As part of Probation Day, Professor Hazel Kemshall, a pre-eminent thinker on risk offers her reflections on the future of risk assessment and management within the probation context.
There is a famous adage that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. Never was this truer than when applied to the re-unification of the Probation Service. United to deliver a range of work, but also united to manage a range of risks.
The recent history of risk management has many lessons for us, but a salient one for probation is that risk operates along a continuum and not as a binary concept of ‘yes/no’ risk, or tiered on easily applied gradations of low, medium, high or very high. Managing a risk continuum requires not only a unified Probation Service but also highly skilled and competent staff, well able to recognise and manage the many complexities and challenges presented by risk; alert to escalating risk, and subtle changes in situations and behaviours.
Over the last 20 years or so, the Probation Service has improved its use of risk assessment tools and procedures, and sought to balance the proceduralisation of risk tools with the skilled decision making of staff. The current Risk of Serious Harm Guidance is a case in point; where well-informed and structured decision making is enhanced beyond the level of merely ticking off risk factors. It is also increasingly recognised that staff have to carry out very challenging balancing acts, most notably risk and rehabilitation, and risk and desistance. Such balancing depends upon the exercise of critical reasoning rooted in robust evidence, and an evidential approach to the options for case management subsequently chosen. The overarching context for such balancing must always be public safety, thus evidencing and deciding that case actions are commensurate with public safety and are proportionate rather than merely precautionary. All risk work is ultimately a balance between risk and rights, protection and integration, desistance supportive work and control, with the appropriate balance tailored to the individual service user. The art of professional practice is the skill to weigh up such balancing acts in a transparent, defensible and evidential way (Kemshall, 2021).
The Probation Service is now well placed to focus on the delivery of a major public good: safety, both for local communities and wider public. This will require the use of robust evidence on interventions and risk management strategies, continued skill development, and risk assessment tools that genuinely aid decision making in the real world of practice. The Probation Service needs to embrace a culture of critical reflection that helps staff to weigh up the different options, and when considering risk solutions in the day-to-day challenge of busy practice. Staff are often challenged to operate at their very best given the inherent difficulties of their working environment. A shared commitment from staff and managers to foster a culture of critical reflection will best serve the difficult work of risk. Practitioners work most effectively when they have developed self-management and resilience alongside the skills of problem-solving, emotion management, and self-reflection (Kemshall, Wilkinson and Baker, 2013).
It has been a long road from ‘advise, assist and befriend’ to walking alongside the offender in their desistance journey towards rehabilitation, reintegration, and to the greatest public good of them all, community safety. The Probation Service has always shown itself to be adaptable and responsive. It is important not to dwell on past history, but to use the lessons of history to inform the future. The key lesson here is ‘push on’ and do what the Service has always done, work with those who have committed acts of criminality and harm in order to minimize risk for us all.