Getting ready for Open Churches Week 2017
"Forty years ago this year I started as a newly qualified probation officer. I had a law degree but decided that the legal profession was not for me.
"I wanted to work with people and the Probation Service was a vocation in the true sense of the word.
"The Probation Service celebrated its centenary in 2007. Its foundations were rooted in the church, specifically Police Court Missioners, who asked courts to release particular offenders into their care on the promise that they would find them a job, get them off drink or provide whatever other help was needed to turn their lives around. The responsibility of the offender was to prove themselves. They were given a second chance. They were “on probation”.
"Probation Officers, until a few years ago, had a legal obligation to “advise, assist and befriend” the offenders placed under their supervision. For many probation staff, working with offenders was a vocational career, and many Christians were employed in the service.
"Working with offenders is not for everyone. Many offenders are people that society writes off – sex offenders, people who misuse drugs or alcohol, perpetrators of domestic violence, murderers – the list is endless. Penal policy in the UK has predominantly seen imprisonment as the only really effective punishment for offenders, with anything else portrayed by politicians and the media as “soft options”.
"Yet reconviction rates for ex-prisoners are higher than for any other sentence of the court. A key reason for this is that in the eyes of many, “once an offender, always an offender”. Permanent employment and stable accommodation are the two biggest factors in reducing re-offending, yet they are the very things which society makes it very difficult for ex-offenders to obtain. The result is often a downward spiral ending in a revolving prison door.
"Probation staff are trained to assess offenders, refer them to other agencies who can help with practical problems and work directly with them to help them to find appropriate behaviour responses to avoid returning to criminal activity. A key skill in achieving successful outcomes with offenders is the development of a trusting relationship between the probation worker and offender through which change can be achieved and supported. Such work is skilled and complex.
"Recently the government’s “Transforming Rehabilitation” reform programme has controversially split the service into separate organisations – a National Probation Service who assess all offenders at court and manage the highest risk offenders and 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) who supervise the 70 per cent of offenders assessed as medium and low risk. From February 2015 these CRCs were transferred to a range of providers, mostly private sector, on “payment by results” contracts.
"So I ended my 40 year career working as the Chief Executive of Norfolk and Suffolk CRC, which is owned by a company called Sodexo who are primarily a French catering company. CRC staff who joined the probation service as a vocation now find themselves working for a company which seeks to make profit out of their work.
"The important thing for them at this critical time is to remember that their relationship with offenders remains crucial in helping offenders turn their lives around. This is also a huge opportunity for Christians to respond and volunteer to mentor ex-offenders through some of the organisations mentioned in this issue."