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Moments in probation: celebrating the centenary of probation.


Senior, P. (ed) (2008) Crayford, Kent: Shaw and Sons. ISBN: 978-0-7219-1780-1. pp.239. 12.50 pbk [pounds sterling].

This book was inspired by the celebrations for the Century of Probation in 2007. It consists of approximately 100 short essays, collectively entitled 'moments', submitted by wide variety of individuals involved with the broad probation arena, across the UK and overseas. They were originally published on a daily basis on Sheffield Hallam University's Community Justice Portal as part of the celebrations for the centenary year. All aspects of probation practice are covered, from policy and legislation to practice, research and training.

By its nature and format, having so many pieces of such diversity, a book of this kind is very difficult to appreciate by skimming or dipping, so I have read the whole. The contributions were not edited but published both on the portal and in this text as submitted by the contributors.

There is, however, a downside to such faith in the submitted material. Inevitably the collection is very variable in cogency and clarity and some of the perspectives offered are rather esoteric. I found the lack of consistent referencing irritating. Sometimes references in the text are set out in chapter endnotes, but sometimes not, and there is no bibliography to look up citations. Some cautious editing could have enhanced the quality without imposing an editorial perspective which, quite appropriately, was viewed as not desirable.

The list of authors is populated in substantial part by people whose experience of probation often spans decades and who have experienced many changes to the service. They come from all levels and roles and include some clients. As well as providing a rich texture to the collection herein lies a danger. Although cautioned against by some authors, the overwhelming impression is one of nostalgia for a 'golden era' when a social work ethos and officer independence reigned, viewed explicitly or by implication as a direct contrast to a target driven, management preoccupied, culture dominating the present and filtering down into the style of practice. The continuing popularity of probation as a career and the manifest enthusiasm, motivation and commitment of current graduates belie the message that the service has gone to the dogs. In saying this, however, I am not under-estimating the challenges facing current members of the service to keep what is historically recognisable as probation in Probation.

The title 'Moments' is perhaps misleading. A good many contributions are personal reflection of a general nature and rhetorical in style. Unfortunately, one does not get the feel of the unfolding 'story' of probation over its first century as revealed by the experiences of those who were there.

Notwithstanding these reservations, I found myself engaged throughout. I enjoyed the shear variety of experiences, topics and opinions, ranging through serious commentaries on reports and legislation to descriptions of amusing incidents in the field. It is perhaps invidious to select specific pieces when I enjoyed so much more than I can possibly name but highlights for me were: IT: Treats or Therapy; Turnips and Life Graphs; The Birth of Community Service; Social Work with Offenders: 1990 -the beginning of the end; A Lesson in Styal; Operation Major (the 1982 'sting' of Oxford's bed and breakfast claimants); David Garland and Probation (Whitehead's drawing out of the significance for probation of Garland's writings, highlighting three texts in particular published over the past 20 years); Hard Cases: A Probation TV Drama Series. Not least, there are the contributions from clients of the service and these provide a mixture of critical and supportive feedback.

Even where the contributions are less moments and more the raising of issues or the taking of an opportunity to stand on a soapbox and let rip on a particular hobby horse, for example harm reduction for drug users, desistance focused practice, or even to market an institution, for example, the CEP (European Probation Council), all are interesting, often provocative, and worthwhile contributions in their own right, if not, I think, quite what the sponsors were intending. In this respect, a must-read is the personal reflection on 'effective practice', 10 years on, by Tim Chapman, one of its most influential progenitors. Another fascinating contribution chronicles the legislative pathway by which hostels moved from being alternatives to inadequate homes for young offenders, in the early part of the century, to today's focus on high risk offenders and public protection.

In contrast, Kemshall's piece on the CJA 1991 and how it marked the introduction of a 'risk' focus to the CJS, Fellows' on the Seebohm Report and Probation's rejection, at least outside of Scotland, of incorporation into Social Services, and Hugman on the 'New Frilly Nightie' (read it to find out!) stand as exemplars of key moments with far reaching consequences for the service or for the individuals involved.

However, for me, as a moment which has marked a real tuning point, Lol Burke's contribution on the introduction of the Ancillary in 1968, a role that has metamorphosed over time to become the Probation Service Officer, is worth particular note and reflection. Now, in the summer of 2009, two and half years since these moments were originally published, it appears likely that training for this role will supplant the funding erstwhile allocated to probation officer training. This will constitute a course of action which, in my view, may well presage the ultimate demise of the probation officer in name, standing and function, in fact, the core of what this volume seeks rightly to celebrate.

This volume makes a worthy contribution to the centennial record and will provide for the future an important source for those wishing to mine the folklore of probation. Furthermore, for people who have associations with probation, formerly or present, this book will provide triggers for recollections of past struggles and for the many moments of satisfaction which make probation the job worth doing that it is.

Dave Ward, Professor of Social and Community Studies, De Montfort University, Leicester
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Author:Ward, Dave
Publication:British Journal of Community Justice
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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