Looking Back, Looking Forward, Looking Across

The first year of the Action has been a busy one. Forming the Management Committee, allocating roles, setting up the Working Groups, building relationships with our partners (especially CEP – the European Probation Organization http://www.cep-probation.org/), planning and running our meetings and preparing the conference – all of these were challenging tasks. But the main job was to complete the review of research that we had promised. Individuals and teams of researchers completed dozens of valuable reports that were then synthesized and presented by our erstwhile Working Group leaders. Many of these are now publically available on on the documents and resources page.

The Working Group leaders are now drafting briefing papers summarizing their syntheses of European research on offender supervision; we’ll publish those on the website in July. But they are also hard at work, along with the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Action, on our first book, ‘Offender Supervision in Europe’, which will be published by Palgrave in January 2014.  Beyond these planned outcomes, we already have members of the Action collaborating on the production of special issues of journals and on bids for funding for empirical research. Perhaps most importantly, we have forged the strong relationships from which our future collaborations will grow.

At the same time, we are advancing our plans for Year 2. Last year we held meetings in Belgium, England, France and Scotland; next year takes us to Slovakia, Malta and Sweden for two Working Group Meetings and one meeting of the Core Group (of WG leaders and other office-bearers).

The Liverpool conference left us all clear that the job that lies ahead is a daunting but inspiring one. As David Nelken told us, to climb the mountain before us, we need to be clear what we are comparing for before we can determine exactly how we should undertake the task. I’ve been reflecting on that helpful challenge ever since and I’m clear about the answers. As we noted on page 2, our overarching goal is ‘to increase and deepen knowledge about offender supervision, so as to better understand its evolution and development…’ We are not comparing in order to standardise our ‘harmonise’ offender supervision; rather we want to better understand and explain the diversity of institutions, cultures and practices of supervision that exist in our continent.

Why does that kind of analysis matter? Part of the answer is that without a properly critical understanding of supervision, we can’t properly inform its future development. In this sense, our challenge is the one that increasingly confronts anyone interested in ‘civic or public social science’; that is, how can we apply our knowledge and skills to the task not just of improving policy and practice but of informing public debate and democratic deliberation about pressing social issues. In our case, these are issues of punishment and crime control that test the proper limits of state authority, the capacities of civil society, and the rights and duties of citizens. The stakes could hardly be higher.Year 2 is about imaging and then developing better approaches to the project of comparative criminal justice. In this respect, I think we are a group of ‘go-betweens’. A book with that title opens with the famous line, ‘The past is foreign country; they do things differently there.’ The narrator of the story is a man who, as a boy, was used as a go-between (or messenger) between two lovers kept distant by social class and cultural difference, and by the power of repressive social institutions. But the narrator himself is also an old man reflecting on the boy that he once was. Like him, we face the challenge of making sense of ourselves in the past and the present, and of somehow moving between different institutions, cultures and practices, while carrying important messages. Hopefully those messages mean something; hopefully, they can help us to understand one another better, and to understand ourselves better. To me, that seems like a good path to the kind of progressive development that both enriches and challenges all of us.









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