The life of a probation officer: never a dull moment | Sandra Scicluna

Never get into situations that you know you cannot control, never blindly go into a home visit, especially if you are not sure what you will find. You only have your wits to get you out of a sticky situation

Dr Sandra Scicluna, Department of Criminology

Have you ever wondered what it is like to work as a probation officer or indeed what a probation officer does?

When I started working as a probation officer, I often got these looks when people asked me what I did for a living, and I replied that I was a probation officer. Not that people knew what I did – rather, they were trying to imagine my work, invariably trying to link it to the customary probation period at work. When I told them that my work meant dealing with offenders, supervising them, and making sure they observed the law, the question that usually followed was: “are you not scared?” I always replied: “almost never.”

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My journey as a probation officer started by pure chance. Having finished my degree in Psychology, as I was on the lookout for either a job or another course, I spotted a newspaper advert (yes this was pre-internet boom, where we relied on newspapers for adverts) and decided to apply for this new course on probation services, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. Before I knew it, the nine-month course was over, and my work life began. The work would consist of offenders that the court would award some form of community sentence.

I remember my first two cases with affection, although at the time I was filled with trepidation. Both clients had drug addiction problems, sentenced for theft and one was residing in prison. As is normal in probation cases I started by meeting both offenders. The one in the community came to the office, the other residing in prison had to be visited by me. Entering the prison as a probation officer for the first time also filled me with dread as I did not really know what to expect.

During the first visit I started by noting the offender’s past criminal history as well as the composition of the family of origin and the present family structure. You need to get to know the offenders before you start working with them. Some offenders cooperate – others do not. I remember a client who would not speak to me during the sessions (the worst form of resistance in my opinion). It was only after some six sessions that he decided to start speaking to me.

However, I digress. Back to my first two clients.

The second visit is usually a home visit. In the case of my prison client, I went to the residential home. To see what they need, how they were coping and if I could be of assistance. The home the client lives in gives you information, that an office visit can never do. It is also important to meet with the significant members of the family. This enables you to understand the probationer better and gives you the necessary leverage for change. However, home visits can be challenging and dangerous. One needs to be careful where they are entering.

The supervision of the client goes on very much along these lines, with the primary role of the probation officer being that of ‘advising and assisting’ the probationer. The probation officer wears several different hats – from that of ‘police officer’, when the offender needs to be disciplined to that of ‘mentor’, when the offender needs advice, to that of ‘role model’ to that of parent and so on. The multiple roles one adopts depends on circumstances and makes the work very interesting and almost never dull.

The role of the probation officer is not just the supervision of the probation order. Officers write reports for the courts, the most important being the pre-sentence report that is written to assist the courts in coming up with the best sentencing option for the offenders. Probation officers also supervise people under the suspended sentence supervision order, the community service order, the combination order, and treatment orders.

There are some aspects in probation work that are challenging. Working with criminals is full of risks. There will be those that will attempt to intimidate, manipulate, and threaten you. Most will lie to you. The trick is never to show that you are afraid. As a probation officer you need to stay a step ahead.

Of course, one does make mistakes – we all do – but learn from the mistakes one makes, don’t repeat them. Most offenders are street-wise – you need to stay focused when you meet with them and later analyse what they told you. Ultimately, the aim is to help offenders lead a crime-free life but also to protect society from them. Sometimes the choice between protecting society from there chaotic lifestyle will come to play.

It is not an easy decision to take the offender back to court, hoping that he/she will be put in prison, however sometime this is the only decision that is feasible. This is a difficult decision, but at the end the protection of society (and sometimes even their protection) needs to come first.

A final word of advice for those who would like to pursue this career. Use your common sense, never get into situations that you know you cannot control, never blindly go into a home visit, especially if you are not sure what you will find. You only have your wits to get you out of a sticky situation. If I must describe this job, it would be ‘never a dull moment!’.