Spreading the word about the Action

This guest post comes from Lol Burke of Liverpool John Moores University.

Given that one of the core objectives of the COST project is to facilitate an exchange with those directly concerned with the delivery of offender supervision I took advantage of an invite to speak at the inaugural professional conferences of the Probation Institute in England and Wales to promote the work of the Action and disseminate some of the emerging findings from the working groups. The Probation Institute is a newly formed, independent not-for-profit organisation, which is aiming to become a recognised centre of excellence for probation practice and to develop a strong probation profession across private, public and voluntary sectors in the wake of the ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ agenda in England and Wales. The events were held in London and York with over 320 practitioners attending.

Having initially provided an overview of the working groups I discussed the scale and reach of community supervision across Europe and some of the challenges involved in undertaking comparative research across different jurisdictions. Drawing heavily on the chapter in Offender Supervision in Europe (McNeill and Beyens 2013) by Gwen Robinson and Kerstin Svensson (Robinson and Svensson, 2013) I then went on to discuss some areas of practice that were under-developed in research terms. These included the interactions and relationships between practitioners and other professionals including sentencers, the impact of professional training in shaping the working practices and values of those involved in offender supervision and the need for more research into the impact of diversity along the lines of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and age.

One of the stated aims of the Probation institute is to establish strong links with academics through the commissioning and publishing of evidence-based reviews aiming to impact on policy and practice. In line with the core objectives of the COST action, I urged the Probation Institute to concern itself not only with issues of technical efficiency and effectiveness (as important as these are) but to also embrace more innovative methodologies that explore what it means in terms of the ‘lived experience’ of supervision both in terms of those delivering and those on the receiving end of it. Another strand of my presentation was around encouraging practitioner-led research and developing collaborative relationships with academic institutions to address locally based issues.

At a recent meeting of the Probation Institute – attended by both researchers and practitioners there was a clear statement of intent in terms of involving practitioners in undertaking research themselves, and in collaboration with others, which could not only add credibility to evaluations in the eyes of the profession but also move the practitioner and research communities closer together. Amongst the ideas put forward to facilitate this included: commissioning reviews of evidence about what makes probation work effective and identifying where further research is needed; encouraging employers to allocate working time dedicated to professional self-development, training and learning/reading around evaluations into developing practice; providing a gradual introduction to research/evaluation methods, through for example practitioner research forums; promoting fellowships to undertake research; developing Frameworks for Continuing Professional Development (CPDs) promoted by the Institute with research components; supporting the uptake of Masters Level study for suitably qualified staff; involving volunteers and students to get a ‘taster’ in evaluating probation practice.

Finally, I took the opportunity to consider what I saw as the challenges to professional practice in the new working environment created by Transforming Rehabilitation in England and Wales. As many probation observers across Europe will be aware, under the proposed changes the existing Probation Trusts will be replaced by a significantly smaller National Probation Service (NPS) dealing with the rump of high-risk public protection cases with the supervision and delivery of services to those offenders assessed as low and medium risk contracted to the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) on a payment by results basis (Annison et al 2014). Many of the Government’s claims for expanding ‘Payment by Results’ across the majority of rehabilitative services appear to be based largely on the preliminary findings from the HMP Peterborough pilot but if ‘What Works?’ research taught us anything, it was that showcase pilots are often unreliable indicators of effectiveness when implemented on a larger scale. As Carol Hedderman – an acknowledged expert in such evaluations – has pointed out, there have been some rather large claims about success from a weakly designed reconviction analysis which was compared with a poorly matched national sample (Hedderman 2013). This to me seems symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

As Paul Senior (2013) has noted – we have no model from Europe or anywhere else in the world for Transforming Rehabilitation to draw on. The challenges facing the National Probation Service and the Community Rehabilitation Companies in some respects will be the same (in terms of the need to develop robust systems and managing staff through difficult times); in some respects they will also be significantly different. For the NPS, whose work will now almost entirely be structured around risk, the issue will be how far it is able to extend its scope beyond one of monitoring and surveillance especially as it will be constrained by its new status as Crown Servants. Reports from within the Ministry of Justice that emerged last week that describe a climate of being ‘defensive, uninterested in evidence, and unwilling to subject itself to scrutiny’ (Dunt 2014) do not bode well in this respect. Rehabilitation might be more prominent in the CRCs but I guess the key question here is what rehabilitation will look like beyond the CRCs (presuming the contracts are eventually let). This could perhaps go either way. As new providers position themselves in the marketplace, it may be that innovative practices will emerge to set them apart and increase their chances of contract renewal or it may be that ultimately individuals are warehoused through supervision at the cheapest cost – the Probation institute could have an important role to play in ensuring that it is the former and not the latter.

References

Annison, J., Burke, L. & Senior, P. Transforming Rehabilitation: Another example of English ‘exceptionalism’ or a blueprint for the rest of Europe. European Journal of Probation 6(1): 1-18.

Dunt, I. (2014) Just how deep does Grayling’s hatred of the Howard League go? Politics.co.uk. http://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2014/06/11/just-how-deep-does-grayling-s-hate-of-the-howard-league-go (accessed 28 June 2014)

Hedderman, C. (2013) Payment by results: hopes, fears, evidence. British Journal of Community Justice, 11 (2/3): 43-58.

McNeill, F. & Beyens, K. (2013) (eds) Offender Supervision in Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Robinson, G. and Svensson, K. (2103) ‘Practising Offender Supervision’ in  McNeill, F. & Beyens, K. (2013) (eds) Offender Supervision in Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Senior, P. (2013) Privatising Probation: The Death Knell of a Much-Cherished Public Service? 16th Annual Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture: Cambridge University.

 

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