I guess all of us in the criminal justice system have always had that thought lurking at the back of our mind that if we were really successful at what we were doing, we wouldn't have a job. We never give it much thought though as clearly nothing much seems to work and hence up till now there's never been a real danger that the mortgage wouldn't get paid. It doesn't stop us trying to be more effective of course and many a career has been built on introducing new initiatives, or just plain old re-inventing the wheel, depending on your view and place on the career ladder.
Following on from casework theory, in recent times we have embraced the 'What Works' agenda, explored all the accredited programme routes via cognitive behavioural therapy and are currently discovering desistance theory and engagement strategies. Oh, whilst restoring a degree of autonomy and discretion to officers in how they supervise cases. It's been quite a party, but suddenly we seem to have a cheeky uninvited and possibly unwelcome guest.
Mark Johnson, an ex-offender and former drug user is a regular contributor to The Guardian and recently officially launched his charity User Voice
Their Mission statement says:-
"Only offenders can stop re-offending. User Voice's mission is to engage those who have experience of the criminal justice system in bringing about its reform and to reduce offending.
User Voice is a charity led and delivered by ex-offenders. This gives us the unique ability to gain the trust of, access to and insight from people within the criminal justice system."
Whilst many probation trusts have recently been pondering the whole issue of 'engagement' and how that might be achieved, Mark has some forthright views on the subject and some may feel they don't make for particularly comfortable reading. Although the Guardian article was mainly aimed at the prison service, I think the sentiment extends far wider.
"Anyone who thinks that the inevitable cuts that lie ahead mean the criminal justice system can carry on doing things the same old way is kidding themselves. We have to recognise that we're chucking too much money at interventions that don't deliver. They've been carefully crafted, and with the best of intentions, by the educated for people whom they can't begin to understand. The only way to stop wasting money is to engage, and I'm talking about real engagement, not superficial consultation, with the frontline users of services.
Participation at this level cannot be led by people who design or implement interventions. They should not create an agenda, nor can they attempt truly receptive dialogue, with the offenders who take part in their interventions. There is only one way to deep trawl for the truth, and that is by allowing offenders their own forums, facilitated by peers, many of whom will be ex-offenders. Anything else is consultation.
Engagement will save a fortune in the long run but doing it right is not a cheap option. It costs. We're talking partnerships, contracts and proper pay structures for respected work. My organisation is 90% staffed by ex-offenders and I believe one indicator of true engagement is the number of ex-offenders on the payroll (another is how high up the internal ladder they are allowed to climb)."
He goes on:-
"That's what scares some service providers. The provider who has devised, nursed and implemented an intervention for offenders seldom welcomes the offenders' scrutiny and honest appraisal. The provider wants the intervention to work, and he can usually manipulate figures to convince himself it does. It's hard for him to hear the voice of the offender saying it hasn't helped and should be modified or abandoned. At worst, such scrutiny could put the provider out of a job. He'll try to defend his intervention no matter how redundant it is. Only the bravest want people like us coming inside the jail or community and promising to deliver the truth.
We'll always remain the unwelcome guest at the criminal justice party. We stand for true engagement, we offer a scientific level of scrutiny, we're asking for power, we want to be paid for the work we do. And we believe that our participation in the process of government is the key to a lower crime rate and a more economic prison service. It will take years. But now we've launched, we're on our way."
It's funny but this got me thinking of the good old days again when we had a very active volunteer group and a flourishing day centre. I well remember the fascinating but interminable discussions in team meetings about how much control or supervision was needed. Some of us got really excited about the active involvement of clients and how it could only be beneficial; how we should just let things develop organically; how it would be great if clients could progress to become accredited volunteers themselves.
But that was all rather too much for management at the time as sadly the Service was already moving inexorably towards one of command and control from the top. Well you know what they say - things go in circles eventually - you've just got to wait long enough.