The shadow of penal supervision

Pauline, Bob and the difficult second chapter: Punishment changes

Maybe it’s like the ‘difficult second album’? You’ve made a start, created some kind of identity for your work, but now you have to provide not just continuity but some depth and some development. More of the same won’t do. It has to be new and yet familiar.

I’m struggling a bit with chapter 2 of the book. I’m not sure what exactly I want or need it to do. Here’s what I said about it in the proposal:

“Chapter 2: Penal Change, Penal States and Penal Fields (an overview of debates about how structures, cultures, institutions, resources and actors shape and reshape penality; providing the main conceptual resources for the analysis of mass supervision but also highlighting the relative neglect of supervision in existing accounts of penal change).”

That sounded clear enough at the time that I wrote it. My instinct was that I’d need a chapter that, as it says above, provides conceptual resources for the analysis that follows. But I feel a bit stuck between two stools at this point. If the chapter only rehashes ‘Punishment and Society’ literature in general and debates about ‘penal transformations’ in particular, then it’s going to be too textbook-like; too superficial. (And I’m not really aiming to offer another new view of how we should explain penal change — not in this book!). The obvious way to deepen it analytically is to focus on the development of supervision (as a neglected form or aspect of penal transformation), but that risks jumping ahead into the work planned for chapters 3 and 4, and might lead to repetition. 

I think the answer might be to review the wider debates about penal change quite swiftly, and then to use the bulk of the chapter for a case study looking back at the development and late-modern transformation (or not) of supervision in one context — probably the one that I know best: Scotland. It does seem to me that the book needs some kind of historical backdrop — to provide context for the contemporary developments that are the book’s main focus, though I want to avoid reading the present through the past (and vice versa), and I certainly want to avoid any kind of rose-tinted comparisons of the supposedly penal-welfarist past with the supposedly punitive present. I hope that writing the chapter this way might also serve to highlight and problematise the relative neglect of supervision in the development of theories of penal transformation.

Interestingly, when it came to writing the instalment of the short story that would open chapter 2, it came much more easily. Here’s the current draft of that story.

“Things Change

 Pauline put down the phone. Apparently the new guy, case 59, is 15 minutes early. A sign of eagerness, maybe, but also an irritation. She has too many other things to do and hadn’t had time to prep yet. She takes off her glasses, rubs her eyes and gulps another mouthful of her now-cold coffee (black, of course; no one in the office brings in milk these days). Replacing her glasses in the twin dents on the bridge of her nose, she stares at the screen, clicking the ‘casefiles’ icon and opening up no. 59 for the first time.

Robert Earnshaw, aged 49. Divorced father of 2. Two previous convictions – possession of cannabis and public affray… but these dated from almost 30 years ago. The indiscretions of his youth perhaps? The standard format court report is light on detail and substance, but the account of his offence is interesting.

Having been made redundant two weeks before the incident, Earnshaw had returned to the offices of the accountancy firm where he had worked for 15 years. He was drunk and abusive, and proceeded to spray piss around the reception area before daubing the boss’s office door with the one-word epithet: ‘BLOODSUCKER’. The red paint had also found its way all over his former boss’s designer suit in the scuffle that ensued.

The report says that Earnshaw scores ‘low-risk’ on the Offender Assessment Triage System (OATS). Pauline raises a single eyebrow; she is long enough in the tooth to be wary of that. She knows that these scores didn’t save their probation officers from shouldering the blame when things went wrong. Funny how the scoring system itself can never be at fault.

Robert Earnshaw is either a bad case of an embarrassing and brief mid-life crisis or a man on the edge of a potentially violent meltdown who might lose Pauline her job – or worse. Maybe the court expects her to figure that out during the next 18 months.

Pauline sighs. When she started out back in the 90s, she might have had the energy and enthusiasm – and the time – to suss him out and maybe even to help him get his head back together and his life back on track. But caseloads back then were in the 20s or 30s not the 50s or 60s, and the seniors cared about and supported that sort of work. Now they care only about the targets.

She casts her eyes across to Norman’s ‘pod’, wondering if her supervisor is even now watching her screen on his, or analyzing the IT system’s reports of the time she had spent in each of her casefiles in the last month. Glancing at her watch, she realizes that she is probably already a quarter way through the monthly time allowance for a ‘low-risk’ case. She’d better go and see the guy before his time is up.

She just hopes he wasn’t going to be a pain in the arse. She has enough of those to deal with already, with Norman being top of the list.”

As always, comments and suggestions would be welcome!


  1. Just a Couple of thoughts before I head to a Drug Court staffing…..So the feeling is really there that if a Client makes a bad decision, it falls on the shoulders of the Probation Officer? That’s a good way to scare off, or burn out, good employees.

    50-60 would be on the low end of spectrum of cases in the US; or at least in Tulsa, OK. 60-100 is probably the range…but 60 is probably fair for everybody, depending on how many people are assisting with the case. The Drug Court system is so helpful because you have a Coordinator, Therapist, Supervision Officer, and maybe even a separate Case Manager. The more members you have on the Team, the more support the Client is going to have. How many roles is the Probation Officer actually fulfilling, would be a good question.

  2. Interesting thoughts. In NZ caseloads are definitely not as high as some of my colleagues in other jurisdictions describe, however, workload will always depend on the service level expectations. If caseloads are lower the service expectations will likely increase.

    What I found interesting was the fear of reprisal should something go wrong with a case. I have reviewed a number of serious events, mostly murders committed by people on parole, and in recent times have not seen this occur here. Yet I know that a number of our staff worry about this. I suspect this is caused by some of the public dialogue about such events which is where the cries of “heads must roll” tend to come from. This seems to influence the feelings of staff more than the organisational response.

    Following reviews I have occaisionally also met with the family of victims to discuss the findings. In these meetings victims have never wanted to level blame on the shoulders of frontline staff but prefer to understand what sort of organisational or system changes can be made.

    The question this leaves me with is, why do the views of the wider public often diverge from the views and feelings of actual victims? And to what extent does this influence the decisions of frontline staff?

  3. I’m curious as to where your story is set. It sounds like England given the ‘probation’ and assessment type mentioned when in Scotland we use the LSCMI risk assessment. I thought you were basing it in Scotland?
    The description of him coming in early, work load, lack of time or enthusiasm to work out the offender all very much on the button.
    I think the pressure felt by a lot of cjsw is the possible backlash from the judges on reading the report rather than the public. CJ supervision is very much a tick box exercise and risk management rather than welfare approach due to increased workload and less sw staff to do the work.
    Very much as you mention, time spent seeing a client is based on level of risk rather than need.
    The offence is certainly unusual from my perspective and not as convincing or believable as a reader. Majority of cases dealt with have been due to alcohol/ drugs/violence.

    • Good point Tracey. I haven’t really settled this in my head, but I think I have the very near future in mind, in a system which is privatised. So I guess I’m influenced by the situation in England and Wales, but trying to avoid making it about that.

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