Probation professionalisation

Work with Offenders looks at the latest briefing from the Centre for Justice Innovation

As most readers will know, the probation service will be reunified this June when the contracts of the 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies will be terminated and all sentence management responsibilities will go to the National Probation Service (NPS). This means that, from June 2021, the NPS will be responsible for the effective delivery of community sentences, licences and other forms of post-sentence management. In the words of the Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI): “Probation will be, once more, public and whole again”.

In January 2020, the Probation Workforce Programme was launched to ensure the wider changes happening in probation are married with changes to the probation workforce, in particular addressing the significant shortfall in trained probation officers. The Ministry of Justice committed itself to improve the professionalisation of probation (tacitly acknowledging that the status of the profession had taken a hit during the “Transforming Rehabilitation” years in which the service was fragmented and part privatised). Work with offenders recently covered the Department’s proposed new training system which it intends to outsource.

The CJI briefing paper identifies four major deficiencies in the current state of the probation profession:

  1. Oversight of professional standards are not, unlike in social work, medicine, nursing and other related professions, overseen by a regulator independent of the employer.
  2. While the Probation Institute has maintained a register for all practitioners there has been no requirement for any practitioners to register with the Institute.
  3. There is no independent code of conduct, appeals process or de-registration process, as there is in other professions.
  4. As probation moves, for the first time, into a single employing body, also including the Prison Service and within the Civil Service, access to independent, external scrutiny will be an important element of public confidence.

The CJI enthusiastically backs the case for probation professionalisation for a number of reasons. It argues that probation officers’ ability to protect the public has been damaged by the recent lack of continuous professional development, as well as a lack of funding and the disruptive Transforming Rehabilitation reforms. It notes that the recent serious case review into the offences committed by Joseph McCann (who committed multiple serious violent offences while under probation supervision which resulted in him receiving 33 life sentences) exposed failures in the quality of assessment, planning and management and supervision. Subsequent reports have revealed that many probation staff are now often apprehensive about prison recall decisions because of a fear of being scapegoated if an individual reoffends. The CJI argues that one purpose of establishing clear professional standards is to support individual probation officers to make decisions based on professional judgement without regard to operational, financial or political pressures.

The CJI also argues that professionalisation will help ensure consistent practice across the country and strengthen probation officers’ professional judgement. In its recent White Paper, the Government proposes giving probation officers greater powers and more flexibility in doing their job; introducing specific legislation to enable this. Many people have argued the importance of reintroducing more professional discretion into the probation role, although this approach clearly has the potential to make  practice less, rather than more, consistent. My own recent research has found that different probation regions have different cultures around approaches to recalling released prisoners.

One clear goal of probation professionalisation is to restore the confidence of judges and magistrates who have been making a much smaller proportion of community sentences over recent years.

The Centre for Justice Innovation points out that putting probation on a professional basis would bring England and Wales into line with other UK jurisdictions. In Scotland, the supervision of offenders in the community is undertaken by criminal justice social teams, based in local authority social work departments. Social workers who work in the Community Justice system are trained alongside other social workers and it is not uncommon for career pathways to cross to and from this service to other social work specialisms within local authority. In Northern Ireland, In Northern Ireland, all probation officers must have a social work qualification and be registered with the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC).

The paper’s primary recommendation is that an independent, external regulator is the most important element of the probation professionalisation programme, with this regulator being responsible for upholding professional standards and effective practice.