Taking the re-offending out of probation

When I first met Alan at the probation office, I was prepared for a troubled young person who had recently been released on a home detention curfew having served a sentence of detention at a youth offender institution.

Alan’s 10 month curfew was completed successfully without any major upheavals. He reported diligently and appeared to participate meaningfully in supervision. He said he had learned his lesson and remained out of trouble. What, I asked him at our final supervision session, had kept him free from trouble? His previous history had been one of serial breach and escalating offending.

“I knew that you cared about what I was hoping to do with my life and I think that made the difference,” he told me.

Could it have been patience and perseverance? I was lucky to catch Alan at one of those critical moments when things began to happen. As a CQSW trained probation officer, I have always felt at ease with staying with people.

But I am uneasy about how this person-centred (dare I say social work) approach squares with the more technical aspects of how the offender assessment system and offender management have come to dominate probation practice and harnessed to managerial interpretations of “what works”.

If probation is to help to transform the lives of those who offend, it also needs to satisfy victims and take issues of public safety and protection more seriously. Some of the enforced cultural changes in the service over the past few years have been born of political necessity.

Having been a frontline probation officer, I retain some enduring practice insights that have enabled me to retain my professional integrity and esteem – as well as assist my occupational survival.

It is often tougher to engage than to enforce it is worth looking at the emerging research on desistance to find clues as to what makes for positive outcomes and it is vital to flag up the importance of motivation and agency, in the process of change.

We must ensure community reintegration comes before programme completion and renew the focus on rebuilding personal responsibility through restorative and effective practice principles.

And let’s stop calling them offenders! For, as Alan said: “It tells you what I did, not what I am.”

Mike Guilfoyle is probation officer and publicity officer of Greater London Napo, the trade union and professional organisation for probation and family court staff

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