The role of the Probation Service - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from Malcolm Lacey, Chief Probation Officer, Dorset, 1982-97 (PB 34)



1.  Increasing use of fast track reports:

—  devalues skills of probation officers in engaging with offenders in order that appropriate rehabilitative and restorative programmes may be offered to the court;

—  fails to intervene in the crisis that the court appearance entails when defendants are most open to change; and

—  does not use the multi-disciplinary skills necessary for long-lasting change which include health, psychiatric, addiction, and education.

2.  Key importance of offender using the information that the various professions have given him or her and helping them to take responsibility for changing their behaviour.

3.  Offenders lack psycho-social skills. Most offenders respond positively to cognitive behavioural groups provided on an intensive basis.

4.  Huge cost, both financial and social, to society if intensive intervention is not provided as shown by Sainsbury research.

5.  Two-thirds of prisoners indicate they would like to change but don't know how to access the resources they need.

6.  Key importance of developing networks within the community that can offer friendship, assistance and advice.

7.  Prisons should be accountable to local Probation Services for providing programmes in prison that can be used and followed up in the "real world".



In any one year, probation officers will prepare around 200,000 Pre-sentence Reports and will be supervising around 200,000 people. About three-quarters of the reports are for magistrates' courts and about a quarter for the crown courts. Fast delivery PSRs make up nearly 40% of all PSRs, a proportion that has grown rapidly. This is crazy. It is, nevertheless, a consequence of the history of PSRs which, for most of the history of the Service, were prepared by the local probation officer who would, for the most part, supervise the offender if he or she decided they could offer something to prevent further re-offending. In essence—and this is not meant to be belittling - it was "I have a hunch I can get on with/influence/offer some practical help and advice to this person". The fast track report is crazy for three reasons.

First, it undervalues what the probation officer does. He or she is the only person in the court process charged with trying to understand why the offender has reached the point at which he now stands and to work out ways in which he might take responsibility for making amends and, in the longer term, for changing his behaviour. It also has the effect of demonstrating to the offender that no-one is taking his predicament seriously; he is caught up in a process from which he can gain nothing - no incentive, no insight, no help, no challenge to his assumptions or his patterns of behaviour.

Second, a court appearance is a life crisis for the offender whatever the bravado with which some of them confront it. We know that a life crisis is a key moment when change—behavioural change - is more possible than at any other time. It is a moment, lasting no more than six weeks at the most. Current arrangements squander the potential of that moment.

Third, we know that a probation officer's caseload is, in the main, made up of young men who are persistently committing relatively serious offences. "There is substantial evidence that offenders as a group are significantly atypical of the general population in terms of the constellation of personal difficulties that they face. Commonly they will have a range of associated psychosocial problems such as unemployment, housing difficulties, poor educational achievement, disruptive family arrangements and mental health problems; a substantial minority will have attempted suicide, or misused drugs and alcohol. For a substantial subgroup of offenders, their difficulties have been lifelong; almost a third have been in care as children and they show significantly more disrupted and difficult behaviour and problems than those who have not been in care." (Ford, Pritchard and Cox 1997). In addition, they are more likely to be heavy smokers and to be more accident prone than the general population.

It will not have gone unnoticed that these ideas are contained in the government Green Paper Engaging Communities in Criminal Justice, where Community Courts are perceived as Problem Solving Forums which engage a wide range of professionals as well as local community contacts. The Government seems to have stepped back from the cost of providing purpose built centres. Instead, it proposes to test other models, based on existing magistrates' courts, involving multi-agency working and "virtual problem-solving teams". Repeat offenders would go before the same judge, or magistrates, who would review their progress. Perhaps we are on the brink of constructing a new "narrative" about the role of the probation officer and the links that should embed the service in the local community.


I don't want to downgrade the importance of "hunches"; indeed I think they are vital especially in the assessment of risk where the prickling of the hairs on the back of the neck tells us something is going on even if we are not quite sure what. But I want to suggest that it should be only a part of a much more extended assessment. That assessment would take place in a probation centre which would:

—  include amongst its staff a psychologist;

—   a nurse;

—  an employment adviser;

—  rapid referral to psychiatric services; and

—  have formal arrangements with the local college of further education for entry into appropriate courses.

Every offender would:

—  See a nurse to check on their general level of health, with reference to diet and fitness and including their use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

—  Undertake tests to determine their levels of literacy and numeracy.

—  A personal history and risk assessment.

—  Current housing.

The probation officer should be responsible for drawing all the information together and discussing it with the defendant. If in doubt about the implications of the findings, he or she should convene a case conference at which the defendant should normally be present. This should always happen when the offence has been a violent one or there seems to be a substantial risk of violence.


Now for the key point. It may have appeared that the collection of a far wider range of information is the major change I am seeking and, clearly, I do see that as being of great importance. The greater change I am arguing for is a change in the ownership of the information. It belongs to the defendant. He has provided it and it is for him to decide what use he makes of it. At the moment it is usually the probation officer who uses the information in order to suggest what they should do with or to the defendant. This is with the best intentions but there will be a tendency to view the defendant as the object of an investigation not the main actor who has to make decisions about what use he is going to make of what he has learned. This tendency has been strengthened by the abolition of "consent" to any order that might be made. The abolition of consent has not been seen to be important.

It is instructive to go back to the 1907 Probation of Offenders Act. The defendant was not asked to give his consent but to "enter into a recognizance". It is a significant change from the passive to the active mood. In the assessment process I envisage, the defendant would present to the court a short, signed, document with three elements:

—  I take responsibility for what I have done.

—  I will make amends as far as I can.

—  I will undertake the following activities to improve myself.

This would accompanied by the probation officer's report which would give the evidence on the sincerity of the defendant's offer, the background that had led to it and, of course, relating it to the seriousness of the offence and public safety. The probation officer provides an independent, impartial account as happens at the moment. Having helped the defendant to prepare a life-plan, he or she has to stand back and make a judgement on whether it will work. So much social work is on this edge of 'helpful distrust', of advocacy and scrutiny. It seems an impossible dream but probation officers know it is possible and that disasters happen when the work gets too far away from that edge.

Having said that, it may be the case that it is practically and emotionally too onerous and confusing for one person to combine befriending and therapy with the scepticism required of checking—in both the senses of investigating and stopping. This is an area that needs more exploration.


There is a wide recognition that the probation service should have a lot of links into other statutory and voluntary agencies and that much of the work of rehabilitation should be undertaken by them. This is very positive but in all the talk of commissioning, partnership, inter-agency co-operation it sometimes feels that there is a hole where the defendant should be. In truth, probation officers know that effective change only takes place when they engage with the offender, that is to say, consent is gained even if it is not articulated. However, it is preferable to use positive words such as engagement, contracting, "entering into a recognizance".

For most offenders, a cognitive behavioural group would be an essential part of their rehabilitation. They should be required to attend two sessions a week starting after no more than four working days; if they miss a session, then they would re-enter the course at the point at which they left, not the group in which they were. It is a step in the learning process which has to be recovered, not a detention. This puts the emphasis on learning all the necessary social skills. When the content of these groups is boiled down, they focus on genuineness, empathy and non-possessive warmth, that famous therapeutic trinity (Truax and Carkhuff) which are in fact the essence of living together in a civilised way. In other words, knowing and being able to control oneself; being able to get into another person's world and imagine how they feel; and expressing oneself in an open and non-defensive way. Such groups also enable them to challenge each other which, again, we know that participants find both helpful and authentic.

In addition, other activities would be undertaken to remedy the conditions highlighted in the assessment. This is why assessment based, as it is currently on self report is so inadequate. Home, employment and social (peer group) network contact is surely imperative in knowing about the problems to be resolved and why a single supervisor is no longer a viable or valid model. The task of the probation officer is to ensure that the offender carries out his part of the contract but also, and crucially, to help the offender make sense of the various experiences he is going through.

This is not the place to go into the managerial issues of this suggested change except to say that the logistics must be very carefully worked out. The organisation will be different in different areas. The concept that has to be grasped is that we are introducing people into a programme, tailored to individual needs, and not, primarily, into a relationship. The model is an educational rather than a therapeutic one. In doing so, we can have the paradoxical effect of increasing contact time probably five times or more than in the conventional reporting model.

There's no point in glossing over the fact that it is very hard to get alienated young men motivated enough to participate. We do need to take breach action and to have an understanding with the courts that such action is disciplinary rather than punitive and that it is an unavoidable element of the change process. These young people have deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour which to us seem self-destructive but which for them have held many rewards, not least of companionship and release from depression.

The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health has just reported that up to 80% of crime in the UK is committed by people who had behavioural problems as children and teenagers, costing as much as £60 billion a year. Only one child in 20 has a conduct disorder but they go on to commit 30% of crime at a cost to society of more than £22 billion a year. A lifetime of crime committed by a single prolific offending person's behaviour can cost up to £1.5 billion. Another 45% of children have mild or moderate behaviour problems, and go on to commit half of all crime at a cost of £37 billion a year. The Report maintains that early intervention programmes can significantly reduce crime levels. (The Guardian 23 Nov 2009)

Other research has shown that two-thirds of crime is committed by around 6-7% of all offenders—namely those prolific offenders identified in the previous paragraph. At some point they will all be on the probation caseload. They are those same children which the Sainsbury Report has identified, only by the time they reach the probation service their behaviour will have become much more damaging and their attitudes more deeply embedded. Even so, some two-thirds of those questioned while in prison expressed the wish to change- they recognise the desolation of their lives but lack the skills to ameliorate it. A vibrant, relevant probation centre offers an opportunity to gain just those skills and the support to help them through the rough times. The probation officer/Service/centre must always focus on the need of those in trouble need to get into wider community networks as soon as ever possible. That's where the voluntary agencies could be most help.

The Sainsbury Report emphasises how much support the parents of children with conduct disorders need. We should not forget that many of the young men coming onto the probation caseload are already parents or soon will be. Part of the group work undertaken at the centre should be intensive parenting tuition. Their own experience has been of inconsistent and unloving parenting. A volunteer ran a parenting group in a YOI and recalled teaching these 18 year olds how to sing the traditional nursery rhymes. It is hard to imagine a more poignant image.

Once they have completed the intensive part of their rehabilitation, they will need continuing support in consolidating their progress. In some cases, this will mean help in getting work or decent housing; in others, a shoulder to lean on, a helping hand in getting into new, non-criminal leisure activities, a sponsor. We should aim to interest various kinds of clubs to take one or two ex-offenders as members and within those clubs to have volunteers willing to introduce and integrate them. Recruiting volunteers seems to be getting more difficult and the Service will have to give some thought on how this might be overcome. If the Service runs the kind of intensive, crisis driven, citizenship courses that I have suggested, then it follows that we need to give them support as they make a re-entry into society. Beyond that, we must try to involve the community as a whole in this enterprise. The Service would need to invest in traditional community work; many of the communities from which offenders come are themselves lacking in investment. Helping those communities to achieve a robust kind of self-help would enable them to re-integrate ex-offenders without harm to themselves. The prize is very great. Sainsbury suggests that preventing one child in 25 from entering a life of crime would be cost-effective. I think we can do better than that.

A probation officer would of course still be responsible for each case. The aim is not to replace him or her with "cheap labour" but to work with individual volunteers and community groups in a genuine crime prevention project. He or she would be tasked with getting a grip on the process.

Establishing the same kind of network would apply to high risk offenders though a probation officer would work directly with the ex-offender with all the continuing assessment and close contact that that implies. Vocabulary is important; we need to have a convention whereby the criminal moves from defendant and offender to ex-offender and, hopefully, fellow citizen.

The service should capitalise on the meetings with magistrates who oversee the supervision that is taking place. Such meetings underline the seriousness with which the offender's behaviour is taken; but it also provides an opportunity for community representatives to reward the offender for the progress he is making—a novel and meaningful experience for most of them. It could also provide them with an opportunity to re-negotiate the deal.


This is a major part of the work. I doubt that it can be much improved without a major recasting of the penal system, along the lines set out by the Commission on English Prisons of the Howard League. They suggest a radical localisation with local authorities taking responsibility for prisons. Most crime is committed by local offenders who will return to the same area. Once local authorities begin to see the large, and largely ineffective, budgets now commanded by the National Offender Management Service, there will be immediate and powerful pressure to use community sentences.

In the meantime, prisons should be accountable to the local probation service for preparing a plan of activity within the prison that matches the assessment of what is necessary to prevent re-offending. Under the scheme I am putting forward, many of the people sent to prison will have gone through the assessment process. That should be the basis of the plan to be followed.

Ex-prisoners released on licence should follow the same path as those offenders who have been placed under supervision—assessment if necessary, taking part in targeted courses and activities and community support.

September 2010

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Prepared 27 July 2011