Tuesday 21 May 2024

An Important Read - Part Three

As we continue with Professor Rob Canton's' article in the latest edition of the Probation Journal, I notice that Good Morning Britain are carrying on their discussion of the prison capacity crisis. Thankfully it seems to have moved on from yesterday where Susanna Reid was championing the need of prison to 'protect the public' and may become a little more nuanced this morning. The public are hardly 'protected' are they if people come out far worse than they went in? 

Crime, desistance and social context

Probation was especially vulnerable to political assault because of its struggles to demonstrate its effectiveness in reducing crime. Nothing, it was often said, ‘works’ or could be shown to work. This conclusion was countered by emerging evidence in the mid- and late 1990s that some interventions, properly targeted and administered, appeared to reduce reconviction (Chui, 2003). These effective interventions were guided by principles of cognitive behavioural psychology, which emphasised the influences between thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Changes in behaviour were to be achieved by attempting to influence ways of thinking. As the focus sharpened, deficiencies in thinking skills became the target for intervention. Effective practice initiatives harmonised with the political presumption that causes of and responses to crime were to be found inside the heads of offenders. ‘Punishment in the community’ envisaged isolated and self-directed wrongdoers, with any attempt to invoke social context in understanding regarded as making excuses or simply irrelevant.

It is neither fair nor accurate to say that cognitive behavioural approaches neglect social context: the best accounts acknowledge disadvantage and insist on the importance of its being redressed in the processes of desistance (Robinson and Raynor, 2006). Nevertheless, the focus on thoughts, feelings and behaviour ‘entails the expectation that offenders, and not their social circumstances, must change, and encourages the abstraction of the offending act itself from the personal and relational context which could make it intelligible.’ (Smith, 1998: 108) Attention to social context foregrounds the structural, cultural and biographical circumstances that constrain the choices of so many individuals, making it more likely that they will have recourse to offending and making their desistance harder. No doubt probation officers have always been aware of the adverse social conditions that have denied opportunities and brought hardship to so many clients. Yet ironically it is mainly since the turn away from social work that an abundance of compelling evidence has shown the extent of social disadvantage and deprivation. A landmark here was the Social Exclusion Unit report (2002), showing that prisoners are disproportionately over-represented on pretty much all indices of disadvantage, the report linking their multiple needs and social exclusion with the large numbers of crimes they committed.

An historically more recent recognition has been the extent and significance of personal abuse and trauma, scarring the lives of so many users of probation (McCartan, 2020). Responses to these often unrecognised traumas have usually been inadequate (Boswell, 2016). Notably, many women caught up in the criminal justice system have experienced devastating abuse, yet the compassion rightly felt for them as victims or survivors mysteriously evaporates when the predictable consequences of such abuse are manifested (Corston, 2007). While the relationship between trauma and behaviour is vexed and complex, there are compelling reasons to believe that offending is among the consequences of such damaging experiences (Fox et al., 2015). Yet however this is understood, Sarah Anderson insists that ‘involvement in offending does not erase the experiences of victimisation and disadvantage that populate their life histories. Nevertheless, through institutional and systemic responses that isolate the offence from the life history, we act as if it does.’ (Anderson, 2016: 412). Respectful attention to these earlier life experiences raises standards of both ethics and effectiveness.

Among the indices of change in late twentieth century political discourse, Garland identified the rejection of representation of offenders as ‘disadvantaged, deserving, subject of need’. Yet there is abundant evidence, as we have seen, of disadvantage and need. What, then, is to be said about ‘deserving’? Once again, probation and social work are in similar positions. From its earliest origins, arguments have taken place in social work about desert, with attempts to differentiate between those in genuine hardship and, on the other hand, those whose imprudence, intemperance, extravagance or indolence has brought their plight upon themselves (Solas, 2018). With the development of the welfare state, however, judgements about desert were progressively displaced by judgements about need. Some of these needs have been translated into rights - claims upon the state to enable those under its authority to have fair access to resources and thrive.

In contrast to the trajectory of social policy, however, criminal justice remains preoccupied with desert. Ordinarily concern and compassion are felt to be fitting responses to hardship and disadvantage, but it seems a criminal conviction suppresses any such sentiment. People with convictions are ‘offenders’ and so liable to just punishment, but this is not all they are and they continue to have claims, which could be conceptualised as rights - claims on the state and on the community to support them in overcoming their hardships. This should be considered a duty of all social agencies, including those responsible for implementing punishment.

An example of how a loss of social context can blunt compassion and distort policy responses is the association between domestic violence against women and their offending. At least 57% of women in prison and under community supervision are victims of domestic abuse (Centre for Women's Justice, 2023). This will include women who have been compelled to offend under the controlling coercion of abusive men. Here, the distinctive categories of offender and victim - serviceable in most contexts and often indispensable – break down altogether. Experiencing abuse or coercion is not best understood as a risk factor for further offending by the survivor; nor are poverty, homelessness and unemployment best regarded as reoffending risks. However compelling the associations between disadvantage and crime, some of these basic needs matter not only or even mainly because of their putative links with offending, but because they represent deprivations and hardships which cannot justifiably be discounted or reframed as risks.

Among the injustices that disfigure our society are racism and other dimensions of discrimination. Neglect of the ways in which these shape criminal careers and can frustrate attempts at desistance would not only warp policy but leave probation vulnerable to accusations of collusion. Like other social work agencies, probation has tried hard to oppose racism in its own practices. Still, periodic reviews commonly uncover bad experiences, reported both by staff and by service users, and although there are some improvements, the conclusion of a recent report is that this remains (and no doubt always will remain) ‘work in progress’ (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2023). Some of the challenges go far deeper. It has been argued, for instance, that risk prediction algorithms incorporate and reproduce racial biases such that reliance on assessment instruments could propel people from minoritised groups towards unwarranted interventions (Ugwudike, 2020). Again, none of this can be fully appreciated - nor challenged - without an appreciation of the social context and the ways in which racism and other forms of discrimination can contribute to criminalisation and obstruct desistance.

To summarise: closer association with social work might have mitigated the hazards of losing social context in trying to understand offending - plainly a risk if psychological interventions are the favoured response. The contention that those who use the services of probation are undeserving could only be defended by reducing them to their worst behaviour. The tendency to essentialise people as ‘offenders’ obscures and suppresses other ways of understanding and identification. At times, probation is acquiescing in this process, if not actively endorsing it, whereas the challenge ought to be to find new identities and an associated different status. This too should be one of social work's guiding principles: that everyone is more than the worst things they have ever done, more than the problems that bring them to the attention of social work services.

Rob Canton

(to be continued)


  1. "...a loss of social context can blunt compassion and distort policy responses". That was the final straw for me, just before I left probation. I had battled on advising assisting and befriending despite policies which took now account of social context. Although that did feel increasingly subversive to the insitution in its current guise, it made sense to me. It was the growing lack of compassion and empathy which naturally flows from an understanding of the social context. And of course, the excessive workload which left precious little space to achieve anything positive, while demanding the negative

  2. Should have known better! ITV's GMB 'debate' on prison v alternatives was a complete waste of time. Thankfully it had been mostly squeezed out of the tight schedule, thus sparing us from too much blather from a thick copper. Poor Chris Atkins never got much of a chance.

  3. Punishment by itself is not a deterent to offending.
    The primary concern of an addict caught shoplifting isn't that they may go to prison, it's that they now won't be able to get their fix and they're going to be sick.
    It's 'social capital' that deters offending when the risk of losing all you've built up in the community becomes too great to consider commiting an offence.
    The social work ethos that was at the heart of probation created the opportunity to build that 'social capital'.
    What value is your liberty if you have no social capital?


  4. Police are being instructed to consider making fewer arrests because of the lack of space in prisons

    A letter from the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) circulated last week urges chief constables to think about pausing socalled non-priority arrests