Over the years probation officers have had their judgment undermined by a tick-box culture that puts risk management before rehabilitation
There have been few dramas that have dealt with life in the probation service. I Believe in You, set in 1952, The Probation Officer, in 1959, and Hard Cases, in 1989. Public Enemies, a three-part drama by award-winning screenwriter Tony Marchant, part one of which is shown on Tuesday night on BBC1, portrays the service's modern face. Paula Radnor (Anna Friel) is a probation officer under siege from management, the public, offenders and politicians. The service is more concerned about protecting its own back, form filling and achieving often ridiculous targets than it is about rehabilitation, social work and assisting those who find themselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system.
I was consulted on numerous occasions on the script and the portrayal of staff in my role as assistant general secretary at the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo). The original script pushed the drama to extremes by having the probation officer and offender in a sexual relationship. In 20 years, I can recall just three cases of "inappropriate behaviour" between an officer and an offender out of 20,000 probation staff.
Other issues of potential inaccuracy, such as sentencing, victim liaison and parole conditions were also corrected. Marchant and the production team listened to and accepted my advice. Everyone involved in the programme wanted the story to reflect the reality of modern practices, policies and pressures.
When I was first approached by the producer a year ago to be an adviser, I felt it was important to get involved because probation officers are so rarely seen on our screens. I wanted to ensure they were accurately portrayed. I took the team to visit a hostel and probation office after they had been refused access by the Ministry of Justice.
The number of probation officers subjected to a serious case review increases every year. Each time an offender on probation or parole commits a further serious offence there is an inquiry, and their probation officer may be suspended. Radnor is suspended in the first couple of scenes. She is reinstated and allocated her next case, murderer Eddie Mottram (Danny Mays). Her job is to control his behaviour and keep strict tabs on him. Has he kept to the rules of the hostel? Violated his exclusion zone? Broken his curfew? Started a relationship? These arduous checks understandably contribute to his rage and frustration. He blows up, gets into fights, argues with the police and hostel staff and faces recall to prison.
Radnor says 10 years ago probation was about helping people, and now it's about punishment and keeping crime rates down. She wants discretion but feels dominated by procedures. This reflects the pressures and conflicts of life in the probation service. Since 2000, there has been a six-fold increase in recalls of prisoners on licence as probation officers have had their judgment undermined by a tick-box culture that puts risk management before rehabilitation. This is probation today. Friel represents the long journey from Cecil Parker playing a parole officer in I Believe in You or Honor Blackman in The Probation Officer.
? Harry Fletcher is assistant general secretary at Napo. Public Enemies continues on Wednesday night on BBC1 at 9pm