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Probation Officers Want To Help Not Punish

May 19 2010 - Research from the University of Wales published in the Probation Journal found that attitudes and motivations expressed by new recruits to the probation service were inconsistent with the UK government's current emphasis on probation as 'punishment in the community' and protection of the public rather than rehabilitation for the individual offender.

John Deering, senior lecturer in criminology and criminal justice, conducted interviews with over 100 recruits to the probation service at the beginning, middle and end of their training. Participants reflected wider UK recruitment trends for the service: 75 per cent were female, two-thirds were under 30 and a similar percentage were graduates. Respondents tended to give consistent responses over time, with limited change attributable to training. While recognising the government's agenda, principal reasons for joining the service were 'to engage on a humanistic level with offenders and to offer 'help' in the widest sense with a view to assisting individuals to achieve behavioural change'.

The report explains that the Government has sought to change the ethos of the service over the last ten years, promoting a tougher image while retaining some commitment to rehabilitation. Significantly in this respect, the long-standing requirement for probation officers to be qualified social workers has been abandoned.

The findings suggest that while the Government may have been partially successful, values and beliefs expressed by current recruits are very similar to those in earlier studies. The overwhelming majority were hoping for a satisfying and meaningful job working with and 'helping people'. There was little evidence of interest in carrying out law enforcement or control functions.

The study found that respondents tended to stress the importance of external and determinist factors such as diverse and entrenched inequalities that restrict personal choice and make offending more likely. Criminality was associated with an inability to deal effectively with problems and challenges, rather than the notion that criminals were innately 'bad' or had chosen to be so.

John Deering said:

"Of course, it is also the case that government retains a belief in the ability of offenders to change. However, these aims are not currently in the ascendancy within government, rather it is more concerned with law enforcement, offender management and risk management."

The report argues that personal and organisational tension may rise if employees maintain views about the values and purpose of the probation service that increasingly conflict with a political focus on offender management, punishment and the protection of the public. Probation officers may become increasingly discontent carrying out policies they disagree with. More positively, offenders may achieve more constructive outcomes than some aspects of current policy allow for.

John Deering concluded:

"Should these respondents be more widely representative of probation practitioners and continue to hold these attitudes, beliefs and values as practitioners there may be implications for the probation service and for them as individuals, as well as for broader macro level theories about the wider criminal justice system and the probation service."



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