The Essence of Probation: Revisited

August 18, 2021
Kevin Wong
Reader in Community Justice & Associate DirectorPERU, Manchester Met University

Kevin Wong is Reader in Community Justice and Associate Director, Criminal Justice, at the Policy Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU), Manchester Metropolitan University. He is responsible for leading the unit’s work on criminal and community justice and voluntary sector delivery of justice services. He has over twenty five years experience in criminal justice as a researcher, policy adviser, commissioner and practitioner. Kevin is Co-Editor of the British Journal of Community Justice, a member of the Advisory Panel on Probation Learning, Director of the Manchester Crime and Justice Film Festival, and Chair of the Criminal Justice Alliance.

As part of Probation Day, Kevin offers some reflections on the Probation Service, what it is and how it is perceived.

For the public at large, the Probation Service is probably the most overlooked and misunderstood of the agencies that make up the Criminal Justice System.

When was the last time that any of us tuned in or more likely streamed the latest noirish (scandi or otherwise) drama about dedicated probation officers with complicated personal lives and intriguing back stories?

Compare this media absence and lack of cultural pedagogy with the proliferation of dramas about the police, judiciary, prisons and lawyers – accuracy notwithstanding.

Perhaps it’s the nature of probation, the job that it does that confounds the public and therefore renders probation something of an enigma?  

In the last issue of the British Journal of Community Justice which he edited before his retirement in 2016, Paul Senior along with other probation academics authored a paper which explored the “essence of probation”.

They adroitly proposed that probation operated: “…in and around four major systems of social organisation – the correctional system, the social welfare system, the treatment system and the community” (Senior et al 2016).

And importantly that:

“If it did not exist, it would be created to provide a means of balancing the need for rehabilitation and reintegration with the requirement to administer court orders and offer a level of public protection and reassurance.” (Senior et al 2016)

What has altered five years on in England and Wales, since the paper was published?

First and most obviously structural change. The unification of probation occurred in June this year - with community rehabilitation company staff joining colleagues in an expanded Probation Service managed in a divisional structure, not unlike the probation trusts which preceded the Transforming Rehabilitation changes (MoJ, 2013).

Secondly, after a decade or more of austerity following the 2008 fiscal crisis, probation has received a jolt of new funding. £300 million since 2019, in part intended to double the recruitment of probation officers in this financial year from the usual annual intake of 600 to 1500 (MoJ, 2021).  This is welcome but perhaps inevitably, as noted by Senior et al in 2016, it is policing and prison which still occupies much of the lion’s share of new funding for law enforcement and justice[i]. A “bigger and better probation” (ibid) may require a greater orientation of spending towards rehabilitation rather than enforcement and prisonisation.

Thirdly, funding aside, what of probation’s role within the correctional system which includes the police, prison, judiciary and courts? Its unique role appears to have returned to the fore.  Of all the criminal justice agencies, probation is the one body which arguably has the key responsibility for building and maintaining effective relationships with people with convictions - over the duration of their engagement with the criminal justice system. No mean task and arguably one that the public fails to fully appreciate.  If one were to select one thing which perhaps captures the essence of probation, it is this – its vital relational role in re-engaging and re-integrating individuals in society.

And what of the staff called upon to fulfil this critical function?  Signalled by a change in language – set out in the Target Operating Model for the new service (HMPPS, 2021) ‘probation practitioner’ is to replace the former terms of ‘offender manager/responsible officer’ and ‘officer’; and ‘sentence management’ to replace ‘offender management’.

While one may have differing views on the extent to which nominative determinism[ii] applies - arguably the shift in language matters - when applied to the staff providing the service as much as to  the users of it.  The re-emergence of ‘probation’ with ‘practitioner’ connects staff to a practice, culture and ethos that is over a century old and importantly is still with us.

As Paul Senior – a lifelong supporter and advocate for probation might have robustly opined:

“Well, what else would you call people who provide probation services but probation practitioners?”

As the inevitable challenges and triumphs following unification unfold it is worth noting that the conclusion to the paper by Paul and his colleagues is largely as valid now as it was five years ago.

“It has been argued that boundaries between this ‘essence’ [of probation] and the four social systems will vary over time, place and jurisdiction. There will always be disputes and debates as this defines the boundaries of probation in any community or, indeed, it poses the question whether something identifiable as probation still exists. This is clearly going to be challenging for all those who have a stake in developing effective, just and fair probation practices over the next few years.” (Senior et al 2016)

And in answer to that question, in this its 114th year: ‘yes’ - probation is still clearly identifiable and ‘yes’ it exists and looks set to grow; and with it, one hopes the potential for it to become better understood by the public and rightly cherished.


[i] At the end March this year, the Home Office reported that 8,771 new police officers had been recruited towards meeting Boris Johnson’s much vaunted pledge of 20,000 new officers by 2023 (Home Office, 2021).  £4 billion of capital funding has been committed to the building of new prisons and expansion of existing establishments to provide 18,000 additional prison places – based on the expected throughput generated by 20,000 new police officers (MoJ, 2020)

[ii] The notion that people are drawn to jobs that fit their surnames.  For example, the long time arboriculturist for Manchester City Council was Mr Leaf.

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