A motion at the AGM argued for the reintroduction of the probation order. Its supporters were critical of the increasing emphasis on the role of punishment; they argued we needed to reassert traditional probation values, perhaps best encapsulated in the 'advise, assist, befriend' triad. The motion was defeated on a show of hands. Those who spoke against were sympathetic towards the intent underlying the motion, but argued that with so many external threats to the future of a public probation service, now was the wrong time to campaign and rally support for a purist rehabilitation order. There were also criticisms of the triad, with a couple of speakers saying it was not their role to 'befriend', one speaker saying she had never been and would never consider going for a drink with a client! There was a clear subtext: advise, assist and befriend was anachronistic.
I have been for drinks with clients over the years, in pubs and in cafés. I never saw it as a boundary issue or a big deal; I never felt compromised. Sometimes it was the most natural and social thing to do. It is easy to caricature befriending, just as advise and assist can seem pale when set against 'confronting offending behaviour' and 'rigorous enforcement'. We had a rehabilitation revolution in probation years ago: rehabilitation was overthrown, pushed to the margins as punishment took centre stage. We were instructed to see ourselves as a law enforcement agency and our overarching purpose was punishment in the community. Or course we can never punish enough in the minds of some and so there is a never-ending political push to toughen up community penalties and make them more punitive.
I don’t know where the punitive attitudes that drive politicians come from, but they don't come from crime victims as often being a victim does not invariably stir desires for retribution; desires for the wrongdoer to be rehabilitated or for reparations to be undertaken are often stronger. But the fact is many of our politicians of different hues are hooked on tough law and order rhetoric which provides the fuel for an ever-rising prison population.
The problem with punishment is that there is no objective way of measuring it. In the old days when the body was punished, such as thieves having their hands amputated, it was easier to see the pain of punishment. But now we have moved away for inflicting physical pain it is impossible to calibrate the pain of punishment upon the individual, as what hurts one may not hurt another. Imagine how it hurts to be innocent and locked up. We do know, though, that solitary confinement and lengthy imprisonment is likely to inflict lasting psychological trauma.
In probation there has been simplistic acceptance that community service is a punishment. It may be a inconvenience to some and be resented in consequence, but others find the experience rewarding and confidence building. An electronic tag imposes restrictions and it hurts some, but for others it has literally been seen as a useful discipline at that point in their lives, if they are trying to resist peer pressure or stay out of pubs. What about probation programmes, are they punitive or rehabilitative? If you are a prisoner past his/her IPP tariff they are probably manna from heaven; whereas for others they are a pain and for others they can furnish new insights and understandings.
Rehabilitation when it means enforced treatment is not always on the side of the angels. Thinking here of how aversion therapy was used to 'treat' homosexuals in the prison system in the fifties and sixties and was still being advocated long afterwards.
In recent years probation has not been dominated just by a punishment ethos, but also one of compulsion – you will do ABC, based on mechanistic risk assessments, and delivered to 'offenders'. Who in their right mind would go for a drink with an offender? Using language and methodologies probation distanced itself from its clients who actually needed advising, assisting and befriending – not necessarily in equal doses, or similarly frequencies. Those judgements would be left to the probation officer whose aim was to prevent reoffending through rehabilitation and reform.
You don't change behaviour through punishment, you change it through encouraging motivation to change in the client and you do all within your powers to create conditions to support and sustain change.
If we had had probation orders with advise, assist and befriend (informed with humane values predicated on a belief in the individuals ability to change) on the statue books and we had witnessed an exponential rise in imprisonment rates, then perhaps probation orders would have been in the firing line. Instead we have seen a right-wing ideology at the forefront in probation, with probation, for example, enthusiastically supporting IPPs at the expense of human rights. We have seen punishment in the community and all it has done is suck more poor people and minorities into the system and do more harm than good. We have seen social problems become part of the psychopathology of individuals. We have seen senior management crudely doing their best to ape private sector styles. And as the going gets tough we see them jumping ship and taking the filthy lucre. I think it is unlikely that the public probation service will be saved from privatisation, but if it was I sometimes wonder if its worth saving for the public good. In recent years it has been value-free and it's hard to say with any certainty what it stands for. The big mistake of probation was becoming excessively organisational and managerialism. The true strength of probation lay in the professional standing and commitment of probation officers – but that had to be destroyed in order to centralise power and give us directors and chief executives, as though we were something we were not. It was an abject failure, there was no great leap forward, but there will always be other work for the Red Guards when Serco and co. come calling.
I am sorry the motion got defeated: it's what probation needs. Probation should be arguing for rehabilitation and distancing itself from punishment because it is ineffective and does not work. Probation should be saying we need less punishment, we need more purist rehabilitation and reparation schemes of all types.