The Essence of Probation

Published 15/03/2016
Type Article
Author(s) Paul Senior, Dave Ward, Lol Burke, Charlotte Knight, Michael Teague, Tim Chapman, Jane Dominey, Jake Phillips, Anne Worrall, Anthony Goodman
Corresponding Authors

At the ‘conversation with Paul Senior’ event in January 2016 at Kendal the group had to go back to first principles to test out a basic proposition – whether probation, however it is defined, has a place in 21st century responses to crime and any societal attempts to rehabilitate, reform, reintegrate and/or restore offenders back into communities. If we could agree the core principles of what constitutes ‘probation’ and also understand and articulate the boundary issues, would most societies driven by human rights and equality of opportunity for all its citizens inevitably seek to create some form of probation? This was the proposition. This has been seen to happen for instance in recent years in Eastern Europe where the limitations of a penal system based just on imprisonment has led to the creation of services in the community akin to probation. Or is an opposite proposition equally possible that there is nothing universal about probation and we are seeing its death knell in the UK? The changes wrought by Transforming Rehabilitation have suggested that the very future of probation is at risk. Commentators have talked about the death knell of probation (Senior, 2014); questions of legitimacy attendant upon privatisation (Deering & Feilzer, 2015); or the most radical change since it was introduced a little over a century ago (Newburn, 2013). This is the core question at the heart of this paper, is there a future for probation and, if so, what defines its essence?

The Kendal group decided that we should seek to identify what constituted the essence of probation as a marker towards articulating what probation at its core might look like and where its boundaries with other activities lay. We were able to use the experience of the group from many years of probation engagement but also many different reflections of the probation world going back to the 1970s. We also benefited from experience that people brought from outside the world of probation, including youth work and social work. This was no consensus forum and each contributor brought their own insights and perspectives. We were reminded of an article written in the mid-1970s by David Millard, probably in Social Work Today, aspects of which were repeated in Millard (1982). Millard talked about why he thought probation existed and he said, from a sentencer’s point of view, that it existed because it occupied an area of uncertainty, that sentencers get a number of situations in which they are required to sentence and they do not quite know what to do: they could send to prison, they could put on probation, they could do other things, and probation has always flourished, as it were, in that area of uncertainty.

‘Experientially, the probation officer carries the dilemma within his role and in this way the probation order institutionalizes the moral dilemma of the court.’ (Millard, 1982:292)

We took that as our starting point and sought to identify whether we could shape the probation ideal that flourishes in that area of uncertainty, delineate what bounded it and where it linked to other systems and, thus, inductively work our way towards the essence of probation. This is the journey of this article.

Probation’s potential targets are variously called clients, probationers, offenders and, more commonly now, service users though other less helpful descriptions abound too. The world of probation operates in and around four major systems of social organisation – the correctional system, the social welfare system, the treatment system and the community. These systems exist in various formations in all western social democratic societies and many other jurisdictions – Japan, Latin America, South-east Asia and Africa. For our purposes a brief outline only is needed.

The correctional system is composed of the key law enforcement agencies. Given the centrality of prison in modern legal systems they occupy a vital holding environment in this system. The prison is serviced by the police who arrest and process those who commit offences and the courts and legal apparatus which processes and sentences them. Prisons have not always been at the centre of penal policy but in neoliberal societies they have come to occupy a key mechanism of social control and numbers incarcerated have grown rapidly over the past two decades when, paradoxically, crime itself has been reducing. The similar growth of community sanctions has not slowed the prisonisation of society, meaning that increasing numbers are subject to varying degrees of law enforcement both in and outside prison. These key agencies use a considerable proportion of the available budgets for law enforcement and justice and, before the fiscal crisis stopped this, had always grown at the behest of eager governments driven by law and order rhetoric. This is well documented (Garland, 2002).

The social welfare system is really an amalgam of a range of welfare organisations which together and in varying degrees in different societies, support individuals as they seek to carve out a life for themselves and their families in modern communities. It would include housing provision, work opportunities, benefits support, education and training and welfare support agencies some of which are provided by the voluntary and community sector and increasingly by the private sector – especially housing. The undermining of universal welfare provision over the last four decades can be linked with the emergence of a decidedly individualistic, consumer focused culture. Welfare has been under attack in neoliberal societies and provisions have been subject to cuts and higher thresholds to access in concert with austerity policies and neoliberal thinking.

The treatment system revolves around health and counselling systems for both mental and physical health issues and services for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Such services are often delivered by voluntary agencies too alongside or in addition to NHS services. Treatment systems and programmes for mental health, for drugs and alcohol and physical health problems are universal provisions to which all members of the community have, in theory, equal access. Fiscal challenges limit this universal accessibility and the lesser eligible, often deemed less deserving, struggle to get the treatment services they might need and mental health services are even less well-resourced than other aspects of the NHS, thus making access particularly challenging. Those in conflict with the law are often amongst the least deserving and hence least eligible. In addition the resources available are shrinking and this means those on the margins miss out because of a lack of provision of services or lack of money to access limited provision.

The community houses (though not always literally so) everyone who is not separated or excluded by virtue either of imprisonment, immigration centre or a secure treatment facility. A community allows its inhabitants free movement and in this sense probation approved premises with curfews are a limited form of freedom as are forms of house arrest via electronic monitoring. The community contains therefore at any one time a variety of individuals, some of whom may have been in trouble with the law, or victims of criminal offences, who may also be drawn from the offender population. Community organisations support individuals through their lives and some are dedicated to supporting particular groups, though their prevalence will vary according to the amount of funding available.

There is also informal support provided by individuals, be they family members, neighbours, work colleagues or altruistic people who may or may not be associated with more formally constituted organisations. Again, the availability of such support, much trumpeted by the neoliberal constituency, will vary according to macro or personal economic circumstances and, indeed, demographic changes. These changes, on the one hand, have created a pool of volunteers and informal carers among the increasing numbers of active retirees but, on the other, an increasingly resource demanding and politically influential ageing population, requiring support over a lengthening period of deteriorating fitness and self-sufficiency.
An example of the sort of community support service which has had a chequered history amongst the ebbs and flows of economic circumstances and social policy priorities are youth services. So, although communities seek to provide universal services, the ability of lesser eligible individuals to access them varies over time and at times of economic constraint they are likely to be at the bottom of any criteria for help. It has got harder for communities to offer support and informal supervision to people in trouble, including offenders and their families (Fitzgibbon, 2011).

The four systems can be represented thus:

Figure 1: The four major systems

Such a separation of services is a heuristic device which differentiates each system to illustrate the prime focus of their endeavours, be it law enforcement, welfare support, treatment or community integration. These systems are, in essence, separate ‘fields’ which interact and overlap – in the Bourdieusian sense (Thomson, 2012). In practice such systems overlap in their purposes and share actual space though this overlap is often difficult to manage. Consider the example of mental health services which operate in correctional services, or work opportunities for offenders, or young offenders within youth services. In practice these systems also contribute to isolating individuals who need to access multiple systems but for whom their lesser eligible status makes it problematic for them to get reasonable help.

The focus of this paper is individuals in conflict with the law who have been sentenced by the court to forms of community or, if imprisoned, post custody supervision and this is the core arena of probation. Such services used to be easy to identify as just another public service (at least from 1907 until 2014) although, of course, a number of services were provided by the voluntary sector in the mid-20th century. The capture of probation work by the public sector was not complete until the 1960s. However since 2014, through government reforms, such services are now spread over a plurality of agencies in the public, private and voluntary sectors. This plurality makes it more difficult to delineate which services support the probation ideal and which stand on or inside the thresholds of other systems.

If the diagram below was truly dynamic the overlapping elements would be seen to change over time as one of the major systems gains ascendancy. So, a law enforcement approach driven by ‘law and order rhetoric’ has become increasingly part of the probation offer with enforcement and risk management assuming greater prominence. In the 1970s community-based practices were more popular amongst probation practitioners. In the 1980s probation had more engagement in welfare rights issues and appointed workers within the agency to support this orientation as it did employment officers and accommodation officers. The overlaps with the treatment world have been particularly difficult as the two independent systems of health and criminal justice vie for supremacy. There have been examples of joint projects but the boundary issues shift constantly. The sometimes tense relationship of CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) with correctional practice in Youth Offending Teams is a case in point. The paper will return to the boundary issues below.

What the diagram seeks to do (Figure 2 below) is extract those elements which over generations have provided the core of probation practice and thus are not simply fleeting aspects of probation at the edge. These elements have always had a presence and demand a permanent place at the table of probation, effectively defining the essence of probation. A detailed exploration of each element is now warranted.

Support and enable through relational co-production (a contemporary reframing of advise, assist and befriend)
Though the words advise, assist and befriend, have an old fashioned and outdated feel to them they have been reproduced here as they represent a dimension of probation practice which has had universal appeal. Each generation will reinvent their own description of these tasks but if engagement with individuals is at the heart of the probation enterprise then such epithets surely are always there. Advise may now be replaced with terms such as guidance, counselling, support and other similar suggestions but surely at the heart of any engagement is this essential offer. This is part of the implicit contract with the service user and can be offered at many points of the supervisory engagement. It can be as simple as advice on completing applications for welfare benefits or forms of counselling which can be intense and life changing.

Assist is a word which implies that the nature of the probation engagement is a shared and enabling one. Understanding and working with the service user’s description of their problems and issues is at the heart of supporting meaningful change. Co-production of services, highlighted by desistance ideas, is at the heart of good practice (Weaver, 2016). Service users have to be ready and motivated for change and, when they are ready, probation workers must be able to enable change, create a sense of direction and do so in a pro-social and enabling manner. Such assistance can be offered along a continuum from practical help to personal therapeutic change with the core objective being to help the service user achieve internal control over their actions. Thus, working alongside the service user and supporting their change process through the accumulated knowledge and expertise that an experienced and qualified probation practitioner brings, distinguishes the probation relationship from one with a volunteer or lay person. It requires a high degree of skill to assist in ways which the service user will find acceptable.

Figure 2: The essence of probation and its boundary markers

Befriending may seem a task which can be accomplished by anyone in the community. It is true that, in itself, it can be no more than the offer of friendship. What distinguishes befriending in the professional relationship is that having a positive regard for the individual is harnessed to create meaningful change. Without a good relationship it is difficult to begin the process of change. The importance of the relationship has in recent years been regaining prominence in discussions of supervision processes. The work of the Offender Engagement Project was at the heart of this re-focusing on relationships. (Shapland et al., 2012) The centrality of a relationship is a common denominator in desistance research (Maruna & Immarigeon, 2004) which addresses the importance of this role and the shared endeavour with service users, what we term here as relational co-production. So, for many on probation, befriending is experienced in itself as a sense that someone ‘believes in them’ enough to take time to help them. The real challenge is to achieve this engagement in the context of an involuntary relationship.

Advise, assist and befriend reframed with the right language for the 21st century – support, enable and relational co-production – are together more than the sum of the parts. These are aspects of a professional relationship which is offered to the service user as a basis for help and to support pathways to desistance through improving their personal, social and economic circumstances. Relentless support that people need to stay on track and to overcome adversity and setbacks should be available. It is about enabling survival through a relationship formed by an alliance with people based upon respect, support and accountability. These skills have always been at the core of training and skills development and instill in the profession of probation the importance of education and training. This relationship should not be an exclusive one and the brokerage role within it is important. Brokerage entails recognising that aspects of change can be supported by other organisations and by other people and individual probation practitioners can use their skills to promote the engagement of others.

Bounded by values and ethics including diversity and human rights
The discussants in Kendal believed strongly that probation is a profession. Thus an essential requirement is the possession of a set of values and ethical behaviours which shape the direction of travel and determine how to make defensible decision making. It helps too in deciding boundary issues as to what is acceptable as part of professional activity. The diagrams point to overlap areas across the four organising systems and it is these boundary issues which can become ethical dilemmas. Given the complexity of what constitutes probation there are no easy answers and the focus of probation at any one time will change according to the debates of that era. Community Service for all its change of name has always been at the boundary edge with local communities which provide the unpaid work. In its early years in mid 1970s some saw it as the cutting edge of radical practice whilst others regarded it as incompatible with the core values of the service. These disputes can be seen in the last thirty years over such issues as the role of public protection, risk management and assessment, enforcement of conditions in orders, electronic monitoring, private vs. public delivery and many more.

A robust value base for the probation profession allows individuals to evaluate whether any enforced changes are consistent with that value base and can inform ethical decision making. At no time in the history of probation, as the boundaries are being extended and distorted subject to changing governmental demands, has the importance of this value base been more essential. It is instructive that the first major policy paper produced by the newly formed Probation Institute was its Code of Ethics and becoming a member of this organisation requires adherence to this set of guiding principles. In summary they are repeated below.

It is a complex area and there have been disputes over time (Williams, 1994; Cowburn et al., 2013) and ethics has rightly expanded to incorporate boundary issues over diversity, anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practices and more recently human rights. In recent years a rights-based approach (Robinson, 2011) has complemented a values orientation by providing an agenda to deal with clashes such as the rights of offenders over victims, and provides ways of accommodating differences of perspective. This challenges the idea that rights for offenders means diminishing the rights of victims – i.e. that they are mutually exclusive rights. It recognises that offenders can also be victims making a rights-based approach complex and multi-faceted. This will be particularly vital at the boundaries of the probation profession. In dealing with crime and its aftermath there are always conflicts of rights and making informed decisions demands understanding of the role and impact of competing human rights.

It is relevant to note that the newly proposed training vocational qualifications for probation officers puts as a core theme underpinning all six modules – demonstrating professional ethics, values and practices (Community Justice Learning, 2016).

Reflective practitioners
At the heart of dealing with individuals with multiple and complex problems is the capacity to interpret and understand the particular ways in which such difficulties are manifest in any one individual. To do this you can draw on the techniques, skills and knowledge which a qualification might bring but it is more than a simple match between theory and practice. The ‘messiness of practice’ is at the heart of professional practice. For routine problems, taught techniques can work but in the real world where problems may appear much more intractable and, reflecting the uniqueness of every person, never repeating the same form or instance, the capacity to learn how to intervene does not simply come from experience or the possession of a toolkit for good practice. It comes from the capacity to reflect. Donald Schon puts it thus:

‘In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing “messes” incapable of technical solution. The difficulty is that the problems of the high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant to clients or to the larger society, while in the swamp are the problems of the greatest human concern.’ (Schon, 1983:42)

This capacity has to be nurtured and involves training and education to achieve a state which differentiates the reflective practitioner from those who simply carry out agreed tasks. It is often seen as a lifelong process and in this regard the need for education and development beyond the threshold of the initial qualification of probation officer is important. The downgrading and lack of attention given to post qualifying and advanced practice in probation since the millennium weakens practice competence and produces larger numbers of workers who work well with routine repeatable tasks but less so where practice is complex, multi-faceted and requires critical understanding. Some of this is reflected in unhelpful changes to basic qualifying training and in the reallocation of tasks from one grade of worker to another as currently witnessed in E3 and some CRC models of practice. Deprofessionalising the probation profession, which many have argued is a potential consequence of the recent bifurcation of probation, and the routinisation of practice, will ultimately be damaging to the achievement of high quality practice. It is arguable too that this process of deprofessionalisation has long been operative (Oldfield, 1994). This process will, in turn, reduce the ability of agencies to achieve substantive success with their service users.

Clear occupational culture
Elsewhere in this volume there is an in depth discussion of occupational culture (see Burke et al., 2016). The purpose here, in having it as part of the core aspects of probation practice, is to focus on the transformative capacity of culture. This is particularly vital at a time when new organisational arrangements are playing havoc with that practice wisdom which passes across a profession as new members become acculturalised into its work. There are three risks to the continuance of an identifiable probation culture:

• The bifurcation of organisational responsibility
• The loss of experienced, qualified staff
• The need for professional leadership.

Bifurcation into the NPS and CRCs and a plethora of Tier 2 and Tier 3 organisations (Tier 2 and Tier 3 providers are likely to be made up principally of voluntary and community sector organisations. They will be sub contracted or grant funded directly by Tier 1 providers, the CRC owners and the NPS which has split organisational responsibility for probation delivery. Each organisation has begun to develop different approaches to the task of community and post-custody supervision. Practice changes all the time but is traditionally bounded by cross-area interaction via the sharing of knowledge and, traditionally in England and Wales, by a single organisational arrangement. In the pseudo-competitive environment of present day probation, the sharing of knowledge is less likely to take place as individual agencies look to commercial advantage. This weakens the transferable knowledge which was possible in a single shared occupational environment.

The transfer of knowledge typically emerges via individual practitioners across agency settings. Researchers often pick up this knowledge transfer and aid dissemination. Research on Integrated Offender Management showed how, by the sharing of models, very similar structures were created across the country (Senior et al., 2011) and there was a vibrant knowledge exchange programme initiated by the Home Office to support such sharing (see E-learning Platform for IOM accessed at As staff leave or move to new roles outside the probation world, continuity in practice is weakened. This has been particularly evident since TR as staff redundancy allied to low morale, and staff exit from this work altogether, has weakened the core of probation staff (Kirton & Guillaume, 2015) and by default weakens the knowledge exchange process. Knowledge transfer also takes place through education and training. This is potentially weakened by the splitting of organisational authority as many of the CRCs may choose to produce their own training programmes and this could instill different values, skills and knowledge.

Elsewhere in this volume a Thought Piece discusses the somewhat careless way probation has treated its professional leadership (see Senior, 2016). Once as farce (the 2001 creation of NPS mark 1) and once as tragedy (the 2015 creation of NPS mark 2) leaders have left probation en masse thus, at a stroke, losing the sort of leadership which could ensure that probation norms and values could be transferred into new arrangements. There is thus a potential void in this aspect of practice. NAPO has long had professional association credentials and first ACOP and then the PCA tried to deliver this for managers as did the PBA, then PA, for Chief Officers and lay members of Probation Service Committees and, latterly, Probation Trust Boards. But whilst there has been discussion about creating a probation body exclusively designed to maintain and deliver the profession of probation, until recently, such an organisation had not been developed. The Probation Institute (PI) is dedicated to achieve this role and came into being at a most difficult time in the history of probation (see Worrall in this edition for more discussion of the PI). Whilst its task is extremely difficult and there are pockets of opposition from across the range of probation commentators and organisations, it has the capacity and organisational independence to provide the continuity in which a probation occupational culture can survive and prosper.

Community base
Probation is essentially delivered at a local community level, whatever the organisational arrangements of the managing agency. Dealing with an individual court order takes place in the community where the service user lives and operates within the nexus of family and community relationships through which the service user engages. (Bottoms, 2008) The retreat from community to office in the 1990s was greeted with regret by many commentators. The many community based initiatives which had proliferated have been documented elsewhere (Senior, 2013) but, at the heart of good practice, was working alongside service users in ‘co-production’ and this is achieved the more probation is integrated into its local communities. Even initiatives like Integrated Offender Management draw on community engagement concepts.

The clear goal of intervention is the reintegration of offenders in the community, however defined. This suggests that a locally relevant and connected organisation can contribute to this goal. This was at the heart of the Community Safety Partnerships to which Probation became a statutory partner. At the same time, however, government change saw probation’s local connectedness run into decline. The demise of the county-based structure of Probation Trusts has meant that probation has lost opportunities for representation at local strategic and policy levels and, in reverse, it has closed off the opportunity for local involvement in the governance of the service itself. The capacity of large organisational arrangements to be relevant to community and to achieve integration is always a challenge for agencies. A National Probation Service based within NOMS/MoJ with a large divisional structure and eight CRC owners who are already amalgamating the 21 CRCs reduces reach and arguably relevance within local communities who now have no pathways for representation. Therefore a community base is essential to probation.

Established body of knowledge
It was one of the ironies of the TR consultation that an overwhelming majority of the 550 documents received during the consultation phase commented on the extensive knowledge base which was reflected in the work of the Probation Trusts. Indeed this knowledge base was summarised and released by the Ministry of Justice to support bidders for the contracts (MoJ Analytical Services, 2013). A recent boost has come from the many theories emerging from desistance research (McNeill & Weaver, 2010; Weaver & McNeill, 2010; Farrall & Calverley, 2005), the MoJ sponsored research into practice – The Offender Engagement Programme (Shapland et al., 2012) and supervisory schemes such as the Good Lives Model (Ward & Brown, 2004). These reflect a growing agreement about good practice. In specialist areas such as sex offenders, domestic violence, anger management and thinking skills etc., there are many validated programmes which have been working well with their target audiences. The ultimate paradox about the recent changes is that probation had developed a strong body of knowledge about good practice and, indeed, its then organisational structure, the Probation Trust, was well regarded and was seeking to integrate these ideas into practice. Why this was ignored is a scandal and worthy of its own analysis but is beyond the scope of this paper.

Emotionally literate practitioners
There is an article elsewhere in this volume (see Knight et al., 2016) which demonstrates how working with feelings is central to meaningful engagement with often difficult, challenging and disruptive people. They write:

‘An emotionally healthy workforce is likely to work more effectively and be more cost effective. So too, emotionally literate practice that treats offenders as humans and responds appropriately to their emotional needs is more likely to be effective.’ (Knight et al., 2016, in this issue)

For a long time this aspect of the work was accepted as central and at a time when senior probation officers acted as clinical supervisors support for this work was sought and usually given. Practice was inconsistent and did not always pay enough attention to issues of diversity and power and sometimes it was colleagues who provided this support. The Knight article points out how this has disappeared completely in modern management which focuses on meeting targets and procedures and less on supporting this difficult work. In this situation practitioners face emotional situations with only private or collegial support. Yet this is so much part of the day-to-day experience of practice that cannot be continued. If practice is routinised as if it follows simple patterns of behaviour, Probation will lose the skills to engage in the emotionally charged environment where much offending originates and where substantive change takes place.

Symbiotic relationship with the court
In the 1970s the probation officer was often regarded as a servant to the court or even an officer of the court. (Powell, 1985) Indeed the nature of the relationship was strong at an organisational level too, with magistrates forming the bulk of the Probation Committees which then also acted as the employers. With the separation of family court work to another agency, CAFCASS, (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), the work of probation is entirely driven by criminal court disposals and the legal requirements which underpin that work. That close relationship changed as the diversity of roles probation now performs took probation into work with prisons, police, communities and health. Magistrates became only one source for membership of Probation Boards and eventually in some Boards being a magistrate was enough for disqualification (being told, by advocates in government of a quasi-market approach, that they carried a conflict of interest, being both ‘purchaser’ and ‘supplier’!). As court teams proliferated the immediate relationship between probation practitioners and the courts was weakened. Court services are now provided by the NOMS based National Probation Service and the more local CRCs have no direct engagement with the court system. Even the tasks underpinning court work have been subject to change and more are envisaged under the NPS E3 changes.

However the argument here is what is the essence of probation. All the work which Probation undertakes comes from the court setting originally, even if some comes indirectly following a prison sentence, thus we would argue the relationship is symbiotic, interdependent and reciprocal. As discussed at the outset of this paper, the courts often look to Probation to solve problems of uncertainty in the decision making process. We work with involuntary clients on court orders which mark out a key distinction characterising probation activity. So, even if an agency working with people in conflict with the law has no direct connection with the court, the work they are undertaking with that person stems from a court decision. This means that any worker working in this field has to know and understand the court and legal system in order to undertake the work. This has assumed knowledge in probation until the recent changes. The nature of that relationship between courts and probation has become increasingly strained over a long period and the TR changes adds to the potential dissonance between the two agencies but its importance to the nature of the work should not be underestimated.

Changing the ownership of probation services does not alter the nature of the relationship between the courts and probation practitioners and it remains a significant reference point in determining the essence of probation. It is a significant problem for TR that CRCs who rely on courts for their work only have a relationship with the court mediated by the NPS. It is also a problem that courts lack good understanding of CRCs and the resources they have or lack of them. The consequence of this is that despite probation being an offender-focused service working through court direction this relationship is currently extremely strained.

Boundary issues
Having identified those elements which are integral to an appreciation of the essence of probation it also helps to define their limits by the exploration of the boundary issues with the four social systems outlined at the beginning of this paper – correctional, social welfare, treatment and community. The diagram has highlighted some of those areas which engage probation but whose centrality to the essence of probation changes over time and place. A brief discussion of these boundary issues will illustrate this debate.

Correctional boundaries
It could be argued that this boundary has changed most dramatically since the beginning of the 1990s when ‘punishment in the community’ was first a political slogan and then over the next decade became an operational reality. The language of public protection, risk assessment and management and enforcement became the apparent centrepiece of probation work, as Paul Boateng famously intoned in introducing the 2000 National Standards, stating that probation is ‘…a law enforcement agency. It’s what we are. It’s what we do’ (Introduction of National Standards, 2000). This has been a challenge to an erstwhile social work trained profession that saw help, rehabilitation and reform as central goals. With the gradual acceptance of aspects of these imperatives, but partially informed by a more developed understanding of a rights-based approach which recognises the rights of victims and communities for protection, probation staff have grappled with this dimension. Electronic Monitoring at least in the UK has stayed outside the remit of public agencies like probation and police though this is not universally so across Europe (see Nellis, 2016, in this volume).

The worst excesses of this orientation can be seen in the USA and Teague talks cogently about some of these concerns in this issue (see Teague in this volume). It was instructive to see how the uncoupling of National Standards from practice in the Offender Engagement Programme stimulated a new focus on the probation relationship, on co-production with service users and on rehabilitation and the boundary was pushed back a little. This remains a contested area and marks a significant boundary dispute.

Social Welfare boundaries
Practice in the 1970s and 80s assumed the lesser eligible status of the probationer meant that they were unlikely to get their due access to welfare support. To counteract this many probation workers began to work on issues of accommodation, benefits, employability and related welfare tasks. Some workers continued to refer to the key agencies and often accompanied their service users to the DHSS to ensure they got their due amounts. Practice began to change as the public purse tightened and probation could no longer directly employ workers in these welfare areas. Three other changes also stimulated changing practices. As the New Labour obsession with targets and KPIs hit the main welfare agencies – JobCentre Plus, Supporting People, etc., they discovered they could hit their targets through focusing on offenders. The lesser eligible suddenly became very eligible due to their outsider status. Also probation had started to work in partnership and some of the services were simply transferred to the voluntary and community sector. The relationships were never easy and when budgets tightened again often the VCS agencies were the first to lose their new roles (Senior et al., 2004). Furthermore, there is a boundary issue about social welfare provision that is for everyone and provision that is special for offenders because they are deemed too risky for the universal provision.

This boundary does have a permeable status but the notion of brokerage probably captures the most used approach to access to welfare. It will be interesting to see what happens when a workfare agency such as Working Links redefines its CRC responsibilities to dovetail provision across both its rehabilitation and workfare dimensions.

Treatment boundaries
This is another tussle over boundary access driven by big players, the health and the criminal justice systems. The role of the Police and Crime Commissioners may be increasingly important as will be the Health and Well-being Boards. We can point to innovative projects where joint working produced good practices in mental health (Senior and Kinsella, 2014), drug counselling, alcohol programmes and the Health Trainers schemes (ICPR, 2011). But somehow they stand as exceptions rather than incorporated practices. We will focus on one example as illustrative. The London Probation/Together programme for Forensic Mental Health Practitioners has been working for 20 years. It draws on a mixture of funds, some health-related and some from criminal justice sources and its main purpose is to locate an advanced forensic practitioner in a probation office to do three things – advising court on sentencing, advice to probation staff and where appropriate direct intervention. The report on this project (Senior & Kinsella, 2014) highlights its continual fight for funds despite its evident success over 20 years of operation. It showcases joint working and has provided probation staff with high level support for mental health work. It has not been rolled out elsewhere and remains a peripheral resource particularly under new TR arrangements. This boundary can only be managed by dialogue, sharing of goods and mutual engagement with each other’s expertise – but it is rarely so easy in practice.

Community boundaries
It was highlighted earlier in this paper that a community base for probation is part of its essence but ways in which this boundary is maintained marks out how successful it is in achieving community reintegration for its service users. I have placed Restorative Justice (RJ) as a key boundary marker and many now would see this as fundamentally what probation represents. RJ has a long and somewhat chequered history in probation which goes back to the 1980s, though reparation and mediation were preferred terms then. At different times it has been lauded as the new way to manage probation and certainly the tenets of restoration and reintegration at its core would be part of the goal of probation interventions. However that promise has rarely been fulfilled.

In other jurisdictions such as New Zealand, the law has sought to integrate RJ thinking into legislative changes particularly for juvenile offenders and there have been similar attempts in England and Wales, again in youth justice and also in Northern Ireland. But research testing out its efficacy as a court measure has shown that it has tended to fall short. In undertaking some of that research it becomes clear that, whilst the outcomes of RJ are potentially beneficial to offenders, its core goal is not that but satisfaction for all participants particularly the victims. This makes it a key boundary issue and highlights why RJ has so far not been crucial to probation practice. Probation is an offender-focused service taking its lead from the court sentence, thus RJ travels across that boundary both ways.

As noted elsewhere in this volume ‘probation’ as a recognizable ‘brand’ retains both a cachet, in terms of the values and purposes discussed earlier, and, is a term with a tenacious hold in the public lexicon. At a community level, the organisers and members of local groups and organisations see themselves as continuing to engage with ‘probation’ – not with a CRC – to arrange the involvement of people who have transgressed the law in ‘community service’ – not ‘unpaid work’! Surveys show the public to be more favourable to rehabilitation and reintegration through community sentences than political rhetoric and tabloid media would have us believe though their overall views on penal matters remain mixed (Rao, 2015). At the community boundary there are positive indications that probation has some grasp of potential progressive purposes such as community engagement and Restorative Justice.

There is a plethora of evidence confirming that incarceration is costly, ineffectual in reducing reoffending, and ultimately damaging to society’s cohesion (for example, Scott, 2013; Liebling & Maruna, 2011). When probation works, however, the lives of service users change for the better, the creation of future victims is prevented, and the whole community benefits (McNeill, Raynor & Trotter, 2012). It has become an essential component of our civic society and the key cornerstone of our community justice system. There is a clear danger that we tend to take for granted, understandably perhaps, given the long associations with probation of the Kendal group, the notion that probation is inherently a ‘good’ thing? The fact that we were able to spend several hours discussing what the essence was and still not come to full agreement demonstrates the difficulty of delineating the essence of probation. Probation seems to ‘suffer’ from a sense of liminality – unsure of its purpose, beholden to the institutions which it serves and vulnerable to ideologically driven reform. The increasing focus on punishment and technical control of offenders has led to ‘tough’, measurable and authoritarian approaches to work with offenders being seen as both inevitable and correct, despite their lack of any obvious indicators of success, though this assumes we understand what success is!

The argument presented in this paper is that probation operates in the empty spaces between four major social systems. The practice of probation cannot be understood as a specialist branch of correctional services, social welfare provision, health services or community provision. If it did not exist, it would be created to provide a means of balancing the need for rehabilitation and reintegration with the requirement to administer court orders and offer a level of public protection and reassurance. Inevitably the essence is marked not only by what exists within that space but also the degree to which probation overlaps each system creating boundary issues and disputes.

As life-long supporters of probation work it is tempting to assume boundary disputes are managed with a full recognition of human rights. As Canton (2009:67) has pointed out ‘community supervision can raise human rights questions of its own – and the zeal to reduce the numbers of people in prison should not mean that anything is acceptable so long as custody is avoided’. Recent research by Aebi (Aebi et al., 2015) has highlighted the fact that those countries that have the highest rates of imprisonment also have the greatest numbers on supervision and this has certainly been the case in England and Wales. Aebi’s work, therefore, opens the door to an interpretation of probation intervention as reflecting the overarching imperative of punitive crime control as much as, or even more so than, the twin drivers of social reintegration and rehabilitation. This has obvious implications for the equilibrium of the four systems outlined, in that it has bloated the ‘correctional’ at the expense of some of the other systems. However, while Aebi et al.’s work indicates that probation cannot be viewed as a simple alternative to imprisonment, it nevertheless provides evidence that those countries with the lowest incarceration rates (for example, Finland, Norway and Switzerland) are also those which make significant use of probation intervention.

This is further compounded by the people with whom probation works – those who are seen as less eligible than other more ‘deserving’ people in society who have not transgressed the norms of acceptable behaviour. In many respects, probation is ‘dirty work’ (Mawby & Worrall, 2013) but it serves a useful function in society, notwithstanding the argument that mass supervision is something to be concerned about. If it has that utility then at the heart of the essence outlined in this paper is a ‘softer’ approach involving the skills of emotional literacy (Knight, 2014) and relational co-production (Weaver, 2016) which enables service users to become co-workers in their own treatment plans – through dialogue unraveling the issues that are key to their offending and potential rehabilitation, developing their own inner controls and taking responsibility for change. The tasks that comprise probation work do not have to be undertaken by a specialist probation agency, although it is more straightforward when they are. The challenge is cementing that essence in a world of fragmented services, for-profit practice and competition driven secrecy.

The intention of this paper has been both to delineate what must be included in the essence of probation, drawing both on our own very varied vantage points over the past forty years and the research evidence available. It has been argued that boundaries between this ‘essence’ and the four social systems will vary over time, place and jurisdiction. There will always be disputes and debates as this defines the boundaries of probation in any community or, indeed, it poses the question whether something identifiable as probation still exists. This is clearly going to be challenging for all those who have a stake in developing effective, just and fair probation practices over the next few years.


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