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Dream Jobs: Probation officer

By Leo Benedictus, The Guardian on 12.01.16


Word Count 1,827

Deputy County Probation Ofcer Lillian Cosme (center) in front of a weekly meeting of parents of at-risk youths in San
Fernando, California. Photo: Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Ask people why they do the job they do, and they will often rummage lengthily for an
answer. Ask Kelly Grice, however, as I just have, and the response is clear and immediate.
"I'm actually really attached to this job," she says. "It's the kind of job that, at the end of the
week, as hectic as it will always be, I'll have that sense of having actually achieved
something. I've done something that has had an impact on someone, or has made a
meaningful contribution in some way."
Though rmly made, this is something of an understatement. By working with offenders to
help them stop offending, probation ofcers are actually required to transform people's
lives. Indeed it would be hard for them not to. At the end of one of Grice's weeks, her
advice to a court might have sent somebody to prison or kept them free to nd another
victim. Surely there are very few jobs where the impact of being wrong is greater, and yet
the odds of always being right are so vanishingly slim. At times, being a probation ofcer
must feel like working for the National Scapegoat Service.
"Our job is strange in that when it goes right, nothing happens," Grice agrees, as we face
each other in a meeting room at Cannock magistrates court, north of Birmingham, which
she is visiting today. "But when it goes wrong," she adds, "then it's a big media situation."

This article is available at 5 reading levels at https://newsela.com.

On such rare occasions, with all the oversight and teamwork that surrounds the job, it
would be almost impossible for one person to be held solely responsible. Yet probation
ofcers must still learn to live with that pressure. No wonder Grice expects me to be
surprised that she enjoys being one so much.
"It is a thankless job, to a certain extent," she says, her hands composed neatly on the
tabletop. "You don't do this for the money. You don't do it because it's a popular job and
people will be impressed at parties. It's a job that you do because you enjoy having that
contribution, I think." It is also, let none of us forget, a job that does need doing, even if
many people would prefer to see offenders suffer rather than redeem themselves.
"There has to be an alternative to prison," Grice says. "You can't just lock everybody up."
Yet, having agreed to let some criminals out, the idea persists that probation ofcers,
bewitched by the offenders' charm, and their own ideals, are soft on them. And, as a
young woman with a psychology degree who talks placidly about "challenges" and
"making choices", Grice would no doubt slot neatly into the stereotype.
Yet, as she points out, helping released prisoners to build better lives is an essential part of
protecting people from them. "A lot of the general public want people removed from the
community," she says. "But making people feel not wanted is only going to escalate their
risk. If they've got a job and good accommodation, then you've given them something that
they don't want to lose The public perception is that we're there to hold offenders' hands
and look after them and make sure they get whatever they want, but it's not like that."
And certainly the offenders themselves do not see it that way. "When they don't want to
engage at all, they will generally walk through the door and say, 'You can't make me do
anything'. I hear that a lot," Grice says, without altering her even tone. "And I always reply
to them, 'No, you're right. I can't make you talk to me about anything.' What I suggest to
them is that if they don't want to engage in that order, then the court can sentence them to
something that might be more appropriate. But what I ask of them is that if they make the
choice to come to the ofce, they make the choice to talk and do some work." Cooperate
or go to prison, then, is still the message. You just have to deliver it correctly.
Even so, Grice's 30-minute sessions do sound more like therapy than punishment. And
indeed she does refer some offenders to addiction counselling and anger-management
programmes. But, as she takes great pains to emphasise, the differences between a shrink
and a probation ofcer are very clear. Her rst responsibility, for instance, as she says
many times, is to the public, not the offender. (And throughout our time together, there is no
apologetic talk of criminals being "just like you and me". Although no doubt many are.)
Nor are Grice's conversations with offenders entirely condential. She usually meets them
alone, and would never pass on personal matters to friends or family, but she is obliged to
tell social services if she thinks children may be at risk, and must also report any new
offences she hears about. "I had a recent case where threats were made by an offender
towards someone else, and that got passed on to the police," she says, by way of

This article is available at 5 reading levels at https://newsela.com.

example. "It made me very unpopular with the offender, and I had to deal with that when he
came in. But it's amazing how you can get someone turning up being very threatening and
aggressive, and yet I think that guy actually left and thanked me. It took a while, but a lot of
times it is about letting them talk through what it is they're angry about."
Does she not feel nervous going into those sorts of meetings? "I used to," she says, after a
moment's thought. "Not so much now, because when I've been confronted with situations
like that, I've always managed to calm them down. If I think they're not going to calm down,
then I will just ask them to leave." Besides, she points out, an offender will be told when he
comes in (and 90 percent are "he") that she is going to say things that will challenge him.
"So they're aware that that is part of my role and what I'm there to do," she says.
The point, which is never hidden, is to convince criminals to change their ways which
ultimately only they can choose to do. "What we are the experts in," says Grice, "is getting
them to understand the triggers and patterns to their offending, motivating them in the rst
place to set themselves the goals that they want to meet, to get them to address their risk,
and buy into that A big part of what I feel my work is, is getting them to recognise their
need to change."
Naturally, this is not a challenge to attempt with common sense alone. So, despite having
her psychology degree, and a long-standing interest in criminology, Grice still had to
complete another degree, and an NVQ level 3, in community and criminal justice, as well
as a diploma in probation studies, before she qualied as a probation ofcer ve years
ago. Her studies took two years, interwoven with her trainee work, and were utterly
exhausting. But if you were going to do what she does every day, you'd want to be
prepared too.
"I'll always be working with the risky people," she explains. "As a probation ofcer, that is
the majority of my caseload: violent people, sexual offenders, and so on." So, perhaps this
Monday morning, she might have a large and violent murderer with an anger problem
coming to join her in a small room while she tells him things he doesn't want to hear? And
she's relaxed about that, is she? "You're always cautious of the risks," she says. "If it's
someone that serious, then I would most likely make a decision to get the police risk
assessor in there with me. And we don't take anything into the interview room that could be
thrown. No hot drinks, or anything like that." I nod, though I would nd this of little comfort.
Despite doing her best to inuence such people for the better, it is also important for Grice
to accept that her best will often not be good enough. "Sometimes you can have an
offender that won't work well, say, with a female ofcer," she says, "or won't work well with a
younger ofcer We can have a very difcult time with male domestic violence offenders
who are very controlling." Yet when I present her with the wearily familiar story of the drug
addict, most often, who repeatedly reoffends, she insists there can still be grounds for
optimism or at least no grounds for giving up. "Without probation intervention," she says
patiently, "they may have been back quicker. The fact they didn't offend for a year, that's a
year's less victims. I would see that as still worthwhile."
This article is available at 5 reading levels at https://newsela.com.

And in some wonderful cases, of course, even repeat offenders do start to see things
differently. "I have somebody on my caseload at the moment who has kind of made a
career out of being a criminal," she says, suddenly more animated. "They've been in and
out of prison for very many years, because of drug addiction. But this person is now
absolutely thriving."
She pauses to consider whether she is condent about her next comment. Then she
decides she is. "And I do think they won't come back again. They've found their reason to
change," she says.

Curriculum Vitae
Pay: Between 28,185 ($34,366) and 35,727 ($43,562) as a band-four probation ofcer.
Hours: "You work to demand, really. If something needs doing then you stay until that's
done. At times, I've been at work until 8pm or 9pm most nights for a few weeks. Working
through lunch seems to happen more often than it should."
Work/life balance: "You have to be very disciplined. Otherwise, and I've seen it with a lot
of ofcers, you're getting in at 8am and home at 8pm, and you don't have much left for the
home side. It can be really hard."
Best thing: "Seeing people making positive changes in their lives, and getting the sense
that you are helping to minimise the number of other victims of really horric offences."
Worst thing: "You have to sit and read victim statements, and they do impact on you. It
can be really, really difcult when it's children. But you do have to be mindful of what an
offender does."

Overtime
"I got called out to an emergency meeting at a hostel yesterday morning, so I picked up a
tuna sandwich in a garage on the way." If Grice was not a probation ofcer, "I would like to
work with animals. I couldn't be a vet; I couldn't put them to sleep. But I always say if I won
the lottery, I'd open an animal sanctuary." The biggest myth about probation ofcers is "that
we are there for the offender above the public. That's the one I get they think I'm
promoting the rights of someone who has done some really horric things."

This article is available at 5 reading levels at https://newsela.com.

Quiz
1

Which of the following would make the BEST summary of the article?
(A)

Kelly Grice works really hard helping criminals stay out of jail. She enjoys
working on a team. Grice has received a lot of education to help prepare her
to be a probation ofcer. She has studied psychology, criminal justice,
probation studies and more.

(B)

Probation ofcers have a difcult job of helping criminals change their lives.
Some criminals are dangerous and hard to work with. Kelly Grice cares
about the offenders, but she has to be tough with them. If they do not work
with her they can be sent back to prison.

(C)

Probation ofcers help released prisoners avoid returning to jail. Many


offenders deserve a second chance. Some criminals are difcult to work
with, but they also need help. With the help of probation ofcers they can
make different choices and have better lives.

(D)

Kelly Grice has a difcult job as a probation ofcer. Probation ofcers work
with released prisoners to help them make better choices. Grice enjoys
helping offenders change their lives, but she recognizes that a priority of her
job is also protecting the public.

Which sentences from the article BEST reect the central idea that probation ofcers have a
challenging job?
(A)

By working with offenders to help them stop offending, probation ofcers are
actually required to transform people's lives. Indeed it would be hard for
them not to.

(B)

"It's a job that you do because you enjoy having that contribution, I think." It
is also, let none of us forget, a job that does need doing, even if many
people would prefer to see offenders suffer rather than redeem themselves.

(C)

And certainly the offenders themselves do not see it that way. "When they
don't want to engage at all, they will generally walk through the door and
say, 'You can't make me do anything.'"

(D)

Even so, Grice's 30-minute sessions do sound more like therapy than
punishment. And indeed she does refer some offenders to addiction
counseling and anger-management programs.

This article is available at 5 reading levels at https://newsela.com.

Which of the following BEST describes the structure of the article?


(A)

The article describes Grices career as a probation ofcer and provides


examples of her job responsibilities.

(B)

The article explains Grices job and gives a description of how someone can
become a probation ofcer.

(C)

The article describes Grices career as a probation ofcer and focuses on


her work with one criminal.

(D)

The article describes Grices job and traces the development of probation
ofcers throughout history.

Is the rst paragraph of the article an effective way to engage readers with the topic of Grices
job as a probation ofcer? Why or why not?
(A)

Yes, it gives examples of the criminals she works with.

(B)

Yes, it implies her job has challenges but is worth it.

(C)

No, it does not include a description of what her life is like.

(D)

No, it only describes one persons feelings about the job.

This article is available at 5 reading levels at https://newsela.com.

Answer Key
1

Which of the following would make the BEST summary of the article?
(A)

Kelly Grice works really hard helping criminals stay out of jail. She enjoys
working on a team. Grice has received a lot of education to help prepare her
to be a probation ofcer. She has studied psychology, criminal justice,
probation studies and more.

(B)

Probation ofcers have a difcult job of helping criminals change their lives.
Some criminals are dangerous and hard to work with. Kelly Grice cares
about the offenders, but she has to be tough with them. If they do not work
with her they can be sent back to prison.

(C)

Probation ofcers help released prisoners avoid returning to jail. Many


offenders deserve a second chance. Some criminals are difcult to work
with, but they also need help. With the help of probation ofcers they can
make different choices and have better lives.

(D)

Kelly Grice has a difficult job as a probation officer. Probation officers


work with released prisoners to help them make better choices. Grice
enjoys helping offenders change their lives, but she recognizes that a
priority of her job is also protecting the public.

Which sentences from the article BEST reect the central idea that probation ofcers have a
challenging job?
(A)

By working with offenders to help them stop offending, probation ofcers are
actually required to transform people's lives. Indeed it would be hard for
them not to.

(B)

"It's a job that you do because you enjoy having that contribution, I think." It
is also, let none of us forget, a job that does need doing, even if many
people would prefer to see offenders suffer rather than redeem themselves.

(C)

And certainly the offenders themselves do not see it that way. "When
they don't want to engage at all, they will generally walk through the
door and say, 'You can't make me do anything.'"

(D)

Even so, Grice's 30-minute sessions do sound more like therapy than
punishment. And indeed she does refer some offenders to addiction
counseling and anger-management programs.

This article is available at 5 reading levels at https://newsela.com.

Which of the following BEST describes the structure of the article?


(A)

The article describes Grices career as a probation officer and provides


examples of her job responsibilities.

(B)

The article explains Grices job and gives a description of how someone can
become a probation ofcer.

(C)

The article describes Grices career as a probation ofcer and focuses on


her work with one criminal.

(D)

The article describes Grices job and traces the development of probation
ofcers throughout history.

Is the rst paragraph of the article an effective way to engage readers with the topic of Grices
job as a probation ofcer? Why or why not?
(A)

Yes, it gives examples of the criminals she works with.

(B)

Yes, it implies her job has challenges but is worth it.

(C)

No, it does not include a description of what her life is like.

(D)

No, it only describes one persons feelings about the job.

This article is available at 5 reading levels at https://newsela.com.