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Addiction, Prison & probation
Written by Judith Rumgay   
Tuesday, 19 December 1995 00:00



Developments in Probation Policy

Practice and Partnerships

by Dr Judith Rumgay.

Probation services have faced a number of thorny issues in recent attempts to develop practice with substance misusing offenders under their supervision. First among these has been the growing recognition of the sheer volume of clients on probation caseloads with substance misuse problems (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) 1991). The consequent pressure to show a coherent and effective response to this group has forced an appreciation of the fact that many probation officers feel inadequate to the task. Adding to this uncertainty, encouragement to prioritise harm minimisation policies (ACMD 1991; Home Office Inspectorate 1993), while welcomed in principle, spawned an anxious debate about the practical implications of such an approach for a statutory agency in the criminal justice system. Finally, the requirement to develop financial partnerships in the non-statutory sector (Home Office 1990; 1992) has prompted some probation services to consider whether these issues might best be resolved by funding specialist agencies to provide services for substance misusing offenders.

A research project funded by the Mental Health Foundation has been studying local responses to this cluster of dilemmas. Beginning in 1994 and now nearing completion, the study aimed to examine the range of projects for substance misusing offenders provided under the auspices of probation services, to compare 'in-house' projects with those involved in partnership, and to explore professional issues emerging in the development of partnerships. The research has been conducted in three phases: a mail and telephone survey of all probation services in England and Wales; face-to-face interviews with probation and voluntary agency practitioners involved in both in-house and partnership projects; and detailed case studies of three successful projects.

A curious aspect to this research has been the question of the boundary between policy and operational statements. The study opened by approaching probation services with a request for policy documents concerning both substance misuse and partnerships. In respect of the latter, the documents received, almost without exception, comprised the 'partnership plans' required by the Home Office. These plans essentially account for action both taken and proposed to reach the required target of a minimum expenditure of five per cent of services' budget on partnerships. Such operational statements do not in themselves constitute policy, but ought in fact to be guided by policy. It is fair to say that plans offered accounts of priorities for selecting partnerships, but these were set out in broad terms. Moreover, it seems for some, at least, of our subsequent contacts with probation staff that the partnership plans were regarded as strategic documents designed to satisfy official expectations while preserving as much independence as possible. Certainly, the closeness with which they echoed Home Office guidance, with little elaboration or diversion into 'unmarked territory', was notable. If this tactical approach to the drafting of the plans is so, one is even more strongly driven to ask the question: what, and where is partnership policy?

Is this concern for the substance of policy in reality an esoteric concern of academic researchers? Substance misuse policies for the most part endorsed harm reduction, acknowledging the dilemmas that such an approach could create for workers in a statutory criminal justice agency. Concrete guidance on dealing with tensions arising in admittedly sensitive areas such as confidentiality and enforcement, however, appeared to be relatively thin overall. During the second phase interviews, probation officers almost invariably answered the question "How does your service's policy on substance misuse help you?", with an admission of ignorance as to its contents.

In any event, the apparently dominant concerns at policy level tend not to be a strong guide to the pressing issues for practitioners. For example, enforcement was frequently cited as a likely problem in terms of the bal-ancing of the expectations of National Standards (Home Office 1995) and the perceived unreliability of the client group. Very few practitioners, however, could actually recall the last occasion on which an offender was breached for not co-operating with the programme. In practice, enforcement seemed to play little part in their experience. Similarly, anticipated conflict between probation services and partner agencies over issues of confidentiality seemed to have materialised infrequently. Rather ironically, one project where such conflict had arisen was run in-house, involving disagreements between a specialist officer and colleagues as to the level of confidentiality to be preserved.

At practitioner level, perhaps the most sensitive issue, and one which could profoundly affect the quality of practice, was the anxiety of many probation officers for the future, both of their profession in general and their jobs in particular. The financial constraints of probation services following the introduction of cash limiting was necessitating hard decisions at management level which were keenly felt by main grade officers. The resultant insecurity affected both in-house and partnership projects, but in rather different ways.

For some in-house projects, there was anxiety as to the future resourcing of the programme. For example, in some areas probation officers were facing redeployment, as a result of the service's constricted capacity for recruitment. Such redeployment tended to affect officers with specialist roles, such as substance misuse, who were required to undertake a broader range of commitments. This was experienced as a dilution in the quality of the service offered through the substance misuse project, or as a hard choice between preservation of quality and work overload.

In the case of partnerships, however, the strain of professional insecurity frequently surfaced in the quality of inter-agency relationships. To the extent that probation officers perceived their professional roles to be threatened by partnership arrangements, their inter-actions with voluntary agency workers were defensive, and even in some cases apparently hostile. This was related not only to unease about financial constraints on staffing, but more deeply to fears of professional devaluation and marginalisation. A vital ingredient of successful partnerships thus seemed to be the perception at practitioner level of substance misuse partners as providers of a service which complemented rather than substituted for the probation officer's involvement. That the security of one's own professional identity fund-amentally underpins the capacity to appreciate the worth of others may not be a profound revelation. Nevertheless, it seemed clear that management had in many areas failed either to communicate to staff, or to convince them of the view expressed repeatedly in the partnership plans that partnerships should not substitute for the existing work of the probation service.

At a practical level, also, partnerships seemed vulnerable to disruption by the movement of officers who had been instrumental in their development. It was noticeable that successful partnerships enjoyed the attention and commitment of one or two probation officers who invested time and effort in establishing projects, linking colleagues to the substance misuse workers, offering guidance and bridging gaps in communication. Without such a champion, substance misuse workers tended to find themselves isolated, and experienced difficulties in generating referrals. This stemmed from a combination of overt or tacit resistance and simple neglect on the part of probation officers, the ratio of each being dependent on the overall quality of relationships between partners. Substance misuse workers frequently reported spending much of their time engaged in public relations exercise to attract the attention of probation officers to their service, and where necessary to ease resistance to their involvement. Probation officers involved in in-house specialist projects enjoyed a natural advantage here by virtue of their natural presence in probation offices. Where substance misuse workers from partner agencies were able to dedicate time to probation offices on a regular basis, they also benefited from an improvement in the referral rate.

The case studies this research is concluding with involved three contrasting projects which, though very different in their structures, all demonstrate successful practice. Two are partnership projects: one offering an open access outreach and counselling service; the other providing a structured, time-limited programme of counselling as a special requirement of probation supervision. These projects together illustrate different answers to a recurrent policy dilemma over the desirability of targeting offenders as a distinct group within the substance misusing population. This question was raised by many people at earlier stages of the research. It was argued on the one hand that offenders should enjoy and exercise the same rights of access to services as other citizens; but on the other hand that their particular vulnerability and difficulty as a group made special targeting a prerequisite of successful intervention. The third, in-house project found a different solution to this issue, by seconding probation officers on a part-time basis to local community drug and alcohol teams, where they dealt on a voluntary basis with all clients referred through the criminal justice system. It also enables the probation service to capitalise on its investment in the development of specialised knowledge and skills among certain of its staff.

For successful projects, irrespective of their structure, the price of success seemed to be overload. Probation officers' individualistic, protective approaches to their work, once overcome, apparently rapidly turns into enthusiasm for the offer of specialist involvement. Specialist substance misuse workers tended to view this as dependency, stemming from lack of confidence, which is certainly a more flattering interpretation than the alternative possibility that they had become a means of workload management for over-pressed officers. Specialists in substance misuse in such situations altered their approach from seeking referrals to promoting self-reliance, adopting a more consultative role aimed at increasing probation officers' capacity to deal directly with drug problems. This represents a somewhat ironic outcome to the enterprise of importing specialist skills to release officers' time for other activities. Moreover, it drives home the point that, whatever might have been intended or anticipated in terms substitution for their role, practitioner grade probation officers continue to constitute the main vehicle for the delivery of services to offenders under supervision. It will take more than five per cent of probation services' budgets to alter this framework. Nor is this simply a matter of funding, but of the fierce protectiveness of probation officers for their professional identity.

Written at a time of intense anxiety and demoralisation within the probation service, which perceives itself under attack on multiple fronts, these observations acquire an acute poignancy. It is increasingly clear that the problems in delivering high quality services to substance misusing offenders encountered in this study cannot be described simply as deficiencies in practice. Rather, those activities are permeated by, and reflect, the wider professional and organisational difficulties with which the probation service is currently struggling. It is a further tragedy of this situation that it is the least conducive environment imaginable for fostering creative involvement of the skills and dedication of partner agencies.

Judith Rumgay is a lecturer in social policy at the London School of Economics.


Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (1991) Drug Misusers and the Criminal Justice System. Part 1: Community Resources and the Probation Service, HMSO.

HM Inspectorate of Probation (1993) Offenders who Misuse Drugs: the Probation Service Response, Home Office.

Home Office (1990) Partnership in Dealing with Offenders in the Community, Home Office.

Home Office (1992) Partnership in Dealing with Offenders in the Community: A Decision Document, Home Office.

Home Office (1995) National Standards for the Supervision of Offenders in the Community, Home Office.

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