Earlier this year Brian Heath MBE retired as Chief Probation Officer of the Jersey Probation and After Care Service and during the CEP General Assembly he said goodbye to the CEP Board as well. We talked to him about his career, about how he made the small Channel Island Jersey well known in the European probation sector and his plans for the future.
What did your career look like before you became a Chief Probation Officer?
That is a long time ago. I started with a degree in Psychology in 1980 and then I did various temporary jobs before I applied for a position as Trainee Probation Officer in Jersey in 1983. This meant I had to work in the office for a year and then I went away for a year to take a post graduate course in social work. After that I worked for another year before I was appointed by the court to become a probation officer. I later became Assistant Chief Probation Officer and then Chief Probation Officer in 1999.
What was your time like as Chief Probation Officer?
During my time as Chief Probation Officer I really focused on implementing the emerging evidence about effective practice into our service. I also worked on our the links with researchers and universities to commission research into our practice. Learning from research and bring it into practice, that is what I find very interesting.
Can you give an example of how you implemented research into practice?
In some ways it is easier in a small service and in some ways it is more difficult. There are fewer people to persuade and the lines of communication are shorter. But you do not have the resources that people have in the larger services where there are whole departments to get things done.
The start of our most significant project was a study from Dr James Bonta in Canada, who audio recorded probation officers and their clients. They tried to score those against what was known about effective practice and found that probation officers put in a great deal of work in the early weeks, but had more routine non-focused conversations as time went on.
We used our partnership with the University of Swansea. Together we tried to find out what actually happened in those one-to-one interviews with probation officers and their clients using video recording and using a skills checklist to measure the likely impact of supervision.
What the study showed was that there was a significant difference between those officers that were consistently using a set of skills and those who didn’t. Although all the officers used the skills some of the time, some used them more consistently than others. That was a really interesting piece of research. The next crucial bit of the project was to use the checklist developed for the project regularly to help probation officers develop their skills?
Was the cooperation with the researchers and the development of this checklist one of the major changes during your time as chief?
In the end it was. If you would ask me what am I proud of, that would be one of the most important changes. One of the other things was bringing the organisation called the Princess Trust into Jersey. There was a gap on the island and it is an area of work we probably couldn’t have moved into ourselves but which was perfect for the Prince’s Trust and our delivery partner the Jersey Youth Service.
The Prince’s Trust work with young disadvantaged people who have been in Government Care, people that may come out of prison, may have disabilities or something else that gives them a disadvantage. The organisation gives them the tools to change themselves. It does it in a way that the probation service can’t do. It reduces the number of people coming our way further down the line through offending.
You come from a small Island in Europe and you have managed to put the island on the European probation map. How did you get involved in European probation to start with?
I think the first time I went to a CEP event, was before I became Chief Probation Officer. It was 1997 and it was a conference on drug couriers in Zurich. I went there to learn about what other jurisdictions were doing about drug couriers. At that time Jersey wasn’t a member, but it became clear that we could learn a lot from other European jurisdictions.
How do you look back on your time as a board member?
CEP has been a great organisation for Jersey. Other countries have heard about what is going on in Jersey via CEP. Hopefully we contributed to knowledge building. Equally we learned about what worked from other countries as well. Hopefully my contribution has been to emphasise the importance of bringing research and practice together. CEP is like a big probation family. I think that is very important for a Chief in a small place like Jersey, where it can be quite isolating in a way, to regularly meet with colleagues from Europe. I will not forget the support I have had from my colleagues over the years. That has been really helpful.
What do you think is the most important thing you learned in your time as a chief?
It is hard to put my finger on one thing. There are lots of topics within probation that I learned a lot about. Recently at the Directors General Conference we had a conversation about the future of probation and the impact of technology and whether that can be a good or a bad thing. The conversations about net-widening are very important. This was an important conversation at the beginning of my career when I was training to become a probation officer in 1984, 1985. It disappeared for many years and now it reemerged in recent years. It is an interesting topic that I learned a lot about throughout my career.
What are you going to do now you are retired?
I have a whole list of things. I’m having more time to myself, which is nice. I like walking, flying (Brian is a pilot) and kayaking. I have children and grandchildren, so it’s nice to spend more time with them. I’m also keeping busy with bits of voluntary work. I’m still involved in the Prince’s Trust, I’m the Chairman there. I’m also Chair of the Jersey Fostering Panel, I’m on the board of a mental health advocacy charity and President of the Alderney Wildlife Trust (Alderney is a small island about 50 km to the north). It is a great honour to be asked to do that. I also teach a bit. In the spring term I teach on the Applied Criminology Degree course at our university college and I am a Visiting Fellow of the University of South Wales. It is good to be busy, I think.
Is there anything else you would like to tell me that is on your mind?
Politicians are still talking about being tough on crime, using prison more and for a longer period of time, despite it not being successful. To a large extent the probation world knows what an effective system looks like. It is disappointing that the message hasn’t really got across to the wider population of politicians and the public. Despite trying in many different ways we have not yet succeeded in getting the messages across.
Would you say this is a message for the future probation officers to work on?