The Covid-19 pandemic has touched every aspect of society. It has shone a light on parts of society which tend to go unnoticed and highlighted the ways in which the disadvantaged bear the brunt of events like this. In relation to the criminal justice system, there has been a focus on the policing of lockdown laws and how to protect people in prisons. But we should not forget the impact on probation services which – in England and Wales – are responsible for supervising around 250,000 people in the community. Here, I want to highlight some of the ways in which probation services are being affected by the current situation.
Probation providers first responded by transitioning to home working and limiting contact between probation officers and their clients. Probation practitioners have had to adapt rapidly to a situation in which they can no longer have face-to-face contact with service users – one of the main methods of working with their clients. In addition to this change, around 2000 members of staff have had to stop working due to sickness or the need to self-isolate. The pressure on an already understaffed workforce has been considerable. There are still important unresolved issues: the provision of personal protective equipment to probation workers who are classed as keyworkers is problematic particularly for staff and residents in approved premises (bail or probation hostels); there are questions over testing for probation staff; and probation workers in the community are finding it difficult to communicate with their clients in prison.
People on probation are now being supervised by phone or video-call. In recognition of the fact that communicating electronically is less conducive to building the strong relationships upon which good probation practice relies, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has asked the frequency of contact with people on probation to double. Whilst this makes sense from one perspective, it adds to the workload of staff, asking them to do double the work in the same amount of time. It also places an additional burden on those being supervised, contributing to the notion that punishment in the community is all pervasive as argued by Fergus McNeill in his work about how people experience community sanctions.
For people who pose a ‘high risk of harm’, the service is maintaining face-to-face contact through ‘doorstep’ visits whereby the probation worker stays on the street or in their car and speaks with their service user by phone. This pragmatic solution impacts on relationship building and poses a range of issues around confidentiality, risk assessment and stigmatisation. Much of the rehabilitative work done by probation providers takes place in groups and they are also responsible for supervising ‘unpaid work’ (more commonly known as community service). Now these activities are unfeasible, the pandemic is posing challenges in terms of supporting rehabilitation and delivering sentences imposed by courts. The pandemic also means that probation staff are having to work with people being released from prison with very little opportunity to build trusting and professional relationships beforehand, hampering their efforts to work effectively even further.
The Government agreed to release people from prison early to reduce the spread of the virus in prisons and – on Friday – published the eligibility criteria for the End of Custody Temporary Release on Licence scheme. We must not forget the impact of this policy on probation. In evidence to the Justice Select Committee, witnesses talked about the pressure to find housing, conduct risk assessments and deal with an increased workload.
The lockdown has increased the risk of domestic violence, and data from Refuge suggests that more women are ringing domestic abuse helplines. Domestic abuse features in nearly 50 per cent of probation cases and so the work of probation practitioners – in identifying and managing that risk – has even more urgency in the current situation. Again, this means that the pandemic is placing additional pressure on practitioners in already stretched services.
The pandemic has amplified pre-existing issues. An already under-resourced workforce, combined with a real lack of resources in the community such as housing, employment and social support, will make it even harder for people to stop offending and lead fulfilling lives. Thus, the Government needs to take action to prevent serious implications for effective practice and staff wellbeing.
In the short term, Government needs to recognise and address the fact that the workforce is as under pressure as institutions such as the police and prisons. There needs to be acknowledgement and mitigation of the new pressures probation staff find themselves under: juggling caring responsibilities and public protection is no mean feat. Probation staff cope with the difficulties of the job through ‘communities of coping’ which are informal groups that staff use to ‘let off steam’. Such communities of coping tend to be office-based, and so organisations need to consider how to make up for the lack of important peer support. Thinking longer term, the pandemic will slow down the current restructuring of the service which the government was forced into after its failed attempt to privatise part of the service. Looking ahead to life after the current lockdown – especially if there is a second peak – probation needs the attention and resources it requires because its role in keeping people safe should not be under-estimated.
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