Question 5

What is the impact of probation on satisfying the public’s desire for justice or punishment?

by Rob Allen
Co-Director Justice and Prisons (UK)

Studies of public attitudes to justice are hard to interpret, because survey results are highly dependent on the specific wording of the questions being asked. A recent UK survey found that four fifths of the public said they considered community sentences as a soft punishment. But most people are unfamiliar with the alternatives available to judges in their particular jurisdictions. Even probation, the most widely used and oldest community sentence in most countries, is little known to large numbers of people. Without any explanation of what community sentences actually entail, it is hard to know on what members of the public are basing their view about the contribution probation makes to justice or punishment. Very few people spontaneously mention probation as a way of reducing crime compared to the police or even schools.

On the other hand, collecting informed opinions on probation is important in this era of ‘penal populism’. For this reason, in a recent survey study, the meaning of various probation activities was first explained before asking respondents opinions on them. Despite methodological problems, a number of consistent findings emerge. First, comparative research shows that attitudes to punishment vary widely between countries. In a study in 2000, when asked how to sentence a burglary case, a majority in Britain and the Netherlands chose prison while community service was the more popular option in most of mainland Europe and Scandinavia.

Second, where concerns were expressed about probation and community sentences, they covered not only the adequacy of the punishment but the quality of the implementation. Probation officers were not seen to be doing a good job compared to police, and offenders were sometimes seen as getting away with lax supervision.

Third, these attitudes were formed more often by the media than by first-hand experience. Negative attitudes towards community punishment were more than twice as prevalent as positive ones in a recent study of English newspapers, suggesting an ingrained hostility. A study in Ireland found the majority of the coverage of probation was either positive or neutral, but noted a recent shift towards a more negative tone.

There are a number of indications about how public support can be enhanced. Where community service brings tangible benefits to a neighbourhood, it can produce a positive response from on local people. Curfews and electronic monitoring can also win support once they are explained. People also accept that some types of offender require different treatment, particularly those suffering from mental illness and drug dependency and women with small children.

Importantly, statistical arguments about the effectiveness of non-custodial sentences tends to have less impact than arguments about the values and principles underlying them: paying back, making good and learning “how good people live” resonated strongly in a recent study. So, it seems that an appeal to emotions is needed as well as better information.

But emphasising the punitive aspects of probation – for example by placing offenders in high visibility orange bibs – could threaten the underlying values of probation. Arguably probation can never restrict liberty or punish offenders as much as prison. Attempts to satisfy public desires for justice must therefore involve trying to influence conceptions of justice and develop a strong and distinctive narrative about the role probation plays.

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