The shadow of penal supervision

What is supervision for? Norm and Pauline disagree…

Having spent the last couple of weeks trying to make sense of what numbers can and can’t tell us about mass supervision, I’m just about to get back to more familiar territory; thinking about the purposes of supervision, and how different purposes relate to different ways of legitimating supervision. I’ll post again about the question of legitimation, but as a way of encouraging a little dialogue (hopefully international dialogue) about what supervision is for, I wrote another excerpt of the short story. In this one, Norm is discussing with Pauline the disappointing results of her appraisal, informed by his rating of the video-record of her first meeting with Joe. If you want to go back and read that excerpt, you can find it here (labelled as ‘III Pragmatists not Puritans’):

The story so far — and an invitation…

Here’s what might become the new part IV:

IV        We’re not here to build the community, we’re here to protect it

Pauline noticed too late that Norm had directed her to the seat furthest from the door of the meeting room, placing himself between her and the exit. A familiar ploy. There was going to be no escape until he was finished, unless she went over or through him…

‘Pauline’, he began, ‘you know how much I respect your skills and experience, right?’

She waited for the inevitable ‘but’.

‘But things have changed and you need to change with them’, he continued, passing her the print-out of her appraisal score.

‘This sort of performance just won’t do’.

She sighed.

‘Norm, tell me this: How am I supposed to help the guy if I don’t get to know him and what makes him tick. That takes time.’

‘That’s the problem right there, Pauline’.

Norm lent back in his seat and smiled his patronising, faux-patient smile, pausing for dramatic effect.

‘You’re still labouring under the illusion that your job is to help these people. It’s not. Let me put this in the simplest possible terms: Your job is to stop them from reoffending – at least until their good behaviour triggers our bonus payment. It’s all about our ability to invest that revenue in getting better and better at protecting communities’.

She couldn’t resist: ‘What? You mean communities where people don’t have time for each other, don’t know each other and don’t help each other?’

Norm’s face coloured a little; his fixed smile starting to look like a rictus grin, but he retained his composure:

‘Pauline, please. You know me better than that. I value community as much as the next individual, but we are not here to build the community, we are here to protect it.’

The slow-spoken bold-print was starting to make Pauline’s eyeballs itch.

‘And we need to do that as time-efficiently as possible. We need to reduce costs and maximise returns. We owe it to the taxpayers. They don’t want their money wasted on tea and sympathy. We’re here to control and challenge behaviour that threatens communities. And we’re here to make offenders settle their debts. Yes, it’s great if we can also improve and develop them as people, but the thing is Pauline, that there’s really no convincing evidence that ‘help’ is all that helpful… at least not in reducing offending.’

Pauline couldn’t believe that Norm was actually putting air-quotes around ‘help’.

Trying not to rise to the bait, she settled in for the duration. She determined to apply her apparently outmoded appreciative perspective to the significant challenge of understanding the genesis of Norm’s distorted worldview. The sad thing – the dangerous thing – was that he actually seemed to believe this shit.


So, what did you think? Which of them comes closer to your view? Which is closer to reflecting the official purposes of probation in your country?  Do both of them have a point?

1 Comment

  1. Norm is our Corporate office and Pauline is most of us on the front lines.

    But, both sides are correct. It’s a very complicated subject and answer. Supervision is not a product that brings in millions. Supervision is a bill of goods that will, hopefully, save the public millions by turning Clients away from a life of crime and drugs, and/or keep them out of prison. How accurately measurable is that really? Cost goes up as caseloads go down, so no one really wants that except the Officers. Drug Courts work, but they don’t pay much which forces a caseload of 100, when it should really be 50 (moderate and high risk). All for now—Scott

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