Vulnerabilities Crime

Devolving Probation Services: An ethnographic study of the implementation of the 'Transforming Rehabilitation' agenda

Project duration: March 2014 to November 2015

Funding awarded by the ESRC

Project funding

ESRC LogoDr Gwen Robinson's project 'Devolving Probation Services: An ethnographic study of the implementation of the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda', was conducted jointly with researchers at Liverpool John Moores University. The project was supported under the ESRC's pilot Urgency Grants Mechanism, which enables researchers to pursue an opportunity to conduct research in relation to an unexpected event – an opportunity which would be lost if the application went through the usual ESRC process. This project explored the impacts on probation staff of the changes resulting from the devolution of probation services, a development which was announced by the government in autumn 2013 and implemented in spring 2014. 

Project outline

The Probation Service in England & Wales existed for more than 100 years as a public body, playing a key role in the criminal justice system. The public sector Probation Service was responsible for supervising offenders subject to community-based sentences as well as large numbers of offenders who are subject to mandatory supervision at the end of a prison sentence. In 2013 the Probation Service supervised approximately 220,000 offenders in the community and employed more than 16,000 staff. In 2013 the Ministry of Justice announced plans to implement a policy which would see approximately 70% of the work carried out by the public Probation Service being outsourced to other providers, including private sector companies.

The first stage in the process involved the creation of 21 'Community Rehabilitation Companies' (from 1 June 2014) which would be owned by the Ministry of Justice for a period of several months, prior to being offered for sale to a variety of potential providers, including private companies.

This project set out to examine this significant development in one part of the country, providing a case study of the 'devolution' of the majority of probation services. It looked in detail, in one metropolitan area, at the process and implications of moving the bulk of probation work (and staff) from the public Probation Service to a Community Rehabilitation Company with an uncertain future. The project sought to understand this process from a variety of perspectives, including those of senior managers involved in running the Company and probation workers engaged in supervising offenders. The researchers attended and observed management meetings, collected and analysed policy documents and conducted interviews with staff at all levels within the organisation. The research provides a detailed picture of a significant development in the criminal justice system and, more broadly, the process of 'outsourcing' a public service.

Project outputs

Robinson, G., Burke, L. & Millings, M. (2017) ‘Probation, privatisation and legitimacy’, Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 56, 2: 137-157.

Burke, L., Millings, M. & Robinson, G. (2017) ‘Is constructive practice still possible in a competitive environment? Findings from a case study of a Community Rehabilitation Company in England and Wales’, in P. Ugwudike, P. Raynor & J. Annison (eds.) Evidence-Based Skills in Criminal Justice: International Research on Supporting Rehabilitation and Desistance. Bristol: Policy Press.

Burke, L., Millings, M. & Robinson, G. (2017) ‘Probation migration(s): Examining occupational culture in a turbulent field’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 17, 2: 192-208.

Robinson, G., Burke, L. & Millings, M. (2016) ‘Criminal Justice Identities in Transition; the case of devolved probation services in England & Wales’, British Journal of Criminology, 56, 1: 161-78.

Robinson, G. (2016) ‘Patrolling the borders of risk: the new bifurcation of probation services in England & Wales’, in M. Bosworth, C. Hoyle & L. Zedner (eds.) Changing Contours of Criminal Justice: Research, Politics and Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Photo of Dr Gwen Robinson

The research provides a detailed picture of a significant development in the criminal justice system and, more broadly, the process of 'outsourcing' a public service.

Dr gwen robinson