the staff are employed to engage and deliver positive outcomes with offenders, this necessarily means that offenders will be dealt with in a non-discriminatory way. The long experience of offender engagement indicates otherwise. This is a process that has to be constantly monitored and challenged, with active engagement with the client/service user.


Corston, Lady J. (2007) The Corston Report. A Report on women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System. London: Home Office.
Denney, D. (1992) Racism and Anti-Racism in Probation. London: Routledge.
Denney, D. (2005) Risk and Society. London: Sage.
HM Inspectorate of Probation (2000) Towards Race Equality. London: Home Office.
Goodman, A. (2012) Rehabilitating and Resettling Offenders in the Community. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Knight, C., Dominey, J. and Hudson, J. (2008) ‘Diversity: Contested Meanings and Differential Consequences’, in B. Stout, J. Yates, and B. Williams (2008) Applied Criminology. London: Sage.
Knight, C. and Wilson, K. (Forthcoming April 2016) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans People and the Criminal Justice System. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Rees J., Whitworth, A. and Carter, E. (December 2013) Support for all in the UK Work Programme? Differential payments, same old problem…, TSRC Working Paper 115 Accessed 24.3.2016.
Whitehouse, P. (1982) Race Bias and Social Enquiry Reports. Probation Journal, 30(2):43-49.