A Future for Evidence-Based Do-Gooding?
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This chapter will focus on the international history of the probation service with a particular emphasis on the values and principles that underpinned both management and practice during most of the twentieth century, and how latterly they have been compromised by overtly political agenda. It will define those values and principles, explain why they are important, describe how they have been undermined as well as how they have survived in the undergrowth of practice, and set out the arguments for their reinstatement at the heart of a newly constituted probation service. This will not be an exercise in nostalgia for a golden age but instead it will posit values and principles in the real and current world of accountability and legitimate demands for demonstrable effectiveness. A central argument of this chapter will be that during the emergence of the Effective Practice Initiative an opportunity to incorporate the demands of accountability within the humanistic tradition of probation was lost. This chapter will pitch for that opportunity to be revisited.
KeywordsCriminal Justice System Probation Officer Critical Criminology Programme Integrity Probation Order
The decade, which has been assigned the dubious sobriquet, the swinging sixties, was a particularly interesting one in which to start a career (as I did) in the caring department of the criminal justice system. In its early years people were still being hanged for murder, consensual sex between adult males was a criminal act and children were being sent to Approved School for non-attendance at school and Borstals for their needs as much as their criminal behaviour. Furthermore, racism was barely acknowledged let alone challenged, the Miss World competition was a popular, televised event and women had to resort to illegal, dangerous back street abortions (Kynaston 2014). In a momentous 2-year period from 1965 to 1967, hanging was finally abolished, homosexuality was decriminalised, the first legislation to combat racial discrimination was placed on the statute book, parole and the suspended sentence were introduced and abortion by registered practitioners was legalised. At the same time, although perspectives on what constituted a long prison sentence were changed by the severe sentences meted out to the men involved in the Great Train Robbery, the topic of ‘law and order’ was relatively low on political agenda, and it was not until 1966 that the Labour Party attempted to emulate the attention paid to it by the Conservative Party (Downes and Morgan 1997).
the Morison Committee Report (Home Office 1962), which had been briefed to enquire into the probation service, showed no inhibitions in endorsing it as an approach to working with offenders. Casework embedded in the behavioural sciences according to the committee was the emblem of the Service’s professional status; and probation officers were professional caseworkers like other social workers. (Vanstone 2004, p. 113)
Questions were emerging about probation’s role as a court social work service, and the idea of a correctional service was raised in the Seebohm Committee Report (1968). Nevertheless, casework, informed by psychological theories as it was, lay at the core of officers’ methodology. Those officers, in addition to their work in the criminal courts, undertook matrimonial guidance work, acted as guardians ad litem in the adoption process, prepared welfare reports to help courts decide on access and custody of children in divorce proceedings and mediated in disputes between neighbours. Some officers entered the Service without any training, some qualified through university courses and others qualified on the Home Office training course at Rainer House in London.
I had grown up in a working class family in Cardiff, been lucky enough to pass the 11 plus and go on to university. Subsequently, I somehow manoeuvred my way through the Home Office selection process and completed a 2-year qualification which involved a university-based diploma in social science and 12 months at Rainer House. By the time I emerged from that process dinner had become lunch, any purchase of a paperback was confined to Penguin and I was ready to proffer psycho-analytical cures for crime! At that time becoming a probation officer seemed a radical, vocational kind of job move, and it was several years before, to my surprise and indignation, a sociologist acquaintance called me a lackey of the State who wielded power over the powerless.
It was a crash course […] over a 12 month period. I spent the first 3 months [in] a field probation office where you did a mini apprenticeship […] what was special about the Rainer House course for me was its intensity as you literally started tutorials or lectures at 8.30 in the morning and you could be going on until 8.30/9.00 o’clock at night. The course organisers called on professionals from the universities, the hospitals, treatment centres and alike who came in and taught on a sessional basis […] so I was able to be taught by some incredible people and meet some amazing people […] my child development tutor was Ann Freud’s deputy at the Hammersmith. My psychiatric deviant behaviour tutors [included] Professor John Gunn […] then at the Henderson […] we met people like John Gibbons who came along to talk about women’s issues. I met Heimler there and so many others. […] There were different messages coming from different people. I mean I had a hard-nosed sociologist from the LSE who was giving a very sociological approach in all his explanations […] I had a very strong psychoanalytic approach being presented but I had a psychiatrist […] who had a very strong biochemical background […] so I was being exposed to very different approaches and [those] responsible for the course weren’t going to sort of point you in any one direction as opposed to another […] everything was up for grabs and there was a sense in which any explanation was as good as another.
Another, who had trained at Rainer House several years earlier, remembered the theoretical focus of the course as ‘Freudian […] sprinkled with a bit of the other psychologists […] Mixed with that still was the assumption that somebody was responsible for their own actions anyway’.
The relationship is the soul of casework. It is a spirit which vivifies the interviews and the processes of study, diagnosis, and treatment, making them a constructive, warmly human experience. (pp. 134–135)
Anxious to avoid the idea that the experience of casework was in any way pseudomystical, he configured ‘its elements into a matrix of three directions and seven principles. The directions are the needs of the client, the response of the caseworker and the awareness of the client; the principles, individualization, purposeful expression of feelings, controlled emotional involvement, acceptance, nonjudgmental attitude, client self-determination and confidentiality’ (Vanstone 2004, p. 111). Clear though he was, the esoteric nature of casework helped many a practitioner through the sometimes mundane reality of daily routine.
the worker actually has to care about the client. It doesn’t mean fall in love with them or whatever but if you don’t like them it’s very difficult to work with them and you not necessarily like the things they do but you have got to like them enough to want to work with them […] they have got to be related to integrity, patience and being realistic.
I suppose I am really saying people should be treated like I would expect to be treated. I remember [a probationer] telling me that, he said you always now (what was his phrase?) you always look so calm […], you were always the same and you were always there.
I definitely helped get people get insights, definitely listened to them, definitely reflect things back to them, let them take on sort of the responsibility for what’s happening in themselves but also I did bring out this social model as well of thinking it can’t be done on your own, you have got to know what’s going on in society.
Perhaps the greatest threat to the Service during this period of change is to its values […] Indeed, the people who resisted the instruction to administer electric shocks in Milgram’s experiment were those who either had a strong religious conviction or a well thought out philosophy. It is vital, therefore, that local services in delineating their objectives, firstly clarify the values that underpin those objectives and secondly, outline clear practice guidelines. (Vanstone and Seymour 1986, p. 47)
The piecemeal growth of the Service as a bureaucracy over the last thirty years has led to problems of control and accountability, the solution to which has been sought in an increase in the number of managers, more elaborate systems of communication and more pervasive administration. Such centralisation of power has undoubtedly helped the Service to survive a period of considerable change and prompted improvements in standards of work. In this sense it has served a positive purpose, being largely motivated by a desire to ensure an effective service to clients. Perversely, however, it now ensures that we fit in neatly with the pattern of centralised Home Office power – each probation area a malleable section in a national grid, vulnerable to the demands of the accountant and the allure of community-based punishment. (Vanstone 1988, p. 131)
‘[values] based on the rights and needs of the individual, and a belief in people’s ability to change are the antithesis of judicial values which give precedence to the rights and needs of society and the state, and in particular its right to punish’ and that ‘[pragmatic] compromise and, on occasions, collusion, have allowed things to work and produce a vital element of humanity and hope’ but the current position of the probation service gives credibility to the view that ‘ the foundations of the working agreement [were] dangerously exposed to assault’. (p. 132)
Given reports of the low morale of many people working in the public sector today, it is salutary to note that in the late 1980s it seemed the survival of a dynamic, creative and effective agency depended in part on the ‘happiness of probation officers’ in their role (Vanstone 1990, p. 121). Hugman’s (1977) enthusiastic argument about the occupational health of its frontline staff did not seem ‘a peripheral and even extravagant goal for any training officer’. Certainly, his ‘proposition that principles of professional practice have no value unless the people subscribing to them are relatively happy people and that “enjoying the job” is a significant factor in determining effectiveness’ (Vanstone 1990, p. 121) has a particular resonance today. Evidently, that kind of happiness must be rooted in a motivation to offer genuine, effective help to people, but at that time there was a real sense that ‘Government demands for “tougher” probation and “hard-nosed” management [meant] that the idea of offering help to people [was] being eschewed’. Challenging offending behaviour – tackling offending, or whatever the favoured term was – still entailed probation officers focusing on ‘the everyday concerns of social work practice, i.e. poverty, unemployment, homelessness, deprivation, drug abuse, aggression, poor decision making, discrimination and despair’ (Vanstone 1990, p. 121) and attempts in the 1990s to move beyond what Nellis and Gelsthorpe (2003, p. 227) described as a ‘hiatus in understanding what probation values might be’ reflected the importance of bringing probation values up to date. In contemporising Biestek, Williams (1995) listed modern, fit for purpose values as opposition to custody, commitment to anti-oppressive practice and justice for people who offend, a right to confidentiality and open, critical working relationships, recognition of the uniqueness and self-determination of the individual, protection of victims and the potential for change through purposeful, professional relationships.
The skills possessed by probation officers are predominantly helping ones and their concerns have been traditionally about people’s liberty and freedom to make decisions about their lives, as well as eschewing criminal behaviour. Probation staff are not, and (can I presume) do not want to be trained in surveillance. But whilst they are part of the process of dealing with crime, they cannot evade some of its implications. It is, for example, untenable on the one hand to argue for the reaffirmation of the probation order as a means of diverting people from custody (it used to be the only one) without on the other hand demonstrating, through practice, a commitment to the basic conditions of probation orders. In other words, if probation officers wish to offer help to people within the context of penal policy, they may have to make some personal compromises. It may be an unpalatable fact but the simple process of requiring someone to keep in contact with an official is an infringement of liberty.
It could be said that the probation service ought to be developing more centres which rely on voluntary attendance. Indeed, if people can be successfully diverted from custody this way then there is, in my opinion no justification for attendance requirements; this, therefore, needs to be tested out. However, a requirement to attend a probation office or even a day centre need not be ‘an assault on identity’ or repressive or manipulative. People inevitably have to face the consequences of their behaviour but when that consequence is supervision by a probation officer it is imperative that that supervision is characterised by respect for persons and constraint as opposed to coercion. (p. 25)
Often, respect and constraint were manifested in the use of discretion, and Robinson (2013) has recently placed it in an illuminating context. She divides developments in compliance into four distinct eras: first, discretion (1907–1989) when practitioners’ decision-making freedom was at its height; standardisation (the 1990s) when probation became a sentence in its own right, National Standards introduced the ‘requirement of the new punishment in the community sentences to demonstrate the deprivation of offenders’ liberty’ (p. 30), and the probation officer became an enforcer; enforcement (the late 1990s to 2004) when there was an increase in breach action and further erosion of discretion; and pragmatism (2004–2012) when although the legitimacy of the service was closely linked to success in compliance, the 2007 National Standards introduced a slight increase by allowing judgements about the validity of excuses for non-compliance to include the circumstances of the individual. In addition to this historical analysis she underlines the inadequacies of a formal definition of compliance in pursuit of rehabilitation and in so doing she alludes to the critical nature of successful engagement in the processes of change. In other words, practitioners have to be successful motivators who recognise that compliance is ‘a construct that emerges [from their interactions] with the people they supervise’ (Ugwudike and Raynor 2013, p. 4).
should be given as full and clear a picture of the programme and in what areas she/he has choice, so that she/he can (as far as is possible prior to the court’s decision) make an informed choice. Assiduous attention should be paid to people’s rights. It should be remembered, therefore, that the authority to give help rests within the potential recipient and not within the conditions of the probation order; a refusal to be helped should not form the basis of a breach action. The programme structure should include a joint assessment process which assists people in making informed decisions about what help they require and allows them the opportunity of not being helped. It should further, provide opportunities for helpful programmes using known effective methods which are at the same time stimulating and relevant to those being helped. People are more likely to be responsive to offers of social work help that are concerned with problems important to, and identified by themselves. (Vanstone 1985, p. 26)
These principles remain pivotal to successful helping collaborations but have been ever more difficult to sustain since the removal of consent to the making of a probation order and the imposition of the politically driven, macho nonsense of punishment in the community. Nor has it been helped by the fact that not long after the Day Training Centre experiment was established, the efficacy of rehabilitative effort was placed in some doubt (Martinson 1974).
Officers involved in the experiment mainly delivered the programme as it was intended. When they made innovations this usually increased the relevance and attractiveness of the programme to the participants. Training and the use of video recording of the sessions are likely to have contributed significantly to such consistency of practice. Variations were found, however, in the extent to which individual officers used techniques such as positive reinforcement of programme members’ contributions to the session. Some of these would be best described as variations in individual style, but some of the more marked differences could have had implications for the effectiveness of a session and issues of this kind were fed back, in general terms, to practitioners. (Raynor and Vanstone 1997, p. 21)
A few years later, building on the experience of monitoring this aspect of the programme, a checklist was devised to assess the programme integrity of the Resettlement Pathfinder programmes with short-term prisoners (Clancy et al. 2006). This involved the application and evaluation of the FOR – A Change programme, devised by Fabiano and Porporino (2002) which was implemented by staff trained in the motivational interviewing approach in three local prisons and involved 278 prisoners.
The examination of programme integrity ‘was based on three elements, namely observation of a selection of videos using integrity checklists, interviews with offenders to produce some structured participant feedback on aspects of programme delivery, and interviews with managers, which included a focus on the implementation of the programme’ (Vanstone 2010a, p. 132). The specific focus was on three basic threats to programme integrity identified by Hollin (1995), ‘namely programme drift (an incremental change in the aim of a programme), programme reversal (the undermining of the programme approach; for instance, demotivating rather than motivating), and programme noncompliance (changes to, or omissions from, the programme)’ (pp. 132–133).
In general, levels of integrity were high, and the group leaders delivered the programme as intended with enthusiasm and commitment, and maintained good quality delivery. They all maintained the style of directness necessary to encourage and sustain the engagement of participants, and clearly the structure and sequence of the programme supported them in this. The fact that 16 group leaders who differed in personality, experience, and skill level were able to successfully stimulate individual group members to enthusiastically receive and understand a complex programme, work on personally specific goals, and identify potential blocks to change, says something about the robustness of the programme design. This last point suggests that with the implementation of appropriate changes to suit different cultural contexts, the programme has international applicability. (Vanstone 2010a, b, p. 138)
the use of trained staff dedicated specifically to the delivery of the programme; initial training augmented by booster sessions provided by the programme’s authors; the provision of constructive, useable feedback during in-house training sessions by treatment managers and other senior facilitators who had viewed video recordings; mutual support based on informal feedback amongst the group leaders; regular team meetings in which the programme was discussed; expert external supervision, feedback, and training; designated programme facilities, including separate premises for classroom and administrative work; strong and visible support from senior management within the prison; awareness training for staff not directly involved in the running of the programme but who have a working relationship with those who did. (Vanstone, pp. 138–139)
Although the programme was undertaken in custodial settings, the factors associated with success and appropriate implementation of the programmes provide lessons applicable in the community. The extent to which the currently diminished probation service can play a part in the delivery of effective programmes is open to serious doubt. To say the least, the setting up of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), its recalibration as an agency primarily of punishment and surveillance, the transformation of its professional language (Rumgay 1989), marketisation of services and the more recent privatisation of a large part of its function leaving it responsible for the high-risk end of the probationer spectrum, make the future of the probation service precarious. It is hard to be optimistic about the future, but the need for provision for those people who come into the criminal justice system remains. What kind of contribution a reduced service can make is difficult to judge. A reverse of privatisation will be needed if it is to be significant. Political ideologies may be brought to bear in the future and any changes will need to involve looking back as well as forward. Those who argue about the need to undo the political damage to probation can draw strength from reflection on its history.
It bears repeating, perhaps, that it is a sentencing concept with a distinguished international history: ‘Between 1878 and 1920, probation was placed on the statute books in countries of North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. In a relatively short period of time, in some form or another, it became part of the penal systems of countries with such different political and social histories and diverse cultural traditions as Chile, Japan, the Philippines, France and Russia’ (Vanstone 2008, p. 735).
Invariably, the reformative impulses behind the growth of probation were humanitarian and often faith-based, but the process of that growth was associated with class division, the maintenance of establishment power over potential threats from the poor, the development of the sciences of psychiatry and psychology as convenient conduits of control and the individualisation of punishment. Significantly, ‘probation’s one common penal cornerstone, across all those different jurisdictions, was, and continues to be, the prison,’ and it has been ‘a seductive and common international symbol of political response to loss of faith in that cornerstone’ (pp. 735–736). Not only has its development to date been ‘bound up with socio-political expediency as well as humanitarian concern about excessive punishment and harsh prison conditions […] but in its early years it straddled both science and religion with the effect that it had the advantage of a twin-track driver and it was able to maintain immunity from the accountability of evaluative scrutiny: it could grow as a faith-based science’ (p. 751). Even accepting that more complex interpretation of its history, the humanitarian motivation has always been an underlying and potent one, and it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that it has never been more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of shallow political manoeuvring and posturing.
Innovation, though, has always been at the core of rehabilitative work, and practice has been developed through the creativity of individuals who ‘have never lacked imagination or the enthusiasm for innovatory ways of endeavouring to achieve their goals’ (Vanstone 2010b, p. 19). Mostly, the results or outcomes of that innovation went unevaluated but that did not mean there was a lack of curiosity; conversely, there were a number of examples of practitioner-led (e.g. Shaw and Crook 1977; Weaver and Fox 1984) and organisationally commissioned research (e.g. Hereford and Worcester Probation Service 1989; Linscott and Crossland 1989) which evidence the fact that service-based research, often of a sophisticated kind, ‘emanated from a curiosity at local level about whether innovation was having the desired effect’ (p. 24). Moreover, creativity was linked to developing awareness of limitations in the response of the service to minority and marginalised groups. For example, community work in Sheffield (Goff 1972); debt and benefit services in North Yorkshire and Northumbria (Ward 1979); the creation of a Housing Society in South Glamorgan (Drakeford and Vanstone 1996); the appointment of an ethnic liaison officer in the West Midlands Service, in Nottingham and West Yorkshire provision specifically for women (Hirst 1996); and a resource unit for black probationers in North Thames (Jenkins and Lawrence 1992). All of which took place when, as McWilliams (1980) has argued, the probation service was being transformed into a mechanistic bureaucracy premised on top-down communication via an inflexible hierarchy.
Clearly, liberal and humanitarian sentiments alone will not help the service now. If it is to reclaim the future it has to be accountable, demonstrate effectiveness in the pursuit of its goals and harness the creative energy described above whilst retaining its traditional humanitarian values. This might be best achieved in the more flexible and organic organisation promoted by McWilliams (1980). ‘The point is that increased governance from the centre combined with an acquiescent bureaucratic management structure has resulted in the stifling of innovation and the imposition of too narrow a practice agenda, and it need not have been like this’ (Vanstone 2010b, p. 30).
retaining a clear sense of its value base […]; probation might yet be able to exploit that commitment to further the contribution of social justice to criminal justice [and that to] do this it has to promulgate a dual strategy of influencing both individuals and systems underpinned by an interest in the efficacy of that strategy; and to this end the Service can exploit its unique historical role within the criminal justice system […] More than anything else this means contributing to the reduction of harm to both the individual […] and the wider community caused by offending. (Vanstone 2004, pp. 159–160)
Sadly, nearly a decade later this optimism lingers, just simply because meaningful attempts to help people in the processes of rehabilitation cannot be reduced to formal mechanistic transactions but have to turn to innovation encompassed in genuine, empathic human relationships. If practitioners and managers who work in what is left of the Service maintain a commitment to those kinds of relationships, retain a genuine curiosity about their efficacy, and in partnership with interested academics seek to demonstrate through the accumulation of evidence that a focus on rehabilitation is the best way to help people lead a non-offending way of life, then probation will survive. What must be hoped for then is a future political climate conducive to its redevelopment as a significant player in the criminal justice system. There is no alternative.
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