Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Does Probation Work?

At various times the question has been put to me 'does probation work?' It's no good giving a trite 'yes' because that will just beg the next question 'how do you know?' A trite 'no' on the other hand would be so depressing as to mean turning up for work each day would be impossible, well for me anyway. 

It's an important question, never more so than at the present time with the whole future of the Probation Service at stake. It's not helped by the fact that politicians only seem capable of dealing with issues in black and white terms. I think it's plainly obvious that the answer lies somewhere between the two and that's what I've always tried to explain. It will depend on each individuals circumstances and whether they are ready for change and receptive to help and advice.

As with all short questions, it's deceptively large in concept, in fact a bit like asking if education works? I didn't particularly shine at Secondary Modern School. Ok I was in the top stream and did moderately well, but if I'm honest I was pretty lazy. I seem to remember one school report observed dryly "James has two speeds: Dead slow and stop." I didn't apply myself, messed around and hence only obtained fairly mediocre exam results. 

For what ever reason, I wasn't ready to be able to get the most from education at that time. But I've never forgotten the teachers and their efforts at trying to educate and enlighten me, and I've always suspected it's the same with probation. For many our influence will not be immediate, but of the 'slow burn' sort. I think most PO's will at some time have had people come up to them and say something like 'Hi there - you won't remember me, but it's been x years since you wrote that report/had me on probation/supervised me on licence and now I'm married, got a job and been out of trouble' and with that they disappear.

With all this in mind, it was refreshing to come across some affirmation in this piece by academic Fergus McNeill on the Discovering Desistance website and in answer to questions put to him by the French Probation Service.  

According to desistance studies, which are the main factors that lead to stop criminal activity? 

Most reviews of the literature point to three main theoretical perspectives on desistance. The first draws on evidence about the relationships between crime and age. Noticing that crime is disproportionately a youthful activity – and that even persistent offenders seem to eventually ‘grow out’ of crime, these ‘ontogenic theories’ suggest that desistance can be explained in terms of age and the developing maturity that it usually brings.
The second perspective suggests that desistance can be best explained not by age and maturity per se, but rather by the changing social ties or social bonds that tend to come with adulthood. These ‘sociogenic’ perspectives point to evidence that desistance is correlated, for example, with securing meaningful employment, developing successful intimate relationships, investing in becoming a parent. People desist from crime because they acquire a stake in conformity.
The third perspective points not so much to the structural nature of these ‘turning points’ (linked to work or family life) but to the subjective dimensions of them. A new partner or a new job is more likely to provoke or support desistance if and only if the person values that new pro-social partner or that new job more than they value existing pro-criminal relationships or activities. These subjective dimensions take us into a consideration of how criminal identity can be cast off – and how new and more positive identities can become established. That process of ‘de-labelling’ – both by the person themselves and by those around them – seems to be especially important for people who have been involved in persistent offending, and whose criminalized identities are therefore more deeply entrenched.
Although they place the emphasis in different places, most desistance scholars now tend to agree that desistance can best be explained not from one of these three perspectives but by examining the interactions between these three sets of factors – age and maturity, social ties and identity transitions.

Does that mean that supervision of offenders by probation officers has only a minor effect on criminal careers?
No, I don’t think so. It is true that one of the most important studies of probation and desistance – discussed in Steve Farrall’s (2002) book ‘Rethinking What Works – suggested that probation had little direct impact on desistance, and that the individual’s motivation to desist and his or her social context seemed to matter more. But even then, Steve argued that probation could have positive indirect effects, for example, by working to develop motivation and by addressing social problems. Also, since 2002, Steve and his colleagues have conducted several follow-up studies on the same probation cases, and these studies now suggest that probation did a better job in terms of ‘sowing the seeds’ for future change that he first thought. This finding echoes something I discovered in a small study of people who had been on probation in Scotland in the 1960s. Looking back from the vantage point of 40 years later, several of those I interviewed recognised that probation had a significant and positive impact on their lives – but not always immediately. 
So the answer is yes - 'but not always immediately'.
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