the criminology and criminal justice network
Mapping probation: What can international perspectives tell us about the probation service in English and Wales?
By Pete Marston ( Pete Marston is a probation officer, views expressed are his own)
Since 1929 the Probation Journal has documented the ever-changing nature of probation work in Britain. Although funded by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), the journal has established itself as an independent, academic publication with a worldwide readership which in some ways is reflected in this year’s special edition entitled “Mapping probation: International perspectives”. Eight articles from around the world shine a light on work with offenders from Busan, South Korea, to Broome, Western Australia. What this shows about the probation service of England and Wales is as noteworthy as it is revealing about the practices of Japanese Hogoshi or the probation officers of Marin County.
Starting in South Korea, the country’s embrace of the technology, where all households can, and most do, access broadband speed internet, has unsurprisingly shaped aspects of the probation service. The service makes use of voice recognition technology, GPS satellite tracking and a “cyber probation office” where offenders may report online and access training programmes. While the technology is impressive it represents a significant move away from the relationship between offender and officer usually felt to be at the heart of probation and the faith placed in the ability of “techno-corrections”, such as GPS tracking, to eliminate sex crimes is perhaps naive. The article wryly notes that caseloads are higher than would be “considered appropriate” in England and Wales with 300-400 offenders per officer in the large metropolitan areas such as Seoul, Busan and Incheon. The problem of high caseloads is also a reality in the Service Pénitentiaire d'Insertion et de Probation in France where officers can be supervising between 100 and 200 cases. In stark contrast to South Korea, the picture in France is of an academic and legal establishment fiercly resistant to both the discipline of criminology, considering it an anglo-saxon aberration, and opposed to forms of evidence based practice. However, the nature of the court system in France has bequeathed a positive legacy of judicial involvement post-sentence and this is a model now active in the UK, albeit on American lines, in drug treatment courts.
The training of probation staff in England and Wales has been a source of dispute for the last twenty years with successive government’s seeking to move the service from its social work base towards a more criminological focused curriculum. The state of Western Australia went further removing the degree level entry standard entirely in the 1980s and relied on a one month training course to prepare probation staff to work with offenders. It is questionable whether this level of education adequately equipped probation officers to work in what is an extremely challenging environment where home visits to offenders involve week long drives across the outback sleeping under the stars, and where indigenous Australians are massively over-represented in the prison and probation populations. Indeed after a series of scandals including hostage taking and murder, an inquiry in 2005 recommended major improvements in training and probation has subsequently been re-established as a separate organisation with its own professional identity. Fortunately, in England and Wales there has been a commitment to maintain degree level training for probation officers and improvements in the development of other grades, but the question for those currently training under the Probation Qualifying Framework is what employment opportunities await them, as numbers of probation officers, as opposed to other grades, continue to fall.
Since the 2010 election the coalition’s enthusiasm for the “big society” has shown ever diminishing returns in line with the mocking of many commentators and has slipped down the agenda as economic woes have increased. The idea that public services could be replaced with volunteers was always open to derision but the work of the Japanese probation service provides a glimpse of what that might look like in practice. The service has only 800 or so professional probation officers and relies instead on an army of 50,000 often elderly, volunteer officers (Hogoshi) who frequently supervise offenders in their own homes. However, while this model is certainly fiscally appealing it owes its existence to a range of Japanese cultural and historical factors unlikely to be re-created in England and Wales. Furthermore, aside from Japan’s low crime rate, there is little evidence to show that the Hogoshi are effective in their work with offenders and, like South Korea, the system has been wracked by periodic scandals relating to the mishandling of cases. Still the concept of increasing the use of community resources is an area that could be further developed, however, this needs to be focused and well supported, for example as with the Circles of Support and Accountability scheme, which works with men convicted of sex offences.
High rates of imprisonment in the USA are well known, with its 5000 prisons and over two million inmates representing a quarter of the worldwide prison population. What is less well known are the high rates of probation supervision with a total caseload of over five million probationers. Staggeringly, when prison and probation are combined, 1 in 32 American adults is subject to correctional control. The opening article in the edition describes the confusing myriad of probation services in the USA, where federal, state, county and municipal organisations have overlapping jurisdictions. This is surely not a recipe for the information sharing usually found to be lacking when tragedy strikes and yet it is a model that may be recreated soon in England and Wales if discrete areas of probation work are sold off to the private sector. Many probation officers in the USA are armed and in Marin County, California the supervisory rules describe how an officer may “grab the probationer’s shoulder or use take down methods” when confronted with disobedience. Fortunately, in England and Wales probation staff are unlikely to confront a difficult offender with anything more than a pen and the offender engagement programme currently revolutionising practice is a rare ray of sunshine. Finally many probation services in the USA charge the offenders fees for their supervision, an idea which may one day find currency here if the cries for the eviction of rioters’ families last summer are any guide, but which scant analysis would surely reveal as entirely counterproductive. This then is the nightmare vision of probation services, a vision which perhaps, in the current economic uncertainties and ideologies, looms ever closer.
Still, all the articles point towards the viability of probation as a sanction worldwide. It is seen as an important way point on an arc towards a more humane and effective means of punishment. This is true whether it is in Russia, with its history of forced labour and political detention, or in Norway, where astonishingly both prison and probation are so effective that only twenty percent of offenders are reconvicted after two years. Most of the international services in the edition are moving towards increased training, a wider variety of interventions, greater use of community resources and all based around a central, public service. Therein lies the rub as the service in England and Wales faces an uncertain future of cuts, job losses and privatisation. Although the heavily criticised attempt to parcel off unpaid work has faltered expensively, the prevailing ideology suggests that rather than give up a bad job, other routes will be sought to expand the “market of offender supervision”. The intention of the Journal’s editorial team in commissioning an international edition was to seek out new knowledge and practice from around the world. In doing so it has shone a spotlight on the strength and depth of the probation service in the England and Wales who’s established training, manageable caseloads (based on individual human relationships), evidence based practice and sophisticated risk management forums compare well to other countries. The service has absorbed wave after wave of change but has maintained a level of performance and quality that have earned it awards and plaudits. It is therefore tragic that at this time, with a probation review expected from the Ministry of Justice at the end of January, the service faces severe threats to its existence.
With thanks to the original authors.
Pete Marston is a probation officer, views expressed are his own.