Sentenced to Surveillance?

Date01 March 1979
AuthorAdrian James
Publication Date01 March 1979
Sentenced to Surveillance?
(The Probation Service is in danger of adopting panic reactions to the problem
of crime, claims the author. He urges the Service to think very carefully before
abandoning its traditional social work emphasis.)
THE recent articlel by Malcolm Bryant and his colleagues is both interest-
ing and significant, at least in so far as it serves to highlight many crucial
points in the debate about the current state of the Probation Service in
general and the probation order in particular. This focus on the current
decline in the use of the probation order, with all that it may or may not
signify, is of tremendous significance in that the probation order has for
many years been the mainstay, if not the raison d’être, of the Service.
Apart from the strengths of the probation order as a potentially far more
flexible alternative to custody than some of its recent competitors, the
concern about its declining use and the search for means of counteracting
this seems linked to an almost emotional conception of it as being of
fundamental importance to the ethos of the Probation Service as an
agency providing a social work service to offenders who appear before the
courts. This view would certainly be supported by a review of the history
of the Service and would undoubtedly be shared by many probation
officers. It is therefore even more curious to consider some of the changes
which are being proposed by Bryant et al, among others, which seem just
as likely to bring about the demise of the probation order as it now exists.

Social work in probation
Certainly, conceptions of what constitutes social work have undergone
extensive, if inconclusive, discussion in recent years and without embark-
ing upon any attempt at prescription here, it seems of vital importance to
ask certain questions about the compatibility of some of these proposals
with the notion of social work as it is currently practised and perceived
in the Probation Service, which by most accounts is a far more broadly
based endeavour than it has been traditionally. As a corollary, certain
issues concerning the way in which the development of the Service is
determined need to be faced together with their possible significance for
some of the current proposals.
The history of the Service has been thoroughly documented, most
recently and most effectively by 13ochel2 and Haxby3, and any attempt to
duplicate the task here is unnecessary. Nonetheless certain points need
highlighting. The probation order and with it the Service were created by
the 1907 Act, almost entirely as a means of reducing the numbers of
offenders sent to prison. The approach of the early probation officers was
influenced by religious ideals, but with the development of psychoanalytic
theory and its attendant skills, the need for some training in the growing
skills of social workers came to be seen as a vital addition to missionary
enthusiasm and beliefs. Therefore, from the early 1930s, in keeping with
social work in general, the Service was dominated by a positivist treatment
orientation which in some ways pervaded penal policy and certain aspects
of the criminal justice system, such as sentencing policy, which moved
steadily towards individualised sentencing and the notion of fitting the
sentence to the offender instead of the punishment to the crime.4

In the 1960’s however, rapid changes took place in terms of the size
of the Service and the scope of its duties. The immediate impact of this
was obvious, but some of the changes were more subtle, moving the Ser-
vice gradually closer towards the penal system and central government
control, giving it a central place in penal policy and giving probation
officers more duties which involved control and coercion, e.g. statutory
aftercare in general and parole in particular-and which placed a con-
cern about risk to the public (and therefore reconviction rates) equal to,
if not above, concern for the client. These changes coincided with and
were perhaps the result of other changes which were to some extent...

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