Effective Probation in England and Wales? The Rise and Fall of Evidence
This chapter is about evidence: why we need it, what we do with it, how it is used and how it is misused. It is also a partial account of my own engagement with evidence of the impact and effectiveness of the probation service’s work. First, I need to explain how I originally arrived in probation work.
At the end of the 1960s I was working in a bookshop (an occupation well known for long hours and poor pay) after graduating with a degree in ancient languages and philosophy, and with an interest in politics and social sciences developed as an active member of various radical groups and campaigns. I had demonstrated against the Vietnam War and against racism, and in favour of democracy in universities; I had been arrested and sentenced (quite leniently) for acts of civil disobedience; I had sold left-wing newspapers on street corners and outside factories, I
P. Raynor (*)
© The Author(s) 2016
M. Vanstone, P. Priestley (eds.), Probation and Politics, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-59557-7_13
had painted slogans and pasted posters on walls, I had attended many meetings and organised some in my home, and I had contributed anonymously to left-wing publications. In the late 1960s these activities seemed constructive and necessary, but by the end of the decade the big campaigns were beginning to run out of steam and had not delivered the degree of social and political change for which their members naively hoped. Many of us found ourselves looking for occupations which could benefit the powerless and the disadvantaged as a way of continuing our commitment to social change while managing also to earn a living. Some went into political careers, some into journalism, some into charities and voluntary organisations, some into teaching and some into social work. I found out about the probation service through an advertisement for Home Office-sponsored traineeships which my wife pointed out to me, and by reading Tony Parker’s book The Unknown Citizen (Parker 1966), which told the story of a recidivist whose opportunities, resources and way of life were effectively destroyed and degraded by repeated imprisonment. I had also by this time met a number of people who regularly broke the law, and a few whose lives were beset with seemingly intractable problems. If there were jobs available helping people to get their lives back on track, and sometimes helping other people for whom they were causing problems, then that seemed a worthwhile endeavour. The Home Office was also offering a period of paid training on a university course. The job looked as if it might touch on another interest which I had carried forward from my studies in philosophy: why should people do as they were told by authorities? I knew I often didn’t. What makes authority legitimate? When compliance with society’s expectations is in the general interest as well as useful for the individual, how and why can people be persuaded to make the prosocial choice? Probation work seemed likely to offer a practical way to learn more about questions like these.
I was accepted on a course at Exeter University, along with David Smith (see his chapter in this volume), rode there on my Ariel Leader motorcycle (soon to be replaced by a Triumph Thunderbird) and set about learning whether I would cope with being a probation officer. I learned about social policy from Jean Packman, about criminology from Dermot Walsh and about the emotional and moral commitment of social work from Bill Jordan, who had just published his first book Client-Worker Transactions (Jordan 1970) and was working on The Social Worker in Family Situations (Jordan 1972). We were slightly half-heartedly encouraged to practise psychodynamic casework along the lines of what was then the dominant model set out by Florence Hollis in Casework: A Psychosocial Therapy (Hollis 1964), but our practice supervisors added a more pragmatic approach, and we learned about the importance of listening (to what is said and not said), understanding, building positive relationships and trying to find ways to help. Some of us tried to introduce more activism into our social work training: for example, we helped to set up Claimants’ Unions, and Bill Jordan became active in one of these, leading to his book Paupers (Jordan 1973), the first of his many studies of poverty and welfare. We also embraced the ideas emerging from critical criminology, such as labelling theory. Most of the learning, however, took place on practical placements in the local probation service, learning to get by, learning to cope with tricky situations and sometimes difficult people, learning to cooperate cautiously with the police instead of confronting them on demonstrations, learning my way around welfare bureaucracies and Courts and learning to organise myself and my work. By the end of the traineeship, equipped with the newly introduced Certificate of Qualification in Social Work and with experience in other agencies as well as probation, I was confident that I could pass muster as a probation officer. I had also become a father, and the Triumph Thunderbird had been replaced by a Reliant three-wheeler (the ambitiously named ‘Supervan’ model, later made famous in the television series Only Fools and Horses).
My first appointment as a qualified probation officer was in the Gloucester office of what was then the Gloucestershire Probation and After-Care Service, which offered me not only a job (slightly better paid than the bookshop) but also family accommodation in an old police house on a council estate - a house no longer needed by the police, who had moved their officers to more modern accommodation. It is quite difficult to convey the flavour of probation work in the early 1970s to modern readers used to a more technological and managerial environment: some good recollections can be found in a recent book of former
Chief Probation Officers’ memoirs (Statham 2014), though perhaps occasionally a little rose-tinted. We had no computers or mobile phones, and no photocopiers: documents which needed several copies, such as social enquiry reports (SERs, equivalent to the modern pre-sentence report) were typed by clerical staff onto multiple sheets separated by carbon paper, to produce six copies at a time, or sometimes were typed onto stencils which were then fitted in a duplicator to produce multiple copies by turning a handle. The latter was preferable since the sixth carbon copy, which usually ended up in the officer’s case file, could be rather faint and difficult to read.
Another young officer in the team was Maurice Vanstone, one of the editors of this book, with whom I was to collaborate on various projects for the next 40 years. (David Smith worked a few miles away in Worcester.) Our older colleagues, some of whom had been trained by the Home Office after military service during World War II, were pleased to have new staff but did not always know what to make of young graduates with left-wing views and non-deferential attitudes, although several of the older officers were quite non-conforming and individualistic themselves. As a qualified officer I was assigned to a patch, shared with a colleague, and we did most of the reports and supervision arising from that patch. I was also assigned to one City Magistrates’ Court and one rural Court as court duty officer and liaison officer: I would present my own reports there, and if necessary go into the witness box to be questioned about them. It was also my job to visit defendants in the cells before the Court in case there were people there known to the Service and about whom we could provide some helpful information, and to carry out post-sentence interviews with people who were on their way to prison. The relationship with the local Magistrates’ Court was central to the job: I was sworn in there when first appointed, and also had to attend periodical Case Committees where we had to give progress reports on our probation cases to a group of magistrates. Our employers, the County Probation Committee, consisted mostly of magistrates. Although the Service was financed by a mixture of Home Office and local authority money, we belonged more to the Court than to the Home Office. (It could be argued that this involvement and sense of ownership by the Courts was an important factor in the influence and effectiveness of probation services; unfortunately it was lost when the Home Office nationalised the Service in 2001, creating a National Probation Service run by the central government and marginalising the judiciary.) We also wrote reports for the Crown Court where the approach was more formal and we could be cross-examined on our reports by barristers, and for the Juvenile Court which aspired to a more friendly and informal style.
With caseloads of up to 70 ‘clients’, as we called them, and ten or a dozen reports to write each month, including reports for the Divorce Court on the welfare of children, we kept paper records in files which were very occasionally inspected by senior officers, and we submitted our workload figures once a month, but otherwise we were left largely to do our own work in our own way, provided that we met the basic requirements of the Probation Rules. Regular supervision by senior staff, usually in the form of case discussions, was available and sometimes helpful (although one senior probation officer made no secret of his view that people like me and Maurice Vanstone, being graduates, were overqualified for probation work). In general there was limited managerial direction except when duties or teams were being reorganised, or when somebody appeared to have made a mistake. We were treated, in fact, as largely autonomous professionals. Keeping files up to date required some self-discipline but was manageable. Other ways in which the job differed from contemporary practice included regular home visits, normally carried out alone, with up to three evenings a week spent visiting clients in their own homes. Few SERs would be completed without a home visit. Women were still a minority in the Service but moving towards parity in numbers, and were no longer expected to confine themselves to caseloads of women and juveniles.
It is important to avoid the temptation of rose-tinted hindsight. By today’s standards we were lamentably deficient in specialist knowledge of important issues such as personality disorder or drug abuse; there was little understanding of the situations and experiences of our growing minority ethnic communities; child abuse and child protection were not major concerns until the report on the death of Maria Colwell at the hands of her stepfather was published in 1974 (Field-Fisher 1974) and put child abuse on the agenda of all public services. I remember one of the older officers telling me that in some families incest was routine and accepted practice, and not something we should worry about too much. I later learned that throughout this period, and unknown to any criminal justice agency, the serial killer Fred West, who came from just such a family, was living and murdering a few streets away from our probation office.
Probation was, again by modern standards, quite variable; we all did things in our own ways and usually knew little about how our colleagues worked. Assessment and supervision planning were often rudimentary. I remember prioritising cases according to perceived risk, and asking myself ‘What would need to change in this person’s life to make crime less necessary or less attractive?’ I also tried to help people to see how their own behaviour, thinking and feelings affected how they were seen by others and helped to create the situations in which they offended. (I found out later, from research by Andrew Willis  that many officers hardly discussed offending at all, concentrating instead purely on a social welfare agenda.) But overall, once I had overcome my own anxieties and doubts about coping with the job, I began to wonder whether there were some important questions to be asked about what we were actually delivering. When I confidently persuaded the Court that a probation order would be less likely to lead to re-offending than a prison sentence, was this true? How did I know? If we were all working in different ways, could we all be right? When we were sent on courses to learn about unfamiliar methods of work such as family therapy or Eugene Heimler’s approach to social functioning (Heimler 1975) was there evidence that they were all helpful, particularly when they did not seem to agree? Was our supervision of our clients always helpful, or could it be making some people worse, as some American research already suggested (e.g. Powers and Witmer 1951; Meyer et al. 1965; Fischer 1973) and the Home Office’s IMPACT study was about to suggest in a British probation setting (Folkard et al. 1976)? (A study by Margaret Shaw , which showed that spending more time with prison welfare officers actually helped prisoners to re-offend less, was a rare chink of light, but was never followed up in practice.) Was our aftercare work with released prisoners supposed to continue the good work begun in prison or to try to undo the harm that imprisonment had done? Who was, ultimately, our ‘client’: the Court, the public, the probationer or all of them in the service of some common good which nobody actually articulated or defined? If people were deprived, disadvantaged, disempowered, struggling and poorly served by welfare agencies, how much blame should attach to them when they got into trouble, and what assistance should they be entitled to receive? If we were trying to reduce the use of imprisonment (which seemed high to many of us, although the prison population was less than half of what it is today) did we not need to demonstrate that probation offered a better strategy and methodology for reducing crime? I had already encountered during training some of the research which questioned the effectiveness of social work. In addition, I was aware of the radical critique of social work which was developed in the magazine Case Con and later summarised in the book Radical Social Work (Bailey and Brake 1975) in which social work was described as a social tranquilliser pathologising individuals and blaming them for social problems when what they really needed was political mobilisation for a radical redistribution of wealth and power in society. This analysis was never fully persuasive, because it did not reflect the kind of help which people actually sought from social workers; however, like the work of other systems theorists such as Pincus and Minahan (1973), it reminded social workers that they could have a role in the improvement of welfare systems as well as trying to influence individuals. For probation workers this raised the question of whether we should be trying to change the criminal justice system in the direction of a more humane and sympathetic approach to peoples’ difficulties, and a more systematic effort to help them to achieve a less crime- prone way of life.