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Exploring modern probation

Philip Whitehead bring a philosophical point of view to the changes in the probabtion services since 1997
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Philip Whitehead
Philip Whitehead: 'A collective moral failure'

Since New Labour came to power in 1997 and until replaced by a Conservative-Liberal alliance in May 2010, this 13 year period of government has been extraordinarily difficult for the criminal justice system and particularly the probation service.

New Labour interpreted its mandate in 1997 as being granted permission to modernise the public sector which is comprised of numerous institutions.

More often than not the process of modernisation pushed the public sector – education, health service, youth justice, police, criminal justice and probation – into the arms of a rising army of managerial bureaucrats.

Out with organisational structures which should put people first, and in with a blanket of targets, procedures, systems, and processes which have strangled the life out of staff who require the autonomy and discretion to do what is often difficult and demanding work.

In fact bureaucratic targets have been exalted at the expense of working with and understanding people, who are the recipients of the state's public services. The outcomes and complicated effects of these modernising monstrosities and cultural catastrophes on probation, which has a long history reaching back to 1907,have implications for the entire public sector.

In other words the probation domain, which is analysed by resorting to numerous bodies of social theory, serves as a case study which has much wider applicability throughout public services.

Past 13 years has shifted the organisational emphasis

Where probation is concerned the past 13 years has shifted the organisational emphasis from the language of clients to criminals and offenders; from striving towards achieving rehabilitation to casting the net of authoritarian and punitive responses; from providing advice, assistance, and friendship, to punishment, containment, and control; from providing social welfare and social work help to probation's emergence as a correctional arm of a much more punitive state.

Fundamentally, the political encouragement of a tougher and more robust approach to people who offend can be said to constitute a collective moral failure because it fails to understand that human behaviours must be located within a wider political, social and economic context of late modern capitalism, sometimes referred to as neoliberalism.

In order to help analyse and explain the past, I have looked at social theory associated with Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Foucault to explore and explain the rapidly changing set of events since 1997, together with innovative empirical research from solicitors, magistrates, court clerks, barristers and judges, to investigate a complicated field of enquiry and suggest ways forward for those who work in probation, criminal and social justice.

Probation may well have a different history compared to other organisations within the public sector, but the issues with which it has been confronted with during the past 13 years have much in common with other public sector organisations. Therefore the analysis contained in this new book alludes to issues that will resonate with the whole of the public sector.

Philip Whitehead is reader in criminal and social justice at the University of Teeside and author of Exploring Modern Probation: Social Theory and Organisational Complexity, published by The Policy Press

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