How many offenders have been sentenced to which community sanction in your country in 2007? The answer to this question may seem easy to give, but formulating a questionnaire on this topic isn’t easy at all. Professor Marcelo Aebi of the University of Lausanne knows this better than anybody else. “Probation services in Europe use different terms and definitions for the same community sanctions, or the same terms for different sanctions and measures. You must formulate the questions very carefully in order to be able to get answers that can be compared.”

Seven years ago Marcelo Aebi, professor of criminology at the University of Lausanne, became responsible for the Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics, commonly known as SPACE (acronym of Statistiques Pénales Annuelles du Conseil de l’Europe). “My main task was SPACE I, which concerns the collecting of data for prison statistics”, professor Aebi recalls. “How many people are imprisoned in each country? How long are their sentences? What is the rate between the number of prisoners and the number of custodial staff.  That kind of questions. The first  SPACE I report already appeared in 1983. In the years after 2002 I’ve tried to make the SPACE I data more comparable. For example, some countries included juveniles in their prison statistics, others did not. Countries like the Netherlands included illegal immigrants, many other countries did not. It was not clear whether convicts which are staying outside the prison, for instance in hospitals or institutions, were included in the reported data or not. Naturally this contaminated the statistics. We have tried to sort these inconsistencies out as much as possible.”

Low response
In the same year that professor Aebi became responsible for SPACE,  the first update had been planned for SPACE II, which concerns the statistics on community sanctions and measures. A questionnaire for the data collection had been prepared before. “The questionnaire, that had been sent out in 2002, had a very low response rate. The main problem was that countries were expected to collect the data from different sources, like the courts, the prison administration and the organisations responsible for community services. Therefore different institutions had to be involved. Besides, there were huge definition problems: people meant different things while using the same terms, or they were using different words for the same – or more or less the same – community sanctions and measures. In the years that followed we had several expert meetings within the Council for Penological Co-operation (PC-CP) of the Council of Europe. We were close to finding an agreement, when the Council of Europe decided that it would no longer fund SPACE in 2005. I thought it was a pity to interrupt the collection of data that was extremely helpful for the scientific community. Fortunately, at that moment, I managed, through the University of Lausanne, to bear the costs of engaging a research assistant, Natalia Delgrande, who became responsible for managing the database. However, this option was only possible for the continuation of SPACE I, the prison statistics.”

Dust
The next two years all the papers concerning the further development of SPACE II were gathering dust on the bookshelves of the experts involved. Then in 2007 the Council of Europe decided to resume the funding of SPACE II. Professor Aebi: “At that moment we also ‘revived’ the programme. We developed a much more comprehensive questionnaire than the one used in 2002. We also used very broad definitions, so that all probation services could recognize themselves in the terms that were used. And mind you, the diversity between the different probation services was huge, and still is. Besides, there is a great variety in the way community sanctions are being used. Sometimes two sanctions are imposed at the same time. Sanctions can be complementary to other punishment. They can be imposed as the only punishment. A prison sentence can be commuted to an alternative sanction. It can be a condition for conditional release. It is really quite difficult to catch all that in a single questionnaire.”

Half a day of work
Thanks to the work of all the experts, the questionnaire concerning the year 2007 could be sent out to all Council of Europe member States at the end of April 2009. “For countries that have good statistics filling in the tables of the questionnaire will be half a day of work. Other probation services will need more time. Of course there will also be countries that do not have data on all the topics of the questionnaire. We realize that there will be missing data in the questionnaires that will be sent back to us. However, these missing data provide useful information as well. If a probation service is not able to answer a question, it can make a distinction between ‘this concept is not applicable in our country’ and ‘this concept exists in our country, but we don’t have data’. Either way it will be clear on what topic this probation service might need support to improve its functioning.” Professor Aebi stops to think for a moment. “That brings me to the ultimate goal of why we are doing all this. We hope to create a reliable overview on how community sanctions and measures are applied in Europe. You need to know where you are to be able to improve. Implementing community sanctions and measures is not easy. Countries that have not been that successful in working with community sanctions can be inspired by the results of others. Probation services can learn from one another. In the end that is what SPACE II is all about.”

CEP and SPACE II
CEP strongly supports SPACE II. In a letter sent to all CEP member organisations at the end of March CEP Secretary General Leo Tigges emphasized the importance of collecting comparable data on probation, not just for CEP, but especially for all the probation services in Europe themselves. If your organisation has not submitted the questionnaire yet, please do so as soon as possible. For more information please contact professor Marcelo Aebi or Natalia Delgrande at Marcelo.Aebi@unil.ch or Natalia.Delgrande@unil.ch.


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