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Probation workers' practice and practice ideals in a culture of control



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Phillips, Jake 


This dissertation focuses on the practice and culture of probation workers in two offender management units in England. The PhD asks how broad theories of penal transformation have impacted on probation practice and practice ideals by looking at what probation workers say they are trying to achieve in their work, and how they go about this. I ask what, if any, resistance exists amongst workers to policies that appear to be in tension with the ‘advise, assist and befriend’ ethos of the Probation Service and examine the impact of managerialism on practice. The dissertation emanates from a disjunction between Garland’s (2001a) thesis of a ‘culture of control’ and traditional notions of probation culture, and investigates this with reference to four key themes: rehabilitation, punishment, risk management, and managerialism.

The opening two chapters explore the concept of late-modernity and discuss other research on probation's values and practice ideals. I describe and critique Garland’s thesis, suggesting that probation practice is the product of new policies and politics interacting with ‘traditional’ methods of practice. I discuss probation workers’ values to explore, on a theoretical level, how they have changed during recent years.

The empirical chapters use data collected through a combination of observations and interviews in two probation teams in England. These chapters contrast pervasive managerialism with probation workers’ preferred ways of measuring ‘success’, arguing that there is a need to incorporate the offender into the system. I examine the preparation of pre-sentence reports and the supervision process to explore probation workers’ attitudes to punishment and rehabilitation, respectively. Accountability has shifted considerably in recent years and the impact of managerialism raises several issues in regard to the way in which probation workers are held to account. Finally, I explore the impact of managerialism by looking at the exercise of discretion and the recent shift towards compliance, away from enforcement.

In the concluding chapter I present the main findings of this research on probation practice. Following an overview of the main findings, this chapter describes the changes that have taken place since the fieldwork, and shows how the research presents a picture of how probation culture has, and has not, changed in the context of Garland’s culture of control. Ultimately, this research is invaluable for Probation Trusts and academics in terms of thinking about how practitioners might react to yet more change and I outline the implications of the research findings for the Government’s current proposals to reform community sentences and probation.






Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge