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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 16:29 GMT
Life as a probation officer
HMP Manchester
Probation supervision begins in prison
The probation service has come under fire after a report found "collective failure" in the handling of two criminals who killed John Monckton. But what is it like working there?

One senior probation officer who did not want to be named gives his personal impression of the job.

He has worked in the service for more than 20 years and is based in a rural county in the south of England.

Essentially the job involves two things.

We write pre-sentence reports which advise courts on how they should sentence individuals. And we supervise people who are on court orders and people who are in prison.

The courts don't always follow our proposals, but they do in about two-thirds of cases.

We are under increasing pressure to write what are called fast-delivery reports which I'm rather uncomfortable about. A standard report takes six to eight hours to write, from the time you get the file to signing it off. But the fast reports are about 90 minutes.

You need your interpersonal skills to make the job not dangerous

With supervision, there are requirements imposed on offenders such as keeping appointments and notifying a change of address. The purpose of supervision is to try to stop people from re-offending and reduce the risk to the public.

It entails an ongoing process of assessing individuals, assessing risks that they pose in terms of harm to other people, harm to themselves, harm to staff and the risk of them getting into trouble again.

It requires all your skills in working with people to divert them in different directions. As well as this one-to-one contact, we also run structured programmes for people who have got into trouble, such as courses for people convicted of drink-driving, where we give them information and try and make them think differently.

1,190 senior probation officers
4,980 probation officers
6,089 probation service officers
Average start salary 21,324 (+ Ldn weighting 3,420)
175,000 offenders begin supervision annually
The caseload on any given day is more than 200,000
SOURCE: Nat Assoc of Probation Officers, Nat Probation Service.
Figures cover England and Wales
The best practice is when you are allocated a prisoner and you see him periodically through his sentence - so when he comes out you are not confronted with someone you don't know. You have some sort of relationship with him.

But this has happened less in recent years, for financial reasons, and there's deep concern about that.

It's a difficult job because you never see your successes. They don't come back. You only see failures because they re-offend.

But it's an interesting job - because people are interesting, even troubled people. And there's satisfaction you're doing good work with people sometimes.

Very few offenders have two heads! I understand that perception, but they are just people. They are troubled and sometimes they're dangerous but they're people. You need your interpersonal skills to make the job not dangerous.

Damien Hanson
Hanson killed banker John Monckton shortly after being freed from jail

If you rub a young man up the wrong way then he may react. But I've only been assaulted once, by a teenager high on drugs.

There has to be trust on both sides and there needs to be respect. Even if they have committed heinous crimes, you have to treat them with dignity because that's the starting point.

Most people that come into the profession are post-graduates but the two-year training course incorporates a degree as well. The course involves both academic work and on-the-job training.

But there's significant pressure to erode our training and its future is uncertain. We are increasingly employing staff without that training, to fill the gaps.

The workforce is also becoming more feminised - about 60 or 70%, which is a concern because we try to offer model relationships and good behaviour to offenders and it's important we give them perspectives on both male and female officers.

Pay has been an issue but that is being reorganised and we hope it will reap benefits. Over the past 10 or 15 years pay levels have suffered and there has been bad press recently.

I'd like to spend less time in front of a computer and more in front of the person
I feel deeply for the four officers who have been suspended over the Monckton report, with no support from the service. You would feel devastated if you had supervised one of these men, even without all the criticism.

By and large the probation service does extremely well in diverting people away from offending but you can't live people's lives for them and you can't control them 24-7.

Less than one percent of people who have been categorised as presenting a high risk commit a further serious offence while under supervision.

One of Home Secretary Charles Clarke's aims is to reduce the prison population, quite rightly, but we are less happy with the concept of putting the probation service to market testing. People have enough on their plates without competing for their jobs.

We often work in partnership with the private sector on issues such as employment, education and tagging. But Mr Clarke is proposing to take our core business and give it to other organisations.

I would advocate more end-to-end sentence management. It's fairly simple - put in the money and say part of a probation officer's job must be to visit this person in prison.

And I'd like to spend less time in front of a computer and more in front of the person I'm meant to be working with.

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