Creating an evidence-based probation service

Work with Offenders looks at some lesser known aspects of the work of the probation inspectorate

Most readers will of course be familiar with the main work of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation which consists of independently assessing the performance of the seven National Probation Service divisions and the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (until these are disbanded in June next year). The inspectorate also conducts a number of “thematic” inspections looking at key areas of practice such as resettlement work, court reports et cetera.

However, in recent years the inspectorate has also become a major contributor to the evidence base which underpins modern probation work through two main initiatives.

Firstly, under the previous Chief Inspector, Dame Glenys Stacey, the Inspectorate realised that it was collecting huge amounts of data via its area inspections which were then left to rot in filing cabinets and on servers and never put to further use. It was clear that by aggregating the data from a number of different inspections, the Inspectorate were in a position to provide some much needed insight into the new models of service delivery which have changed substantially over recent years under the Government’s (recently cancelled) Transforming Rehabilitation initiative.

Research and analysis bulletins 

Starting in September 2018, the Inspectorate has now published eleven Research & Analysis Bulletins on a wide range of topics including service user assessment, the effectiveness of remote supervision and new technologies and, most recently, the quality of presentence information and advice provided to courts.

The benefit of this series is principally that it is based on large datasets which have been impartially collected and would rarely be accessible to independent researchers. It is very unusual for the Ministry of Justice or Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to commission research on core practice, as opposed to pilot initiatives, leaving something of a vacuum for the development of evidence-based practice. The most recent Bulletin looked at inspection data relating to 802 court reports prepared in the year ending June 2019 across all seven NPS divisions and made a convincing case that oral court reports (now the preferred format) had sacrificed quality, especially for defendants with complex needs, on the altar of “speedy justice”.

Academic insights

The other main research initiative developed by the inspectorate is its “Academic Insights” series in which it commissions leading academics to present their views on specific topics with the aim of facilitating informed debate about what helps and hinders best practice in the probation and youth justice arenas.

Despite being a very recent initiative, the Inspectorate has already published 13 of these insights in the last 18 months. The Inspectorate has been successful in enticing of many of the most well-known academics in the probation arena including (“Mr Desistance”) Shadd Maruna, Rob Canton, David Best, Chris Fox and Charlie Brooker. The topics covered include “Reconciling desistance and What Works”, supervision skills, innovation information, trauma informed practice and, most recently, maximising positive mental health outcomes for people on probation.

Conclusion 

Both the breadth of interest and the frequency with which the Inspectorate publishes this research are to be commended. The initiatives allow the Inspectorate both to reflect the interests of practitioners in the field as well as to show leadership in highlighting hitherto neglected issues.

Currently, the Inspectorate is undertaking new primary research in five particularly interesting areas:

  1. The research and evaluation activities of probation providers
  2. Caseloads and workloads in probation services
  3. Knife crime and young people – exploring promising strategy, interventions and casework
  4. Staff experiences of supervising service users at risk of self-harm and/or suicide
  5. Working with trauma: An exploration of current probation service approaches

All the research is free to download and readers who are interested can find the Research & Analysis Bulletins here and the Academic Insights series on these pages.