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A view from a Probation Officer: Working with people who are convicted who maintain their innocence

I have a caseload of 30, most of whom have been convicted of sexual offences. Many of the people I work with maintain their innocence. Indeed, if we look at this from a psychological perspective, this can be a helpful strategy; for the individual, protecting them against self-loathing. In this respect, it can be a positive thing – if someone is denying their behaviour because they find it too painful to admit, it means they know they have done something wrong. Which is surely better than the rapist or paedophile who justifies his behaviour?

Another powerful motivator for maintaining innocence can be to ensure ongoing support from/connection with family members or friends, and we know that having social capital and a prosocial support network helps people desist from offending, so this again is positive.

The problem as a Probation Officer is that if I believed all the people who tell me they are innocent, and excused them from the work they are expected to complete in order to reduce their risk, I may well be excusing people who have committed heinous crime which has caused severe trauma to the victims.

I have no doubt that our Criminal Justice System (CJS) gets it wrong sometimes - as we have seen in the tragic case of Andrew Malkinson, and as we can see by the fact that ethnic minorities are over represented in the CJS. However, it cannot be my role to decide on who is innocent and who is not; that is the role of the Courts, the Appeal system and the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

As a Probation Officer, I work with people who have pleaded or been found guilty. I have to work with them on this basis, and I do my best to try to understand how the conviction occurred. Our aim is to make sure they are never convicted again and there are no further victims. Whether they are innocent or guilty, this seems to me a reasonable aim.

Treatment has moved on, and these days we do not ask people to sit and squirm while we make them feel bad about what they have done and the impact of this. We know this does not affect change. These days we focus on people’s strengths; what has got them through the difficult times, and how they can build on their strengths to make a better future that does not include victims, Courts or any of the CJS.

I would love to believe people are innocent, but I also have a duty to read the victim’s statements, and this is what drives me to do my job; I want to stop suffering of the kind I have to read about daily. If that means that occasionally someone who is really innocent has to do some strengths based work until the Courts grant their appeal, then personally I feel it’s worth it to know that I have done my best to reduce the risk of the guilty offending again.

I do my best to support anyone who is appealing, and I am genuinely happy for anyone who manages to overturn a wrongful conviction. However, until that happens, I will continue to do my job as a Probation Officer, addressing and reducing risks to the public by helping people change their lives.

By Sarah Catling

Probation Officer

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