Reflections on the Offender Engagement Programme

And here’s another — my intro to the latest newsletter of the OEP…

The Offender Engagement Programme is still comparatively young. But questions about the role of evidence in criminal justice policy and practice have been around for a long time. One of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers on crime and punishment, Cesare Beccaria, writing in 1775, put it this way:

‘Would you prevent crimes? Let liberty be attended with knowledge. As knowledge extends, the disadvantages which attend it diminish, and the advantages increase… Knowledge facilitates the comparison of objects, by showing them in different points of view. When the clouds of ignorance are dispelled by the radiance of knowledge, authority trembles, but the force of the law remains immovable’ (in Priestley and Vanstone, 2010: 11).

Alongside his early endorsement of the role of science in promoting public safety, Beccaria demanded clarity in the law, due process in its administration, and certainty and regularity in its delivery of punishments, limited by the principles of parsimony and proportionality. So, for him, as for many that have come after him, delivering criminal justice must be about both evidence and principle; both science and law; both the empirical and the normative.

In a paper that I’m still writing, I’m trying to tease out this central set of relationships, by exploring these intersections. I’m not going to rehearse the arguments here – they are still brewing up —  but I want to mention how my thinking has been developed
in and through an interesting and challenging range of engagements linked one way
or another to the OEP.

Firstly, I’ve been fortunate to be invited to speak at many recent events and to provide some input on desistance. The clear impression I have formed is that the revision of national standards to enable professional judgement has created a new urgency in the search not just for evidence, but also for theory, for new ways of thinking, and for rethinking old questions and arguments about values and purposes.

Secondly, I’ve been involved with the team from Sheffield both in the ‘Quality in Probation Supervision’ study and in the evaluation of the SEED programme. These projects, as well as reviewing existing evidence (in the case of the quality study), are beginning to produce new evidence not just about ‘what works?’ but also about ‘what matters?’ in supervision.

Thirdly, I’ve been working hard (with Steve Farrall, Claire Lightowler, Shadd Maruna and many others) on the Desistance Knowledge Exchange project. If you don’t know about this, please visit our blog: uk/discoveringdesistance/
Simply put, the blog is another kind of opportunity to engage practitioners, ex-offenders, service users and researchers in dialogue about what desistance-supporting justice might look like.

Each of these three kinds of engagement speaks in some
way to the article I’m writing; as a result, it’s a paper that takes what might seem to some a slightly unusual path. Rather than trying to present that latest evidence from research into evidence- based practices and issuing academic advice on what policies or practices to adopt, I have tried instead to respect Beccaria’s injunction and to open up new vantage points from which we might examine the claims of evidence on policy and practice. I focus on three sets of questions about the links between evidence and purposes, about the different forms of evidence relevant to rehabilitation, and about the different voices and experiences that might be needed to ‘co-produce’ a more broadly-based and reconceived range of practices.

In relation to this venture, Beccaria again has some wise words for us:

‘Ignorance may be less fatal than a small degree of knowledge, because this adds, to the evils of ignorance, the inevitable errors of a confined view of things…’ (Priestley and Vanstone, 2010: 12).

We are all vulnerable to developing ‘a confined view’; to privileging our own perspective; to preferring to rely on the small degrees of knowledge that we accrue as individuals. And we all stand the best chance of avoiding the errors attendant on taking such ‘a confined view’ by exposing ourselves to the views of others – and by being open not just to new kinds of evidence but also to new kinds of questions. This is not to suggest that all forms of knowledge should be assessed and used in the same ways – and, of course, it is not to refute the need to expose and reject policies and practices based in ignorance or error, whatever their source.

But it is to argue for the learning that comes from mutually respectful dialogue, since it is in that dialogue that the prospects for progressive justice resides. The OEP represents a critically important contribution to that dialogue at a critically important moment for probation, in particular through its emphasis on investing in the skills and qualities of probation staff, and in building these qualities and skills through continual learning, development and support. Please read this newsletter and follow the links for more information.