McDonaldization of probation at the magistrates’ court in England and Wales

An article by Gwen Robinson, University of Sheffield, UK (g.j.robinson@sheffield.ac.uk)

The provision of pre-sentence advice to the criminal courts has been an important part of the work of probation staff in England & Wales since the late 19th century. However, this is an area of probation work which has not received any serious academic attention for several decades. This article presents findings from an ethnographic study of probation work in two English Magistrates’ courts which was conducted in 2017.

It argues that in the last few years, major (but separate) policy changes affecting both the criminal courts and probation services have, in combination, brought about significant changes to the speed and nature of pre-sentence probation work. This is nowhere more evident than in the production of pre-sentence reports, which are today mostly prepared on the day of request and delivered orally (rather than as a written report) in the courtroom. Contemporary probation work in the English Magistrates’ courts, it is argued, bears all the hallmarks of a process of ‘McDonaldization’ as described by the sociologist George Ritzer (1993). The research found that all four dimensions of McDonaldization described by Ritzer – efficiency, calculability, predictability and control – were clearly evident in the organisation and practice of pre-sentence probation work, and each of these dimensions is discussed and illustrated.

Gwen is currently working on another article which will explore how probation practitioners in court teams are experiencing the process of ‘McDonaldization’. Taking his lead from Max Weber, Ritzer suggested that McDonaldized workplaces may be experienced in a variety of ways: as an oppressive ‘iron cage’ from which there is no escape; as a ‘rubber cage’, the bars of which can be stretched to allow for a degree of escape; or even as a ‘velvet cage’ which offers comfort through its predictability and ritualized procedures.

Click on the link to read the full article “Delivering McJustice? The Probation Factory at the Magistrates’ Court”  

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