My first post when I qualified as a probation officer was in the ‘suburbs’ of Sheffield – not suburbs of the leafy middle class kind, but council estates stretching SE from the centre of Sheffield to an area that in due course became a sort of ‘new town’. The office became identified in people’s mind with the name of the most notorious estate that we served – ‘The Manor’. The office was quite new and was one of a couple that were built to decentralise the service which had before this all been located in the centre of the city. There was an ideal involved – that we would have more success if we were working in the communities where offenders lived, and that we should seek to become ‘involved’ in the community.
There were to be a number of attempts to work out this ideal in practice in the 1970s, but the office I joined was proud of its work to become ‘community involved’, and papers were written and ambitious plans set out for the development of this idea. It was perhaps not the right moment for me to be joining such an outfit since, as I have already said, I was sceptical of the fashionable radicalism of the day and more interested in what can be termed ‘clinical’ approaches to probation work. I came to think that our much vaunted community involvement turned out to be nothing more than a couple of groups (for women and an angling group for young lads) and a bit of rhetoric.
One piece of the rhetoric has stayed in my mind and encapsulated some of my scepticism. On describing the community involvement approach one example my boss was fond of using concerned what he saw as significant changes in the attitude of people to the probation office itself. He would say in the early days of the office that pedestrians would often cross the road rather than pass the front door of the office, and that this behaviour had gradually changed as the office had as he saw it, been accepted as part of the local community. He also cited how health visitors had started to come to the office to see probation officers about their mutual clients. These examples seemed to me to be so far away from being remarkable that I was almost embarrassed that they should be used as evidence of success in community involvement. Indeed they almost seemed to underline a kind of isolationism, a sort of institutionalisation that to me characterised many parts of the probation service.