Napo Magazine - The Trade Union, Professional Association and campaigning organisation for Probation and Family Court staff news.

Editorial: Putting the ‘People’ back into Probation

Language is important. It doesn’t only affect people we communicate with but it affects our own thinking and attitudes. The language we use internally and in our communications can affect the way we think and act.

Probation staff everywhere recoiled in horror at being forced to use the term ‘offender’ to describe the people we work with and being forced to identify their role as an ‘offender manager’. For years we railed against the stigmatising labels we were told we had to use. Napo members set a policy to always use the term ‘Client’. As a Trainee in the mid-2000’s this made sense to me as one of the key texts we used in our studies was Chris Trotter’s Working with Involuntary Clients. Some years later the Probation Trust I worked for did a consultation of staff and stakeholders to find a different way to describe the people we worked with (despite the official NOMS edict to use ‘offender’). The result was that we used ‘Service User’. Many felt less than comfortable with this as it infers some level of choice that does not exist for most of the people we work with.

When TR (Transforming Rehabilitation, the process of abolishing the Probation Trusts and part privatising the service) happened the new National Probation Service kept the term ‘Offender’ although the term ‘Offender Manager” became less used, replaced in the new legislation by “Responsible Officer’. The newly created Community Rehabilitation Companies took different approaches, using varied terms decided on in different ways, many through consultation with their clients.

Putting the ‘People’ back into Probation
“We must put the ‘people’ back into ‘people on probation’ and spell or say the whole term.”

In 2021 the integration of Probation Work into one Probation Service came at a time when the approach to language and labels was finally changing in HMPPS. As part of these changes came the introduction of a new term to use to describe the people that we work with. ‘People on Probation’ is a much less stigmatising term and was introduced for all the right reasons, it seemed like a positive change to herald a new approach, after all the people we work with are indeed people and they are on probation.

People vs PoP

Sometimes the problems with terms only become clear once they are in use. Very quickly we started seeing ‘PoP’ being used in communications and presentations and now we often hear ‘pops’ being used in conversation. ‘People on Probation’ has six syllables so it seems natural that some may seek to shorten it. The problem is that it is being shortened to an acronym that sounds like a word. This means yet another label and, importantly, the removal of the humanising word ‘people’. Probation is a profession that is all about people, and we must always strive to connect with the humanity in everyone we work with. We must continually remind ourselves, in our work, in our communication and in our thoughts, that we are working with people and using dehumanising terms does not help that process. More vitally using dehumanising terms sends a problematic message to the people we work with, that their humanity isn’t recognised (never mind valued) and they are no more than a commodity to be processed.

We must put the ‘people’ back into ‘people on probation’ and spell or say the whole term. If we need a shortened version perhaps ‘people’ should suffice?

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