Building probation relationships that support change

This guest post comes from Sarah Lewis, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Psychology at the University of Portsmouth (

It has been consistently recognised within the literature that a ‘positive’ working relationship can be seen as a vehicle for change and can support processes that encourage an individual to move away from crime (King, 2013; Rex, 1999). Whilst importance has been attributed to such relationships, my doctoral work focused upon considering how probation practitioners and probationers themselves see these relationships, especially where they promote such change (referred to as therapeutic correctional relationships). It also considered those instances when the relationship becomes problematic and challenging. Within a psychotherapeutic context, it is not simply the case that relationships are developed in a linear fashion; rather, there is a recognition that ‘set- backs’ or ‘ruptures’ can temporarily threaten or tear a therapeutic relationship and so that repairing such tears provides opportunities for learning and growth (see Safran & Muran, 2006).

In response to this, I became interested in how the research within psychotherapy might be applied to correctional relationships and in the differences that may exist between therapeutic relationships and relationships within probation. This led me to develop a growing curiosity about processes that underlie therapeutic correctional relationships and the impact that these relationships may have on an offender.

In previous research, my findings had reaffirmed that, for probationers, working with someone who possessed a genuine belief in an individual and their capacity to change was an important ingredient to a therapeutic correctional relationship (Lewis, 2014). However, I also found that the longer a practitioner worked in the field of probation, the more this belief slowly diminished over time (Lewis, in press). For me, it was therefore essential that a greater insight into how practitioners can ensure that they preserve their belief in change through what Maruna (2012) calls ‘injections of hope’.

The concept of belief was revisited during a research project that developed some of my key ideas. Probationers described how honest, respectful, accepting, empathic and supportive practitioners enabled positive working relationship (Lewis, 2014). This research echoed findings from Farrall (2002) and McCulloch (2005) and furthered their work by discussing how the relationship impacted upon the probationer’s life, both at the time of the relationship and after the relationship had ceased. Probationers described how they grew as individuals both in terms of their skills, abilities, confidence and attainment of goals. They shared their experiences of feeling more comfortable and engaging more with probation as a result of these relationships, recognising the value in probation and the work that was being carried out. The research also highlighted that a lack of these characteristics contributed to a negative relationship that was experienced by probationers as destructive. Some probationers described how they sometimes offended in spite of their probation practitioner as well as ‘letting out’ their anxieties and frustrations on those close to them.

The research highlighted that more attention needs to be paid to processes that underlie the correctional relationship in order to provide guidance and knowledge to front line practitioners. With the Skills for Effective Engagement and Development (SEEDS) initiative that have been piloted and launched across the majority of Probation Trusts, practitioners have been given more opportunities to reflect upon these very relationships that can be used as a tool to promote offender transformation.

My doctoral research has aimed to deconstruct the working relationship further, exploring how practitioners (from the perspective of the probationer and practitioner) have developed, maintained and ended relationships effectively within probation practice. The results highlighted a number of similarities from the research relating to therapeutic relationships within the psychoanalytical field. Firstly, I found that a decision is made within the first one or two sessions as to whether a relationship will be established or not. Probationers were optimistic that relationships that start off ‘on the wrong foot’ for whatever reason, can be retrieved at an early stage if practitioners are willing to discuss the problems associated around the relationship and engage in discussions about their relationship.

My research also uncovered a number of ruptures that can occur within a correctional context that can shake the relationship and increase the likelihood of disengagement and non-compliance. These ruptures were typically deemed by probationers as resulting from duplicity or deception by officers and included, for example, planned arrests at probation offices and negative reports that were concealed from the probationer prior to court. Unhealthy power games were also discussed honestly by practitioners as they shared practices that increased the likelihood of ruptures. This included dismissive and exclusionary actions (blocking), baiting the probationer to react negatively and participating in arguments (battling) that led to probationer disengagement. Whilst ruptures are recognised as regular and normal within practice, it is important to focus upon how ruptures can be repaired within practice through collaborative and exclusionary practice that focuses upon talking about relationships and relational problems.

It is hoped that a greater insight into such practices can lead to developments in practice that will promote an engaged practitioner that is mindful of their values and actions on a relational level. By doing this, I argue that practitioners could develop individual relational theories that support processes of desistance in the future and create sustainable relationships that promote learning for both individuals involved.


Farrall, S. (2002). Rethinking what works with offenders: Probation, social context and assistance from crime. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

King, S. (2013). Assisted desistance and experiences of probation supervision. Probation Journal, 60 (2) 163-151.

Lewis, (2014) Learning from success and failure: Deconstructing the working relationship within Probation practice and exploring its impact upon probationers, using a collaborative approach. Probation Journal. DOI: 10.1177/0264550514523816

Lewis, (in press). Who works? Exploring positive working relationships in light of the aims of probation, using a collaborative approach. Probation Journal.

Maruna, S. (2012) Elements of Successful Signalling, Criminology & Public Policy, 11 (1), 73-86.

McCulloch, T. (2005). Probation, social context and desistance: Retracing the relationship. Probation Journal, 52 (1), 8-22.

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