End of an era or a new beginning?

Today saw the publication of the report of the Commission on Women Offenders, chaired by Professor Dame Eilish Angolini’s, formerly Scotland’s Lord Advocate (Chief Prosecutor). It’s well worth reading in full: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2012/04/womenoffenders17042012

One particularly interesting recommendation — for me at least — concerns the fate of criminal justice social work. For those not acquainted with the Scottish system, we abolished our probation services at the end of the 1960s, wrapping them into generic social work departments. The Commission’s recommendation to create a national Community Justice Service (still social work led, and separate from the prison service) arises from their frustration with what they see as the cluttered and fragmented landscape for Scottish community justice. 32 local authorities, 8 community justice authorities, however many sheriffdoms (court areas), etc… it does seem hard to sustain these structures (and the variable service delivery that they permit) in a country of five million, though the jury is out on exactly what difference organisational structures make in supporting desistance.

As a former social worker turned criminologist, the recommendation provokes a sort of dissonance in me. I’m delighted that they have recognised that social work knowledge, values and skills remain central to supporting desistance; but they also recognise the need for more specialist knowledge and skills (in their case linked to women offenders, but the argument holds across criminal justice) to supplement the generic basis.

The question of the local authority locus of these services is a separate but complex one. Though I have always liked the idea of probation being a local authority function — because it ought to support joined up services and to allow the necessary connections to be made to education, housing, leisure, health etc., — as a practising social worker in the 90s, I have to admit that criminal justice social work seemed pretty marginal in social work itself (which was perhaps legitimately dominated by concerns about child protection and community care), never mind in the local authority. Making connections to other local authority services seemed no easier from inside the council than it might have been from outside it. Too many of my local authority colleagues seemed happy to see the ‘offenders’ on my caseload as my problem, not theirs.

Meanwhile, criminal justice social work also lacked a career structure (since serious advancement in social work meant becoming a generic manager and leaving probation specialism behind) and community justice lacked a powerful voice in Scottish politics and in the penal system. There was no Director of Probation to stand alongside (and where necessary toe-to-toe) with the senior judges or the Director of the Prison Service, or the Lord Advocate for that matter. While going under the political radar might perhaps have been helpful pre-devolution, it’s seems to me that it is simply not possible now to carry on without this sort of senior leadership and powerful representation at the centre, in Edinburgh (a hard thing for a Glaswegian to admit!).

If the Commission’s report has been challenging for social work, it seems to have soft pedalled a little on the judges. The SCCJR’s recent analysis of the criminal justice processing of women over the last 10 years (http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/view_pub.php?id=307) finds little or no evidence that the doubling of the population of women in prison owes anything to increases in the frequency or seriousness of women’s offending, or even to increases in the numbers of women being prosecuted. Judges are sending more women to prison and for longer. And yet, there is little in the report on sentencing reform — just the familiar indirect attempt to make the community alternatives better and hope that this (alongside improvements in judicial education) persuades them to sentence women differently. I can’t help feel that we’ve been trying that trick (unsuccessfully, with all offenders) for the last 30 years. The volume of community sentences has risen dramatically, but to no apparent effect whatever in terms of reducing the use of custody. My conclusion: if you want to change sentencing, bite the bullet and change sentencing. The Scottish Parliament has already passed legislation to establish a Sentencing Council that, if it was established could set guidelines to delimit the circumstances in which and the offences for which custodial sentences should be passed — for women and men — but the Commission stays silent on this vital question.

Returning to the positive aspects of the report — the Commission’s vision of local Community Justice Centres staffed by multi-disciplinary teams, and with a key role for mentors in intensively supporting women’s compliance with diversion, bail and with community sentences, and offering a one-stop shop where complex needs can be met, is a compelling one. But making those centres work will cost money — lots of it — and we know where that money is being spent — our public investment is locked in the wrong places; behind bars. It’s a true for men as for women. If we are going to get serious about supporting desistance and building safer and fairer communities; if we are going to ditch the puerile tough/soft on crime binary and develop the smart justice that a mature democracy requires, then we need to get the money out of jail — and realise the potential of social work and other services to work with offenders and ex-offenders to produce constructive justice. Better justice, better lives — for offenders, families and communities. There’s a manifesto worth voting for.

Summary of the evidence – how and why people stop offending

We (Fergus McNeill, Steve Farrall, Shadd Maruna and myself) have produced a summary of the evidence about how and why people stop offending.  This gives an overview of the evidence and discusses the implications for both practice and the wider criminal justice system.  Following the link will take you to a web version of the summary, from this page you can also download as a pdf or order hardcopies if you wish.  Note those of you attending the workshops which form part of this project will be able to get copies there.

Visit: How and why people stop offending: Discovering desistance.

We’d be very interested to hear your views about this, both in terms of the content and whether presenting it in this way is helpful/useful for you.


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: http://blogs.iriss.org. 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.

Moral performance and supervision

Here’s a post mainly for the MSt students at Cambridge that I’m teaching today and tomorrow (though I hope others will find it interesting too…). What follows is the conclusion of chapter that Gwen Robinson and I wrote for a book on Legitimacy and Compliance in Criminal Justice, edited by Adam Crawford and Anthea Hucklesby (published soon by Routhedge).

In a recent book which has attempted to conceptualise and evaluate prisons using a framework informed by prisoners’ and prison staff members’ views about the aspects of prison life which they value, Alison Liebling introduces the notion of ‘moral performance’ (Liebling 2004). The concept of moral performance brings together a number of dimensions of prison life, among them justice, fairness, safety, order, humanity, trust, and opportunities for personal development. Liebling presents this notion of moral performance as an alternative and more meaningful measure of ‘what matters’ in the prison context, and of the quality of prison life, than those measures which have arisen from the managerialist ‘performance agenda’ of the 1980s and 90s.

Although the specific measures of ‘moral performance’ developed by Liebling do not translate unproblematically to the community sanctions context, we nonetheless think that the concept of moral performance is a potentially very useful one, and it is one which chimes with the limited research which has, to date, been conducted on offenders’ views of statutory supervision. Like good sociologies of prison life (most recently Crewe, 2009), studies of offenders’ experiences of community sanctions reveal that structures and systems are only part of the story of how justice or punishment works out in practice. The narratives of supervision collected for the oral history study discussed above, for example, ultimately reveal the extent to which the meanings and natures of such sanctions are negotiated between the people involved (McNeill, 2009).

As we noted at the outset, if community sanctions have a definable form or architecture it is much less obvious than that of the prison. It is not just that legitimacy can ebb and flow for all of the reasons discussed above; the shape of the sanction itself is malleable. It is true that there are places and times where those on such sanctions must be and, perhaps more importantly, where they are expected to do something (whether unpaid work or participation in programmes or individual supervision) or even to be a particular kind of someone (a willing worker paying back, a remorseful offender making good, a recovering drug user staying clean). There may be no locks and keys, but there are borders and checkpoints to negotiate here, each of which opens up the possibility of interactions perceived as legitimate and illegitimate (Rose, 2000). The sentencing process is the first of these, in which the would-be subject of such a sanction must yield to (or better still facilitate) their construction as a suitable subject for a community sanction (perhaps even a suitable subject for leniency) – and hence for passage into the community sanction and, by implication away from the prison door (McNeill et al., 2009). Once in the process of the community sanction, there are important and subtle forms and rituals to be observed in the numerous disciplinary passages through which the subject must pass in the process of supervision. The supervisor is the ‘key-holder’; each point of passage involves them in disciplinary judgments about the offender’s successful negotiation of assessment, intervention and review processes.

Probation law or ‘rules’, like prison law or ‘rules’, may represent other forms of ‘code’ (Lessig, 1999) or architecture (Jones, 2006) that lend a certain form to the experience of community sanctions. In any jurisdiction the law may determine the formal parameters of obligations (and perhaps entitlements) that community sanctions create. But beyond this legal scaffold, community sanctions have remarkable malleability and thus vulnerability in their character; whereas the prison physically frames the lived experience of imprisonment, the community sanction has no such obvious ‘frame’, except in the interactions between its executor (the probation officer) and its subject (the probationer). Thus it is in these interactions that such sanctions are continually invented and reinvented. The physical locus of such interpersonal engagement is important, but it is not in and of itself definitive of the experience of the sanctions that these actors co-construct (however equally or unequally).

But equally importantly, the probation officer or social worker is influenced in their crucial contribution to the construction of the sanction by the political, social, cultural and professional worlds that they inhabit. As we have noted throughout, where these conditions generate pressures to pursue external legitimacy or credibility (e.g. McNeill et al, 2009), they may impact adversely on the internal quest for those same qualities (cf. Ugwudike, 2010 forthcoming). A key message of our analysis is that, particularly where sanctions aim to elicit change, the skills of the practitioner in bridging the social distance between the ‘punished’ and the ‘punishers’ are likely to be critical to the process. However, the conditions under which the ‘punishers’ labour can create countervailing forces, driving the parties apart. Especially in this context, the quality and the authenticity of the practitioner’s moral performance seem likely to lie at the heart of the matter, since these moral qualities will profoundly affect the meaning, nature and experience of the sanction. Within this context, the legitimacy of the practitioner – on which his or her influence depends — is hard-won, easily lost, and almost impossible to recover. Put another way, it is as difficult to enable legitimacy to flow into a community sanction as it is easy to let it ebb away.

Talking about desistance and 30th birthdays…

Our colleague, Shadd Maruna, has been busy this month talking about desistance at Safe Ground’s Symposium held at the House of Lords.  Click here for further information and to listen to his talk.

He is clearly too modest to post this himself or to point out how clear and interesting this is.

Shadd begins by talking about the importance of aging for the desistance process. He goes on to explore how desistance is associated with feelings of self-efficacy and hope. Further, he highlights the importance of having a sense of being ‘better’ than one’s offences or more than just an ‘offender’.  However, Shadd argues that people are being released back into a community where perceptions of prisoners are overwhelmingly negative, which is likely to create an additional obstacle on the road to ‘going straight’.

London Seminars now added!

hi everyone,

Like all good rock and roll outfits (and a few less good ones!) we’re adding extra dates! Wembley arena was booked, so these will be hosted by the London Area probation Trust.

The London dates are:

May 11th and June 11th.

All those who are from the London/Southern area will be invited to ‘switch’ to the London seminars (we’re not just going to transfer people as we’re aware that some people may have other committments which mean that May/June 11th won’t work for them). Any one who has been confirmed as having a place at the Sheffield seminars will still be able to come to Sheffield if they wish.

This is all around fab news; it means that we’ll be able to invite more people from the London area (which means more policy makers and pressure groups etc) and therefore we’re expecting to be able to offer more places to those who are currently on the Sheffield reserve list.

Lisa Burns will be in touch with people to see if they’d prefer to switch to the London dates ad then with those on the Sheffield reserve list.

Thanks to everyone who has sent us supportive comments and been patient whilst we’ve tried to fix up the London dates – and thanks also, of course to LAPT for agreeing to host us.

Looking forward to Easter and lying down in a darken room.