An article by Dr. Bridget Kerr
Understandably, the effectiveness of probation services is a concern for politicians, media and the public as well as the agencies themselves. Ideas about what constitutes effective practice, or what evidence of effectiveness is meaningful, are, however, hotly contested, presenting a dilemma to services and evaluators alike. Happily, progress is being made towards integrating all the available evidence to develop and support practices that reduce reoffending by adhering to the risk-need-responsivity (RNR) principles derived from ‘what works’ endeavours (Bonta and Andrews, 2017), whilst also attending to specific pathways into (and out of) criminalisation and supporting desistance by means of the social reintegration of people who have offended (Maruna & Mann, 2019).
Research undertaken at Swansea University has identified that, in line with evidence from Canada and the US (Latessa, 2018), there is need for evaluation of the extent to which probation services in Europe employ strategies that have been proven to “work”. Such evaluations have the potential to enable projects to articulate the work they do in terms of effective practice, identify the strengths and weaknesses of services, and develop strategies to improve their service.
Having been trained and accredited by Canadian forensic psychologists, Dr Bridget Kerr introduced their structured, evidence-based instrument for the evaluation of offender intervention services (the Correctional Program Assessment Inventory-2010 (CPAI-2010); Gendreau, Andrews & Thériault, 2010) to a women’s project in Wales and probation services in Jersey. Working alongside probation managers, practitioners and service-users to implement and refine the instrument for use in these European jurisdictions quickly exposed turbulent political environments and cultural differences which had far-reaching implications for the potential of evaluation. Dr Kerr’s study demonstrated that if evaluation as a resource for change and development is to be sustainable in Europe, it must respond to and reflect the political context of agencies, integrate all relevant approaches (eg, Risk-Need-Responsivity, desistance-focused contributions, gender-responsive work, etc) and engage all key social actors (service-users, practitioners, managers, etc) in a process of reflection. Its findings indicate that adopting a motivational language, placing a service on a continuum and timing evaluation at an appropriate frequency are all factors that can reflect and ameliorate organisational difficulties. Furthermore, the study highlighted that evaluation of organisational context is key to meaningful engagement with the core issues of a service, indicating the inadequacy of evaluation systems focusing solely on practice and/or outcomes.
The study supported evidence that recidivism rates may be a particularly inadequate outcome measure for women’s projects, which have their emphasis on the provision of holistic and diversionary approaches, aiming to keep women (who, as a service-user group, present a low risk of re-offending in any case) out of the disproportionately punitive prison system.
As a result of this research, Dr Kerr has developed an evidence-based evaluation approach that meets the specific needs of women’s projects in the British Isles: the Swansea Service Evaluation Inventory – Women’s Projects (SSEI-W). With the aim of bridging the gap between theory and practice in probation services through the development of responsive, empirically-validated evaluation systems, the next stage will be piloting the SSEI-W and refining it to respond to practice-level developments as well as the wider literature. Though it is not the ‘final word’ on effective gender-responsive practices, it is expected that the SSEI-W will nonetheless be a valuable addition to the suite of evaluation instruments available in practice and will equip probation services for women with the capacity to move forward under the aegis of an unparalleled scientific body of evidence in order to demonstrate their effectiveness and provide genuine, effective alternatives to the imprisonment of women.
Bonta, J. & Andrews, D. A. (2017) The Psychology of Criminal Conduct, 6th edition. New York: Routledge
Gendreau, P., Andrews, D. A. & Thériault, Y. (2010). Correctional Program Assessment Inventory – 2010 (CPAI-2010): Scoring Manual and Interview Guide. Ottawa, ON: Available from firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Latessa, E. J. (2018) Does Treatment Quality Matter? Of Course it Does and There Is Growing Evidence to Support It. Criminology & Public Policy, 17, 181-188
Maruna, S. & Mann, R. (2019) Reconciling ‘Desistance’ and ‘What Works’. HM Inspectorate of Probation Academic Insights 2019/1. Available at: https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprobation/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2019/02/Academic-Insights-Maruna-and-Mann-Feb-19-final.pdf