I’ve worked in probation for a long time. It has never been perfect, but before then-justice secretary Chris Grayling got his hands on it, it was said to be a high-performing public service. Now, though, it is difficult to believe what a complete mess it is in.
I work in a community rehabilitation company (CRC), one of 21 private sector firms working with so-called medium- and low-risk clients. Many people are on my caseload because of domestic violence, and there are often concerns about the impact on their children. Most have alcohol, drug or mental health issues. It’s always been a worrying job.
But the CRC I work for is now owned by a company that doesn’t understand my work. These private companies are still miles off the pace in trying to deliver an impossibly complex contract, supervising hundreds of thousands of offenders. After experiences that have included shedding a third of staff, setting up partnerships from scratch, sourcing new buildings, many of which are hard to access, and installing open booths for us to work in, we have been left working in what one client memorably nicknamed “Mickey Mouse probation”.
That particular client refused to use the open booths because of his offence and history. Instead we met outside or in group rooms, when available. I personally feel very uncomfortable when I have to use a booth to meet clients. It means most of our face-to-face work is overheard, overseen and open to disruption. Not surprisingly there has been an increase in incidents, which now seem to occur on a daily basis.
The problems don’t stop there. The interface with the National Probation Service is fractured: cases swap between the two systems as they go back to court, with mistakes rife, and palpable friction between the organisations. Essentially we feel we are misleading the courts and the public every day about what we can deliver. It is frightening.
Promises of new ways of working, and new IT systems, haven’t materialised, leaving us tied to the existing, inefficient technology to hit our funding-linked targets. Frequent inspections and auditing – akin to something out of Big Brother – confirm that the best we can hope to be is sufficient. Any poor record keeping is met with commands by email to rectify things immediately.