Criminology, probation and stuff

Some musings on criminology with a focus on probation

There’s more to a public probation service than public protection

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The argument made by three Chairs of Probation Trusts about the reforms to the Probation Service reflects the main arguments being made by Napo, the probation officer’s union, to what is, in effect, the privatisation of 70% of the Probation Service’s work. This argument, briefly, is that the reforms are being implemented too quickly and will less protection of the public. Whilst this argument results in eye-catching headlines and appeals to some people’s fears of crime it risks backfiring because it reminds the public that there are ‘dangerous’ offenders at liberty in society and lead people to turn against the very existence of probation and community sentence: if these people are capable of killing why were they released from prison in the first place? The argument implies that probation’s primary purpose is to protect the public and detracts attention away some of the major issues related to privatisation and the framework of payment by results (PbR) which is part and parcel of the reforms. Quite how these ‘results’ will be calculated remains to be seen, although we know it will involve the use of reoffending rates to measure how good a service has been in delivering a particular service. There are two issues with this: firstly, reoffending rates are by no means an easily identifiable and measurable signifier of effectiveness. Do, or should, reoffending rates take changes in seriousness or frequency of offending into account? How do we deal with those people who commit a crime which does not come to the attention of the police and so on – can we count them as a ‘result’?

The second issue is threefold and relates to the way in which offenders actually desist from crime. Firstly, paying private companies and voluntary organisations for ‘results’ implicitly says that they are primarily responsible for any change that occurs in that person’s life. However, much of the research into the ways in which offenders desist from offending gives considerable priority to both the motivation of the offender, as well as their broader social context: improved relationships with families and friends, a more mature outlook which comes with the aging process, and better social networks are seen to be important factors in how successful an offender is likely to be in achieving a crime-free life. Secondly, offenders who have some autonomy and control over their desistance journey do ‘better’ than ones who are coerced into treatment and rehabilitation. Affording such priority to the role of delivery organisations could result in offenders having less autonomy and agency over their life choices. Put simply, PbR risks taking credit away from the offender for any change in their life and transferring it to the delivery organisation. A public Probation Service, on the other hand, can (quite literally) afford to give offenders credit for their own rehabilitation. Indeed, a common theme to come out of discussions I’ve had with probation officers was that the work done by offenders in turning their own lives around should be prioritised. Thirdly, much of probation’s work has an indirect impact – helping someone find a job gives them money to feed themselves but, indirectly, can improve their self-esteem and gives structure to their daily routine. Similarly, giving someone the opportunity to sit down and talk through their issues with a probation officer gives them skills and insights which might not have an immediate benefit but could have relevance several years down the line. There is, as Rob Canton has put it, great power in the virtue of obliquity (paywall). Thus, rather than representing a potential risk to public protection, a stronger argument to be made is that these reforms risk disempowering people who are, let’s not forget, people in need of some kind of support and help from the state to effect their own change rather than beings who exist simply to enhance the profits of private companies or be labelled dangerous offenders against whom the public must be protected.


Written by criminologyandstuff

October 29, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Posted in criminal justice

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