Women and Probation – Reflecting Back and Looking Ahead

  • Jill AnnisonEmail author


In this chapter Jill Annison engages with strands relating to her work, both as a probation officer and as an academic, particularly relating to issues of gender and probation. First, a gendered lens is applied in relation to women as practitioners and managers and interrogates the way the organisation changed over time from that perspective. Secondly, probation’s work with women is explored, drawing on experiences as a practitioner, and followed by a critique of policy and practice following the Corston Report (2007). A more personal viewpoint is then revisited and reflected upon before the chapter concludes with a review of recent developments in this area of the criminal justice system.


Criminal Justice Criminal Justice System Gender Composition Probation Officer Female Offender 
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My engagement with probation spans a period of over 40 years, the early part of which encompassed roles in the 1970s and 1980s as an administrator, trainee probation officer and probation officer (generic and specialist roles). I worked in three different probation areas in the south of England during this part of my career before taking time out to look after my two children, while my husband continued to work as a probation officer. Completion of an Open University degree over this period – I had gained my Certificate of Qualification in Social Work (CQSW) through a non-graduate route – then drew me towards academia. I undertook postgraduate studies and completed my PhD ‘Probing Probation: Issues of Gender and Organisation within the Probation Service’ which, more perceptively than I realised at the time, examined the changes that were happening in probation in the late 1990s (Annison 1998). Since then I have been employed as a lecturer at Plymouth University, focusing on probation and, in particular, on women and the criminal justice system (see Annison et al. 2015a).

In reflecting on my early career in the 1970s there are aspects that struck me then, and which have resonance now, in considering the challenges of the current situation. First, probation officers embodied a humanistic approach to working with people which grew from roots as police court missionaries (Chui and Nellis 2003). The clarion call ‘advise, assist and befriend’, now an historical anachronism, informed the guiding principles of my day-to-day work. Second, probation orders made in court included the name of the supervising probation officer, presaging more recent research findings which have emphasised the importance of relationships as part of the pathway to desistance (Burnett and McNeill 2005; Rex and Hosking 2013), particularly for women who have committed offences (see Sheehan et al. 2011). Third, on becoming a trainee probation officer I was ceremoniously presented with a copy of Jarvis’ ‘Probation Officer Manual’ which commenced with the statement, ‘The justices, the local authorities and the Home Office are all involved in the administration of the probation and after-care service, and the relationship between them is a finely balanced one’ (Jarvis 1969, p. 1).

In short, while these arrangements on occasions caused tensions and competing pressures, probation and its staff were clearly located as part of the public sector and embraced public sector values. In thinking back to this aspect of my working life within probation when making the opening speech at NAPO’s Centenary Conference in 2012, I drew attention to the alignment between probation’s traditional value base and the seven principles of public life that the Committee on Standards in Public Life (1995) had identified, namely ‘selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership’. While probation was renowned for some eccentric and independently minded individuals working within the organisation (Burnett 2004; Mawby and Worrall 2013), the vast majority of colleagues with whom I worked implicitly demonstrated their allegiance to such values on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, it is important not to romanticise probation during this time, not least because this was, sequentially, the time of the collapse of the rehabilitative ideal, the promulgation of ‘alternatives to custody’ (Whitehead and Statham 2006), and the publication in 1984 of the Statement of National Objectives, which signified the introduction of the three E’s (economy, efficiency and effectiveness) into probation (May 1991). However, my experience within probation over that period was of working within teams where staff kept under constant review their dual care/control functions (Harris 1980), where the focus was on people (for my later work in this area see Annison et al. 2008) and where probation officers were supervised and supported (in terms of therapeutic casework oversight) by a senior probation officer who had been appointed to the role as ‘primus inter pares’ (Haxby 1978). To summarise, the rigours of new managerialism (May and Annison 1998) and the strictures of ‘What Works’ (Merrington and Stanley 2007) had yet to impact on, and take hold within probation at grassroots level (Mair 2004; Annison 2013b).

Working as a Woman Probation Officer in Probation

When I joined the Probation Service in the mid-1970s the gender balance was 70:30 (male:female) across the organisation (Annison 1998). This preponderance of male staff (across all grades of the organisation) had been accounted for in terms of ‘better conditions of service, a flatter organisational hierarchy and arguably a more reliable source of finance from the “law and order sector”’ (Hearn 1982, p. 194).

I experienced aspects of the organisation as being a ‘gentleman’s club’ (Parkin and Maddock 1995), mostly in the form of benevolent chauvinism, but there was also space for professional development as a woman, albeit in specialised ‘niches’ (Annison 2007). For instance, throughout my early career, alongside mainstream probation tasks, I co-led several Prisoners’ Wives Groups. These operated as open groups facilitated by female probation officers, probation ancillaries and volunteers, with active connections to welfare agencies and voluntary community groups. My memory is of these being well-attended and supportive sessions, with probation incorporating this non-statutory resource into its overall workload. (It should be noted that at this time probation also offered voluntary after-care to prisoners [Mair and Burke 2012; Worthington 2014].) This type of intervention fitted within an emerging interest in group work by probation practitioners (Burnett et al. 2007) but there is little trace of it within the literature (although see, for instance, Winfield 2014; Burnett et al. 2007). None of the groups I was involved with was written about or evaluated and they lacked the articulation of a theoretical base or practice framework. Nonetheless, they adopted a community-based, ‘women-centred, women-only’ ethos, which, more recently, has come to the fore as good practice for interventions with women (Corston 2007; Roberts 2010; Asher and Annison 2015). They were also indicative of probation’s then engagement with local communities and endeavours to address social and structural problems facing the clients with whom they were working (see Senior 2013).

This aspect of my work took place in the context of a caseload which was heavily weighted towards women. It was usual practice for women to be allocated to female probation officers in all of the probation areas I worked in through the 1970s and 1980s. I clearly remember the reverberations around the office when a male senior probation officer, in the first office I worked in, took over responsibility for supervising a particularly difficult case involving a woman on probation, with sotto voce murmurings amongst staff about the (in)appropriateness of such an arrangement. I was intrigued to find out the origins of such issues when I carried out my PhD research, discovering that:

[i]n terms of the gendered expectations of work duties, the histories of probation indicate that in the early stages, male probation officers supervised both men and women, while female probation officers worked mainly with women and children. This situation was examined in the Report of the Departmental Committee on the Training, Appointment and Payment of Probation Officers (Cmd. 1601) in 1922, when it was proposed that women offenders should be supervised only by women probation officers (Bochel 1976, p. 111).

This restriction was subsequently provided by statute (King 1969) and remained in place until the Criminal Justice Act 1967’ (Annison 2007, p. 146). This direct intervention in terms of the state’s regulation regarding gendered social control now seems archaic but did seem to be pervasive and persistent at that time (see Lacey 2014; Statham 2014).

The Changing Gendered Composition of Probation Staff

It was this interest in working with women and issues of gender in relation to probation policy and practice that caught my attention when I started my postgraduate studies in the mid-1990s. Initially, I had planned to investigate the impact of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act on probation, given the intention to move probation to a centre stage role to allow for the implementation of a twin-track approach which would impose ‘Tough, retributive and deterrent sentences for serious, particularly violent criminals, and as far as possible, lighter and preferably non-custodial sentences or the mass of trivial offenders’ (Stenson 1991, p. 24).

The anticipated additional workload led me to examine changes in staff numbers across the various grades of the service and then, because of the inclusion of this data in the statistics that had been sent to me, the changing gender distribution within the organisation. When the service was buffeted by the vagaries of political will, and with the 1993 Criminal Justice Act leaving the Probation Service as a ‘disregarded extra, a spear-carrier at best’ (Smith 1996, p. 1), my attention turned directly to the implications of the increasing feminisation of the Probation Service in England and Wales. There seemed to be an irony here given the shift in political rhetoric about the role of probation: as Broad (1991) commented, over time probation had experienced an inexorable movement from a ‘rehabilitation’ phrase, through a ‘policy’ phase, and then onto a ‘(more) punishment’ phase. It thus seemed worthy of theoretical and empirical interrogation that this was the moment when more women than men joined the organisation and over time progressed up through the ranks.

Detailed analysis of the data and quotes from empirical research about the changes in the gendered composition of the Probation Service can be found in my publications engaging with these issues, namely ‘A Gendered Review of Change within the Probation Service’, in The Howard Journal (Annison 2007); and ‘Change and the Probation Service in England and Wales: A Gendered Lens’, in the European Journal of Probation (Annison 2013a). The information and analysis there highlights the watershed in probation in England and Wales in 1993 when, for the first time, more women than men probation officers were in post as a whole-time equivalent total of all grades (Annison 2013a, p. 46).

Most notably, as I commented in my 2013 article,

It seems paradoxical to say the least, that the tipping point from more male to more female probation officers took place at the time when the Conservative Government’s rhetoric was explicitly encouraging male recruits to join the Probation Service. Yet some key countervailing issues can be identified: in the 1990s and into the new millennium there has been a trend of young women seizing opportunities provided by work and education. Over this period probation has been repeatedly restructured and reorganised, with IT being embedded into the practice and the delivery of interventions becoming increasingly amenable to adaptable work patterns. As noted by Wilkinson (1994, p. 11) ‘Employers increasingly want a more flexible and dextrous workforce – attributes associated much more with women than men’. (Annison 2013a, p. 56)

I witnessed this trend first-hand when I held the post of Programme Manager from 1998 to 2005 when Plymouth University had the contract to provide the academic element of the Diploma in Probation Studies (DipPS) in the South West Region. There were more women than men within each of the five cohorts, including women who were looking for career progression from probation service officer (PSO) level and also recent graduates with relevant degrees. By 2007 the statistics on gender at trainee probation officer level revealed that 72.86 % were women to 27.14 % men (Ministry of Justice 2007). In short, the gender composition had now switched around completely from the early days of probation – a turnaround that has not been mirrored in any other agency in the criminal justice system (Ministry of Justice 2013).

I have since updated information about gender within probation via a Freedom of Information request (Ministry of Justice 2015a) in relation to the three cohorts of recruits onto the PQF learners/NPS Graduate Diploma Scheme in England and Wales that commenced in October 2014, February 2015 and May 2015 respectively (see Graph 2.1).

Source: Ministry of Justice. Freedom of Information Request (2015a).

(Statistics supplied as percentages, the exact numbers were not made available)

This information shows an even sharper move towards the recruitment of women entrants than I had seen a decade earlier. Of course this is now only in relation to the National Probation Service (NPS) after the NPS/Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC) organisational split brought about by the Transforming Rehabilitation programme in 2014/2015 (Annison et al. 2014). It is ironic that the problematics observed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her book ‘Men and Women of the Corporation’ now apply to men in the NPS rather than to women, namely the dilemmas of the ‘token’ woman or of a ‘tilted’ group in terms of gender representation (Kanter 1977).

The relevance of the change in the gendered composition of probation over this period seems particularly pertinent as it suggests a link with issues of de-professionalisation of probation, even ahead of the cataclysmic changes of Transforming Rehabilitation. In the first instance, the concept of a probation career as a ‘vocation’ disappeared many years ago (see Annison 2001). Second, as Tim May and I foresaw, changes in the 1990s reconstituted what it was to be ‘professional’ within the Probation Service and represented the start of a trend of blurring of role boundaries – a feature which has come to the fore in the turbulence of Transforming Rehabilitation. Finally, an even more telling judgement that we made in this 1998 chapter was that ‘Claims to expertise have changed as the probation service is expected, via programmes of intervention and treatment, to administer punishment in the community, not casework to individual offenders’ (May and Annison 1998, p. 172).

Probation Practice and Women

As indicated earlier in this chapter, one of my main areas of interest as a practitioner was working with women caught up in the criminal justice system. Two particular cases remain vividly with me: the first was a middle-aged woman with physical and mental health problems who was placed on probation ‘for her own good’ after committing minor shoplifting offences. The magistrates had been concerned about her mental state and shortly afterwards she was admitted to a locked ward in a large mental hospital because of her suicidal intentions. Visiting her and seeing the condition of this Victorian institution was a truly sobering and distressing experience, not least because it seemed to me that her condition had been aggravated by her experience of being processed through the criminal justice system.

The second case was a young black woman who was the single parent of two small children and who had reoffended (repeated, but relatively minor non-violent offences) while on probation. She went to court anticipating that at most she would receive a suspended prison sentence and so had not told anyone in her family about her court appearance. On receipt of a short custodial sentence she appeared shocked and traumatised (these were the days when supervising probation officers would attend court with their clients and speak to their social enquiry report recommendations). She was adamant that her children should not be told what had happened to her; she made an impassioned plea to her elderly mother to look after them and to maintain the pretence that she was away at work over the period of imprisonment. For reasons I have forgotten, I drove this young woman home after she reported to the probation office on her release from prison (except this was the sort of thing that probation officers did in those days!). I can still recall the look of complete bewilderment on the faces of her children at her unexpected return in the middle of the day.

Over the years since then I have taught students about the developments in feminist criminology and, in particular, the impact of the Corston Report (2007). Certainly the three broad categories of vulnerabilities experienced by most women caught up in the criminal justice system as outlined by Corston were very familiar to me, as illustrated in the two cases above and more generally from my probation caseload over the time I worked as a practitioner:
  • Domestic circumstances and problems such as domestic violence, childcare issues, being a single parent;

  • Personal circumstances such as mental illness, low self-esteem, eating disorders, substance misuse;

  • Socio-economic factors such as poverty, isolation and employment.

(Annison and Brayford 2015, p. 3)

I wholeheartedly supported the 43 recommendations made in the Corston Report, seeing it as an important landmark in terms of its potential impact and in relation to putting down a marker for social justice.

It was this awareness of the engrained legacy of women’s positioning in the criminal justice system, and my sense that radical and persistent change needed to be informed by an historical perspective, that motivated me to undertake research into portrayals of women in the back catalogue of the Probation Journal. This led to the publication of my 2009 article in the Probation Journal which summarised my findings: the availability of the electronic back catalogue of the Probation Journal made it possible to conduct a ‘sweep’ of articles from 1929 to the present and to find and critique contemporaneous articles about probation work with women (and also the roles of women probation officers). As I wrote there,

It needs to be noted that until the 1970s women were marginal, if not invisible, within criminology (Newburn 2007). It is therefore salutary to remember the relatively recent emergence of feminist criminology focusing on women and crime and that even now, new perspectives jostle with established views (Heidensohn 2006). The selection of extracts and the accompanying commentary regarding portrayals of women probation officers and women offenders thus draw attention to ‘some of the most basic assumptions about law, justice, and punishment in our society and to raise queries about unstated “patriarchal” values.’ (Heidensohn and Gelsthorpe 2007, p. 410) (Annison 2009, p. 436).

I concluded the article by ‘acknowledging key developments and progress that has been made, while also drawing attention to work that still needs to be undertaken’ (Annison 2009, p. 446).

Since then I have conducted applied research which has investigated the impact of criminal justice policy and practice: given the profile of cases going through the criminal justice system this has mostly been about men, but my interest has always been drawn to the small numbers of women in the research (for instance, locally funded evaluation research of an Integrated Offender Scheme [Annison and Hocking 2012] and an ESRC-funded research project, carried out with academic colleagues, in connection with the different elements of a local community court [for instance, Annison 2014]). Findings from both of these projects have illustrated situations where women in the criminal justice system had been ‘shoe-horned’ into provision designed for men – as Corston stated ‘women have been marginalised within a system largely designed by men for men for far too long’ (Corston 2007, p. 2). In the ESRC research project we found, in accord with Corston, that it was not just the range of problems that women defendants who appeared before the Community Court were facing, but the severe impact of the constellation of these problems. Indeed, as Margaret Malloch and Gill McIvor have commented, there are ‘Inextricable links between poverty, addiction, abuse, marginalisation and the subsequent criminalisation of women who have often been failed by society in a variety of ways’ (Malloch and McIvor 2013, pp. 207–208).

Transforming Rehabilitation – Recent Developments

Throughout my academic career I have reflected on the lack of connection between academics and their research findings and probation staff. While I have endeavoured to carry out applied research and disseminate my findings, this is a challenging area. It was in the hope of supporting such engagement – and drawing attention to the provision for older women in prison – that I undertook (as an academic and as a trustee of the charity at that time) a joint presentation about The Rubies Group at Eastwood Park Prison, with Alma, the RECOOP project worker. 1 This took place at the ‘Women and Justice’ conference at the University of Wales, Newport, in May 2013. In particular we wanted to illustrate ‘how provision by a charity, in collaboration with and with the support of the prison authorities, can provide an innovative, flexible and constructive response’ (Annison and Hageman 2015, p. 148).

This event brought together participants from a wide range of different backgrounds and sparked discussion and debate, particularly about the emerging Transforming Rehabilitation agenda. At that point the emphasis was on good practice that had emerged in the period since 2007 and efforts throughout the criminal justice system to support women-centred interventions across statutory, voluntary and third sector providers. However, developments in England and Wales from this point onwards began to raise concerns about the potential disruption and fragmentation of this ethos and the level of provision for women within the criminal justice system. This prompted the decision by Jo Brayford, John Deering and I to co-edit a collection of chapters, largely based on presentations at the conference and to engage with and contribute to the debate in this area. The resulting book Women and Criminal Justice: From the Corston Report to Transforming Rehabilitation was published in October 2015.

While the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 ‘placed a statutory requirement on the Secretary of State for Justice to ensure that contracts with new providers of probation services considered and identified the particular needs of female offenders’ (House of Commons Justice Select Committee 2015), the report of this Committee went on to say,

We were concerned that effective provision for women offenders might not be achieved under the payments by results system underpinning the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms. In particular, we queried whether there would be sufficient incentive for providers to make available appropriate provision for women offenders, taking into account that they are often classified for probation purposes as presenting a lower risk of re-offending and harm, but tend to have a higher level of need, which could require more intensive, and costly, intervention. (House of Commons Justice Select Committee 2015)

I concur with these concerns, not least because an evidence base of good practice was gradually emerging (see, for instance, the Justice Data Lab report [Ministry of Justice 2015b]). While only time will tell if the upheaval of the Transforming Rehabilitation changes will bring about any positive change, my co-authors and I concluded the last chapter in our book as follows:

The strictures of contestability and Payment by Results enshrined within the neoliberal TR political project seem likely to change the criminal justice landscape in a way that can only be of concern in relation to female offenders. The lack of cohesion – and a ‘one size fits all’ approach for offenders – is the complete antithesis of the holistic and women-centred concept advocated by Corston…Much has been gained over recent years, but much stands to be lost. Corston’s clarion call for ‘a distinctive, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, women-centred, integrated approach’ (Corston 2007, p. 1) should not be lost in the onslaught of ideological change (Annison et al. 2015b, p. 256).

Meeting Myself Coming Back

The assessment of most women who are serving community or custodial sentences as low risk in terms of risk of harm, but presenting high levels of personal and social problems has been a long-standing characterisation, often portrayed in terms of a ‘troubled/troublesome’ description (see, for instance, Gelsthorpe and Loucks 1997; Roberts 2010). In exploring these issues for my academic teaching and research I located Professor Loraine Gelthorpe’s early publications. It was then that I discovered – much to my surprise – that I had been the social worker she had interviewed in ‘Agency Two’, a closed ‘place of detention for alleged offenders not released on bail, and a place of safety for girls who were to appear before a court or on whom an interim care order had been made by a court’ (Gelsthorpe 1989, p. 79). At the time I worked there (from 1980 to 1982), it was described as a regional observation and assessment centre (it no longer exists) and Loraine Gelsthorpe had undertaken some of her PhD research at this setting.

My reflective engagement with the research findings and with my reported responses in the book gave me pause for thought: I was surprised by the explicit focus in the research on ‘sexism’ in a way that now seemed particularly old-fashioned. However, alongside this, it was a somewhat unnerving experience to read comments that I had apparently made in answer to the research questions (I did not recollect any of this!). In applying a critique to myself from this distance of time, I commended my anti-custodial stance at one point, but then squirmed with embarrassment at my judgemental attitude about some of the girls’ culpability for their offending behaviour. However, most of all, I reflected on societal and attitudinal changes that have taken place since the 1980s to the current day, particularly the life chances that are now open to many girls and women – but also how pervasive negative and punitive perceptions of women’s offending behaviour have remained in the criminal justice system. In this respect I share Anne Worrall’s observations (2002) that problems still remain:

The ‘search for equivalence,’ driven by a misunderstood feminist hegemony calling for the empowerment of women by making them accountable for their deeds, has resulted in an inevitable increase in the numbers of women rendered punishable…In the effort to retreat from traditional paternalism and maternalism, the making of the penal crisis in relation to women has been instead the unmaking of ‘women’ as a category of offender requiring any special attention at all. (Worrall 2002, p. 64)

This reflection on the past also uncovered some sombre responses from the ‘girls’ themselves. In trying to find out when ‘Agency 2’ was shut down I went onto the internet and found many emotional blogs and messages from women who had had placements at Agency 2. They were trying to make connections with their peers from that time, and had written about their memories of distressing and disturbing experiences while they were there and during subsequent placements.

Concluding Thoughts

At this point in my personal and professional life, I find myself ruing the retrograde steps that the various elements of the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda are likely to have for women under supervision, not least because of the introduction of the profit motive where, in my view, none should intrude (see also Allison 2015). In line with Pat Carlen, I think that any consideration about the treatment of women by criminal justice agencies needs to be examined through

The changing ideologies of female poverty and oppression in the UK, and also the key political ideologies and organisational rhetorics of legitimate penal governance. (Carlen 2002, pp. 235–236)

The adoption of a focus on social, rather than criminal, justice could take many women out of the criminal justice system altogether (see Centre for Crime and Justice Studies 2015). In this respect the proposed closure of Holloway Prison (Ministry of Justice 2015c) could provide an opportunity for radical change. It seems to me that the failure to close the large women’s prisons in England was the fundamental flaw in the Labour government’s response to the Corston Report (2007) because ‘the continuing entrenchment of prison as a sentencing sanction for women’ left imprisonment as ‘a pivot around which policy and practice continue to revolve’ (Annison et al. 2015b, p. 256). Removing Holloway from the prison estate therefore provides an opportunity to bring about ‘real’ change and to reshape penal responses in a more compassionate and humane way with regard to the sentencing of women. In this respect within this chapter I have indicated that strands of good policy and practice could be drawn from the past to guide the present and to look ahead to the future. However, progress that has been made in recent years has been fragile and lacked the holistic vision that Corston (2007) advocated, and thus concerns about the potential for retrograde steps also need to be heeded.


  1. 1.

    RECOOP is the Resettlement and Care of Older Ex-Offenders and Prisoners charity.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Plymouth Law SchoolPlymouth UniversityPlymouthUK

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