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Playing with fire – the risks of evidence free probation practice

Penelope Gibbs
29 Mar 2019

The Chief Inspector of Probation this week expressed clearly what everyone involved thinks – that the model of privatised probation does not and cannot work. This model was never piloted or tested in any way. Equally many of the new practices CRCs (privatised probation companies) have adopted have never been tested either. The Chief Inspector has always been critical of the use of “remote” supervision – supervising and keeping in contact with clients by telephone rather than face to face. “A relationship needs to be formed, but up to 40% of individuals under supervision in some CRCs have been supervised by telephone only, usually following an initial meeting and assessment”. (I think the Chief Inspector is implying that some clients are never at any point seen face to face by their probation worker). In some CRCs the majority of the workers have no probation qualifications.

With, but particularly without, qualifications, probation supervision is difficult to do well. More than one academic study has pointed to “trust and strong communication” as pivotal to the worker-client relationship. It makes sense that replacing face to face meetings with telephone contact may affect trust and strong communication. But we do not know what the effects are because there is no reliable research: “there is no evidence to suggest that supervision by telephone alone is effective”. The only extensive research on the success of online/telephone consultations has been in health settings where some studies on some conditions suggest some successful outcomes. But criminal justice is very different to health, particularly because probation consultations are compulsory. So we don’t know what we don’t know.

At least the Probation Inspectorate has established that there is no good research on telephone probation supervision. There has been no review of international research in relation to other interactions which the probation service has been forced to do online. Now many “meetings” for pre-sentence reports, risk assessments of those in prison and parole hearings are done on video rather than face to face. But there is no research that I know of on the impact of having these interactions on video.

Probation practice has been profoundly changed by the impetus to communicate with clients on the telephone/on video. My understanding is that probation practitioners would always prefer to talk to clients face to face but that pressure of workloads and the demands of court reform stop them doing so.

We are playing with fire. If we don’t know what effect telephone and video interactions have on the probation-client relationship, should we be allowing these to become the default?