From the ‘social’ to the ‘informational’
in the Probation Service...and back
again?
Sarah Jane Czarnecki
Department of Social Policy and Social Work – University of York
[email protected]
Presentation objectives

To outline some preliminary findings on a PhD study to
‘map’ the way that offender risk is assessed by probation
practitioners

To explore whether the study has found evidence that
changes in the probation service, including new National
Standards, are signalling a return to the ‘social’ in
probation practice?
Risk and managerialism in the probation
service

Latter twentieth century and early twenty-first century, arguments that
the probation service has become a ‘centrally driven’ law enforcement
agency directed towards assessing and managing offender risk with a
public protection raison d’être (Raynor and Vanstone, 2007)

Led to increase in risk and needs assessment tools aimed towards
achieving public protection and managing offender risk (Robinson
2002, Bullock, 2011)

Contemporary probation service characterised by a “computerisation;
stringent enforcement practices; managerialism and bureaucracy” with
a focus on achieving value for money, demonstrating effectiveness
and chasing objectives and targets (Whitehead, 2010: 17, 23)
Changes in probation practice

Early probation service values for practitioners to ‘advise, assist and
befriend’ offenders (May, 1991)

Parton (2008) argues, probation officers are no longer part of the
social work profession with a shift from the terrain of the ‘social’ to the
terrain of the ‘informational’ in traditional social work organisations
(Parton, 2008: 256)

April 2011 roll-out of new National Standards guidelines promoting a
move away from the bureaucratic managerially driven approach to
offender management to an approach espousing the increased use of
professional judgement and discretion in dealing with offenders
(http://www.theyworkforyou.com)
The PhD research project

Qualitative case study of a probation trust in the North of
England

6 months – early to mid-2012

Triangulation of research methods:a) Document review – policy, procedures, training guidelines
b) Periods of observation of probation practitioners conducting
Pre-Sentence Report interviews with offenders
c) Semi-structured interviews with same practitioners
Research fieldwork (1) – Observing PreSentence Report (PSR) Interviews
22 observation sessions of Pre-Sentence Report interviews
between probation officers and offenders – included
taking notes on:Physical setting and materials / tools, context, behaviours
and interactions, conversations and verbal interactions
Research fieldwork (2) – Interviews with
probation officers
22 semi –structured interviews with probation officers
covering areas including:
Background and training

Questions about how probation officers make risk
assessments and risk decisions

Questions about how probation officers feel about carrying
out risk assessments and working for the probation
service
Preliminary findings - Observation
sessions




22 one-to-one interviews between probation officer and offender –
ranging from 45 minutes to 2 hours in duration
Offences ranged from ‘affray’ to ‘production of Class B drugs’
Exploration of offence, offender ‘feelings’ about offence, discussion of
impact of offence on community and family, offender family history
and current domestic situation, offence related lifestyle issues e.g.
drug and alcohol use, motivating factors for offence
Discussion of potential sentencing recommendations including
community order, unpaid work, curfew, programme requirement
Preliminary findings – Interviews

22 interviews ranging from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours
duration

18 questions, semi-structured

Tape recorded and written notes
Preliminary findings – Interview questions
and answers
Question
Which parts of your role involve an element of
carrying out risk assessment for offenders
on your caseload?
-Is risk assessment formal e.g. computer
based or informal e.g. conversations with
colleagues etc.
Preliminary finding

All 22 probation officers said that risk assessment
comprises a very large part of the role and involves a mix
of informal and informal processing

Informal risk assessment involves interactions such as
discussions with colleagues, information from offender
family members, information gained from home visits*

Formal risk assessment is captured in use of offender
computer case records and multi-agency liaison
Question
What are the main features that guide you in
making risk decisions about offenders?
Preliminary finding
Answers on this ranged from offender self-reported
information, information from police and other
agencies and ‘gut instincts’. A recurring thread in
interviews was that nearly all probation officers
said discussion of offenders with colleagues was
an important factor in guiding risk decisions
Question
How do you feel about the amount of
bureaucracy involved in your work?
Preliminary finding
All officers said there is ‘too much’ bureaucracy and
a lot of repetition and duplication of tasks. Four of
the 22 specifically mentioned the new National
Standards and said that these have not cut down
on the bureaucracy
Question

Has working in the probation service
changed since you first joined?
- What changes have you noticed?
Preliminary finding

All of the officers said that there have been
changes and there is ongoing change in the
probation service in the time they worked for the
service (tenure ranged from 7 years to 30+ years)

15 of the officers discussed a culture shift and
there being a managerial, business centred focus
for probation work

7 pointed specifically to the new National
Standards heralding a return to social work
values and lessening of bureaucracy
Question
What aspects of your role give you most
satisfaction?
Preliminary finding

Nearly all (19) focussed on the offender
relationship and working with offender to
help facilitate change

The other 3 mentioned facets of the job
such as report writing and collaborative
working with other agencies
Initial conclusions...is there a discernible
return to the ‘social’

New National Standards recurring theme in many of the
interviews

Movement towards professional judgement and discretion
welcomed overall

Home visits more prevalent and being encouraged

All probation officers highlighted the importance of the key
feature of ‘relationship building’ with offenders

Still too much reliance on computerised systems in
probation work
References
Blunt, C. (2011), Probation Service (Revised National Standards),
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wms/?id=2011-04-05b.59WS.1 (last accessed 29/02/12)
Bullock, K. (2011), ‘The Construction and interpretation of risk management technologies in
contemporary probation practice’, British Journal of Criminology. (2011) 51, pp. 120–135
May, T. (1991), Probation: Politics, Policy and Practice, Buckingham: OUP
Parton, N. (2008), ‘Changes in the Form of Knowledge in Social Work: From the ‘Social’ to the
‘Informational’?, British Journal of Social Work, 38, pp. 253–269
Raynor, P. and Vanstone, M. (2007), ‘Towards a correctional service’ in Gelsthorpe, L. and Morgan, R.
(2007) (eds), Handbook of Probation, Cullompton: Willan Publishing
Robinson, G. (2002) ‘Exploring risk management in probation practice: Contemporary developments in
England and Wales’, Punishment and Society, Vol 4 (1), pp: 5–25
Whitehead, P. (2010), Exploring modern probation: Social Theory and Organisational Complexity, Bristol:
The Polity Press
Any feedback is appreciated!
Thank you for listening!