Some fields of research, policy and practice are inherently and inescapably controversial and contested. But even in such fields, and even though our understanding is always developing and can always improve, on certain questions a broad consensus than can be found amongst researchers, policy makers and practitioners.

Usually this information is not accessible to a broader public. On the contrary, only the unusual new discoveries receive much attention. Yet, in the field of rehabilitation, reintegration and probation, it is important that knowledge is made accessible to the general public, politicians, policymakers and also to workers in the field; those workers are often experts in local practices but may not always have access to information and research from further afield. Public discussion, decision-making and also professional development and innovation all should take into account both academic and professional knowledge.

To CEP, presenting this evidence seems even more important in a domain in which emotion, intuition and ‘common sense’ seem to dominate the public debate. Therefore it took the initiative to commission the Research Group Working with Mandated Clients of the Hogeschool Utrecht (HU) University for Applied Sciences to collect and organise state-of-the-art scientific information regarding rehabilitation of offenders that is relevant to the general public, politicians, policymakers and probation professionals.

This information is presented in a question and answer format below. Academic knowledge is combined with applied scientific knowledge from the world of community sanctions. Leading experts on the various issues have contributed.

The editorial board consisted of Dr. René Butter of HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, Prof Dr. Fergus McNeill from the University of Glasgow and Dr. Ioan Durnescu of the University of Bucharest.

This project has been made possible with the financial support of the Dutch charity organisation Nationale Reclasseringsactie.


by Rob Canton
De Montfort University, Leicester (UK)

Attempted answers to the question why people commit crime could fill a library. Many criminologists now have doubts that it is the right question in the first place. Any of the (contested) definitions of crime includes such a wide diversity of behaviour that no one explanation could be complete. Sometimes scholars have approached the question by asking what is different about offenders and tried to find differences that are biological (often genetic) or psychological (perhaps linked with childhood experiences) or sociological (considering the influences of the wider society, of culture and of the socio-economic order). Many of these inquiries find a place for all these factors. But criminology has been selective here, usually inquiring about certain types of crime while overlooking others. (Who searches for a gene to explain the rapacity of white-collar criminals? Or the violent crimes of heads of state?) There are questionable assumptions in these investigations – that most people do not offend (there is much reason to think that most of us commit one or more crimes in the course of our lives) and that there is a difference to be found between offenders and others. Yet even the most prolific offenders behave, for almost all of the time, much like everybody else.

With regard to probation work, an influential research finding has been that many offenders have impaired thinking skills or cognitive deficits. This is said to include limited capacity to think through the consequences of their actions, but may also be associated with a range of other limitations in thinking and social skills and diminished empathy for victims and others. Since there is a close and mutually influential connection between thoughts, behaviour and feelings, these insights have been used to design offending behaviour programmes informed by cognitive-behavioural psychology (It may be noted in passing that the emphasis on the links between thinking, which the programmes ‘address’, and behaviour has sometimes led to the importance of feelings being at least relatively neglected – and sometimes forgotten about entirely).

Probation staff, however, are aware of the enormous social disadvantages that beset so many of their clients. And while it is not true that cognitive behaviourism denies the significance of social factors, there is a risk that its focus on the thoughts, behaviour and feelings of individuals could marginalise other ways of understanding crime – notably the links between offending and social disadvantage and injustice. This criticism is all the sharper when considering the position of groups, perhaps especially women and offenders from minority ethnic groups, whose offending behaviour and experiences of criminal justice can only be fully understood within that broader socio-political context. Desistance research and the ‘Good Lives Model’ (of offender rehabilitation) have begun to redress this by attending to the importance of social inclusion and insisting that desistance and rehabilitation call not only for change in an individual’s attitude and behaviour, but for fair social opportunities to develop and sustain lives in which offending comes to have no place. Probation then has a responsibility to encourage society to support social inclusion and to enable its clients to access the services and opportunities that they need – not only to address individual influences on offending behaviour.

by Lila Kazemian
City University of New York (USA)

The value and importance of studying desistance, particularly for post-onset intervention efforts, have been stressed abundantly in the literature. Predictors of desistance can be classified according to four main perspectives: biological, sociological, cognitive, and psychosocial.

Biological predictors of desistance
In addition to the direct effects of aging on desistance and biological changes that lead to reduced offending as individuals get older, recent studies have examined the role of genetic factors in the desistance process. Research found significant genetic influences on both marriage and desistance from crime. Their results showed that marriage remained a significant predictor of desistance even after controlling for genetic influences, but the effect was greatly attenuated.

Social predictors of desistance
A large body of research on desistance has drawn attention to the importance of social bonds in the process of desistance, particularly marriage and employment. Desistance from crime is said to be a gradual process resulting from an accumulation of social bonds. For instance, marriage and job stability are said to exert a more substantial impact on desistance if they occur jointly. In addition to the direct effect of increased social control, marriage and employment also promote desistance by altering the individual’s routine activities and by limiting access to criminal opportunities. Similarly, some authors have argued that marriage and employment promote desistance through increased interactions with the spouse and/or pro-social co-workers, and less time with potentially ‘deviant’ friends.

The famous analysis of juvenile delinquents in the 1950’s (the Glueck men) suggested that the military was an important turning point in the process of desistance, but analyses with more contemporary samples found otherwise. More research with contemporary samples of individuals having completed military service is needed.

Given the various legal restrictions imposed on individuals with a prior criminal record, social policies (as well as informal reactions within the family or community) that promote labelling and stigmatisation also pose important impediments to desistance efforts.

Cognitive predictors of desistance
In the literature, there has been a comprehensive discussion of cognitive factors involved in the desistance process in their theory of cognitive transformation, which is defined as cognitive shifts that promote the process of desistance. Four processes of cognitive transformations are described. First, the offender must be open to change. Second, through a process of self-selection, the individual exposes him/herself to pro-social experiences that will further promote desistance (e.g., employment, etc.). Third, the individual adheres to a new pro-social and noncriminal identity. Finally, there is a shift in the perception of the criminal lifestyle, i.e. the negative consequences of offending become obvious.

Several authors have highlighted the importance of identity transformation in the process of desistance arguing that to desist from crime, ex-offenders need to develop a cogent, credible and positive identity for themselves, and to somehow separate their past self from their current self.

Other cognitive factors identified in the desistance literature include techniques of neutralization and attribution of blame, optimism about the likelihood of desistance, as well as resolve and determination. While substance use is a behavioral indicator, it does exert an impact on cognitive processes and has been found to be an important barrier to successful desistance.

Psychosocial predictors of desistance
One of the most interesting dimensions of the desistance process refers to the way individual predispositions and life events converge to promote this process. Many researchers agree that desistance is likely to occur as a result of the combined influence of social and cognitive factors. Other findings suggested that subjective states exert direct and indirect effects on recidivism through their impact upon social circumstances. Individuals with a positive mindset and supportive social networks are better equipped to face problems, resist temptations and avoid setbacks, provided that the obstacles are not excessive. Desistance is thus regarded as being influenced by a system of interactions between various internal and external factors.

by George Mair
Liverpool Hope University (UK)

Sentencing is a complex and nuanced process. The decision about which sentence to impose on an offender is taken by judges who have relatively little independent and impartial information about or knowledge of the offender, his/her circumstances, or the wider context in which the crime was committed. Particularly in adversarial systems, defence solicitors put as positive a spin as possible on their clients in an effort to win a lenient sentence, while prosecutors, on the other hand, tend to aim for a severe sentence and sketch the offender accordingly.

In this arena of heavily biased and conflicting claims, probation staff can provide a more ‘objective’ appraisal of the offender and sum up the advantages and disadvantages of possible sentences. Even though the scope of court reports prepared by the probation service has been narrowed and the time permitted to carry out a report has been cut in some jurisdictions (for example, there has been a massive growth in on-the-day oral reports in England and Wales in the past decade), probation staff can offer a reasonably independent opinion of how an offender is likely to react to a sentence. And as we know that a sentence is more likely to be completed and reoffending is less likely if the offender reacts positively to the punishment (if the offender perceives the sentence as legitimate), then the advice of probation staff would seem to be an invaluable component of the sentencing process.

Many studies have shown that the concordance rate between probation proposals and court sentences is high, and while there may be other reasons for this (e.g. probation second-guessing judges’ decisions), it does suggest that the impact of probation staff in providing information and advice to judges to aid their decision-making is considerable.

Probation staff are not, however, wholly disinterested participants in all of this. The provision of advice to judges plays a key part in promoting community sanctions. In the first place, the range and mix of such measures can be complicated and judges need to be kept alive to the availability and potential of community sentences as effective court measures.

Second, by promoting community sanctions probation staff may successfully discourage more punitive sentences thereby diverting offenders from a custodial sentence. This would lead to reductions in the prison population, and the use of more humane and more effective sentences as all the evidence suggests that community sentences are at least as successful as custody in terms of reconviction rates and are considerably less expensive.

Third, without probation staff actively promoting community sanctions, who would consistently make the case to judges for a less punitive and more considered approach to sentencing? And this may play a small but significant role in slowing the growth of a punitive culture – even if it may be too much to hope that it might reverse it.

Probation staff do not have a natural shop-front in which to display their wares; only the court offers an appropriate place to market their services to their most important consumers – judges. While the main task of probation staff is to supervise offenders in the community, their most influential role may well be that of providing advice to aid sentencing and thereby promoting the use of community sanctions.

by Fergus McNeill
University of Glasgow (UK)

In most jurisdictions, reducing reoffending has long been one of probation’s principal goals. However, assessing probation’s effectiveness in this respect is far from simple.

On the one hand, reoffending is not so easily measured; its usual proxy – reconviction – is the product of a range of social processes (all of which import possible biases). Moreover, reconviction is defined and measured differently in different places (re-arrest, re-conviction and re-imprisonment) and over different time periods; and binary (yes/no) measures of reconviction are insensitive to the gravity and frequency of reconvictions.

On the other hand, ‘probation’ itself is not a single or uniform intervention of an easily defined sort; community sanctions can take very different forms with many different legal conditions, interpersonal processes and intervention approaches at work. Even where probation orders look the same in formal terms, the nature of supervision (and its impact) depends to a great extent on the relationships between supervisor and supervised.

And if the outcomes are hard to measure and the processes are hard to define and describe, then the contexts in which probation takes place are also highly variable in ways that are likely to be significant. One aspect of the context might be the profile of the clientele. Although probation appears to outperform imprisonment in terms of reconviction in many countries, the largest part of the difference in reconviction rates is related to the differences in the probation and prison populations; the latter group being more likely to be reconvicted. When these differences are controlled for, probation still outperforms prison, but the differences are more marginal than we might wish – and we do not know if they result from probation’s positive effects or prison’s negative effects.

A second contextual factor is the wider social context. It seems obvious that a probation order is more likely to ‘work’ if the probationer is well motivated, has a supportive family, enjoys plenty of work opportunities in a flourishing labour market, has access to excellent health and welfare services, enjoys secure and decent housing, and where the general public is less punitive and exclusionary, etc. In such circumstances, what might seem to be achievements of effective probation services could in fact be consequences of its social and structural contexts.

Indeed, in one of the few studies to systematically explore the relationships between probation and desistance, it was initially found that the motivation of the probation and their social context were much more significant in explaining desistance than the content or quality of supervision. However, interestingly, the same group of former probationers were followed up for over 10 years and it turned out that probation can and sometimes does exercise a positive effect, but not always as quickly as we would wish.

Where probation staff establish good relationships with probationers and undertake helpful and constructive work, they are able to ‘sow the seeds’ of change, but not necessarily to ‘produce’ it. This way of thinking about probation’s effects – essentially as a relationally constructed incremental influence on positive human development – is more consistent with desistance theory and research in general, as well as with some aspects of the emerging ‘who works?’ literature.

So, our tentative conclusion should perhaps be that some forms and experiences of probation supervision, delivered in particular sorts of ways by particular sorts of supervisors, can and do support desistance and reduce reoffending, but that this ‘effect’ will be moderated not just by how we measure change, but also by the social and relational contexts in which it is supported or frustrated.

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.

by Maurice Vanstone (Professor Emeritus)
Swansea University (UK)

Imprisonment may not be designed to cause permanent harm, but it is a deliberate, judicial infliction of pain, and it is from that paradox the core problems of prisoner resettlement (or what some call re-entry) derive.

Indeed, the impact of imprisonment can have many unintended consequences and, as a result of its powerful social environment, undermine the chances of successful resettlement. It follows, therefore, that the amelioration of both the damage caused by imprisonment and the problems carried into the prison by prisoners is essential if they are to be able to lead constructive crime-free lives and if society is to be afforded protection.

For a period of fifty years or more, whether in Scandinavia, Romania, United Kingdom or America, research has identified the many problems prisoners face with issues such as accommodation, unemployment, education, family problems, addiction, mental health, anger management, poor problem-solving and thinking skills. In addition, research has shown that commonly minority ethnic prisoners have experienced the additional problem of victimisation and women have endured further problems related to violence from partners, sexual abuse, social isolation and self-harm.

As late 20th century shifts in policy (most recently in Romania) confirm, the removal of these impediments to successful resettlement is dependent, amongst other things, on reinforcing the connections between the prisoner, family and community. In its various formats around the world probation has always been associated with this kind of work.

So, what positive impact does probation have on resettlement? The straight answer is that cumulative research evidence leaves us with uncertainty: as Joan Petersilia has pointed out, there are too few methodologically robust studies available to be sure.

In any event, because of the range of problems and the societal, political and organisational factors at work, inevitably successful resettlement work depends on multi-agency work; and therefore the question is more appropriately framed around assessing the contribution of probation to a wider process of social reintegration. Notwithstanding this uncertainty, the evidence available does throw some light on components of probation’s contribution that offer promise of success.

Research suggests that this contribution has to be informed by more general research findings on what is now termed desistance from offending. Accordingly, in collaboration with significant others, probation should focus on the problems related to offending as well as the behaviour and thinking that led to imprisonment, and promote and stimulate a prisoner-led process of change which pays heed to and recognises the importance of:

  • the individual’s ability to deal with the personal and practical problems to be faced (because evidence suggests that negative reactions to everyday problem situations lead to re-offending);
  • the specific needs of the individual (rather than assuming offenders all have similar needs);
  • the contribution to be made by family or other important members of the person’s social network;
  • relapse prevention strategies; and
  • appropriate referrals to other agencies that can assist with social reintegration.

Moreover, the potential for success of the resettlement strategy will be enhanced if probation staff develop trust and respect, and:

  • offer continuity in the working relationship;
  • begin the work with the individual before release (i.e. in prison);
  • assist the individual in the process of motivation using a cognitive-motivational programme;
  • help her or him to acquire a wider and adaptive range of skills; and
  • encourage the individual to gain community acceptance by taking responsibility for behaviour and making amends through a strengths-based approach which provides tangible and practical help to members of their community (in other words, to become pro-social).

Finally, the available evidence indicates that such help might be enhanced by the use of a mentor.

by Leo Van Garsse
University of Gent (BE)

Experience shows that victims often perceive the promise of being ‘repaired’ as an insult. Confronted with this ‘goal’, they may not feel that their experiences have been taken seriously. This is probably one of the reasons why victims of serious offences may, at least at first, tend to reject reparative measures or approaches.

A directive of the European Parliament on victim’s rights is obviously based upon this kind of experience, stressing the victim’s right to refuse restorative measures or to be protected against their risks, rather than to actually have access to it. However, this protective attitude neglects the prominent finding that the more serious crime is, the more victims feel the need to actively re-position themselves towards the event and its consequences. This is not just a question of being a passive recipient of information or compensation, but of actively taking a stand that actually matters for the offender, the criminal justice system and for society.

Some scholars (myself included) advocate a change in vocabulary from ‘reparation’ and ‘restoration’ to ‘respectful co-involvement’ in doing justice. Herein, the focus shifts from the authoritarian projection of a desired outcome to an open, process-oriented invitation of civic capacity. The crucial question being the one of personal identity: who did I appear to be in the process of dealing with this event. The reasoning holds institutional and political consequences, the citizen (be it a victim or an offender, or just a fellow-citizen) should be not just a rights-consumer but a valid co-actor in making sense of justice.

‘Victim’ and ‘Community’
The notions of ‘victim’ and ‘community’ are commonly used but lack clarity. The concept of victim can be defined broadly as ‘every person/organisation economically, emotionally… affected by the event’. This broad definition includes the families of offenders, neighbours, friends, school etc. The notion of ‘victim’ can also be restricted to those recognised by the judicial authorities as formal stakeholders in a specific case.

In this narrow approach many citizens’ concerns are neglected or considered irrelevant, alienating the process of ‘doing justice’ from social realities. This is a process which can cause a lot of secondary victimisation. But moreover, the ‘official’ victims might feel obliged to be ‘a good victim’ and to adapt themselves to the expectation of being not only somehow materially damaged, but also morally ‘shocked’ as well. Playing the role of the victim, especially in cases of minor crime, can indeed be perceived by ‘victims’ as a burden: an educational responsibility they somehow owe to the (young) offender.

The very Anglo-Saxon concept of ‘community’ on the other hand is sounding increasingly vague in many urbanised, bureaucratised and multi-cultural societies. This makes the idea of ‘the damaged community in need of reparation’ somewhat artificial, and is often perceived as a cheap justification of public intervention. This becomes obvious when we examine discussions of what kind of activities can be considered ‘community-service’; too often, these are discussions of what is likely to please only some citizens. Even the cleaning of a public garden, an often applied offering of community-service, implies an enormous set of assumptions, only rarely checked-out in relation to people’s perceptions of the value and the meaning of this work in terms of ‘making good’.

The notion of probation
As long as probation is applied as a supposedly lenient verdict in cases of minor offences committed by youngsters or first-offending adults, it is doomed to be seen as a favour, taking neither the victim’s perspective nor the offender’s public responsibility seriously.

Obliging the offender to reimburse the victim, to engage in mediation or to do ‘something for the community’ inevitably presupposes the victim or the community to be carriers of needs and expectations consistent with their role in this controlling and vaguely educative approach.

In this line of thought the limits of the cases suitable for probation should not be a matter of public regulation or of binding selection by professional experts, but rather a matter of checking out and supporting the individual and social motivation and civic capacities of those concerned: victims, offenders and the surrounding communities. And this should not exclude even the most serious cases.

There is indeed no reason, besides an ideological and anti-democratic one, for excluding those involved from contributing to their constructive integration in the common ‘life-world’. In this respect the value of probation could be found not in the offering of ‘easy’ solutions, but in putting forward far-going human and socio-political challenges with an uncertain outcome.

Such an approach sees probation not as a set of alternative measures to ‘real’ punishment but as an appeal for civic participation, respecting legal protection and open to public involvement and control in constructing (and constantly re-constructing) in practice what the notion of ‘justice’ means in a democratic society. This kind of justice leaves space open for restoration, not as a easy way to secure repair or reimbursement, but as a process of re-positioning oneself in relation to the criminal event and its consequences – and to one’s fellow citizens.

This pedagogical challenge addresses not only the offender and the victim. We rather see it as a social-pedagogical; a call to social environments (including victim and offender) to carefully examine and gradually enlarge their abilities to respond to crime and to constructively contribute to the process of definition and redefinition of the social rule in a democratic legal state.

by Ioan Durnescu
University of Bucharest (RO)

Although there has already been a long history of offender supervision, the number of studies looking at the subjective experience of the recipients of supervision is still limited.

The experience of supervision is obviously influenced by a number of factors. Some of them are related to the way the sanctions are constructed. In this respect, supervision is becoming more and more sophisticated and relying more and more on technology. Electronic monitoring is a good example to illustrate this point.

Some countries have abandoned the requirement of offenders’ consent to some forms of supervision (e.g. the Community Order in England and Wales). And in many countries the number of conditions and obligations attached to supervision has grown so much that some suggest that supervision is beginning to resemble a ‘virtual prison’.

Another set of factors that seems to be associated with the experience of supervision is the way the supervision practice is constructed. If practice is perceived as legitimate and transparent then offenders tend to perceive supervision as a good opportunity to build a new life and to avoid prison. Furthermore, if supervision is described as focused on problem solving or on offenders’ welfare needs, then it is perceived by the recipients as helpful. The same applies when probation workers are considered reasonable, open, flexible and trustworthy. But the converse also applies; if offenders define supervision as lacking in procedural fairness or too intrusive then they tend to look at it with negatively.

Tension is also reported in relation to electronic monitoring. While some offenders appreciate the opportunity to avoid prison and live a ‘similar to normal life’, others consider that electronic monitoring puts them under psychological pressure in terms of stress, fear and temptation.

The same can be said about community service. Studies show that usually offenders regard this sanction as worthwhile and feel like they are gaining something from it personally. But at the same time, studies suggest that some offenders feel it is quite hard to preserve long term commitment and find it difficult to accept the need to work without payment.

Most of the existing studies on the experiencing supervision seem to be based on a limited number of subjects and on in-depth interviews with offenders. It has become clear that in order to capture the full complexities of the interaction between offenders and the supervisors new and more ethnographic methodologies should be developed in the future.

Thankfully, reseachers are now rising to this challenge so that in the near future we may know a great deal mow about what people think and feel about being supervised, and what impact the experience has on them and on those around them.

by Gill McIvor
University of Stirling (UK)

Community service – which requires offenders to undertake a prescribed number of hours of unpaid work for the benefit of the community – is a penalty that is widely available in western jurisdictions. It can be used at different points in the criminal justice process. While it is most often used as an alternative to a prison sentence or as a community sanction in its own right, in some jurisdictions offenders can be required to undertake unpaid work as an alternative to imprisonment for fine default or as an alternative to prosecution. Work may be undertaken for individual beneficiaries or for not for profit organisations and may involve personal services or, more usually, practical tasks.

The penal objectives of community service have been subject to much debate and the relative emphasis placed on punishment, reparation and rehabilitation can be seen to vary across jurisdictions and over time within jurisdictions. A recent comparison of community service in European jurisdictions found that growing emphasis is being placed on retributive aspects of unpaid work (for example, prioritising demanding, manual work that is ‘visible’) in an effort to garner public and judicial support while rehabilitative objectives have become more narrowly focused on reducing recidivism.

Given its varying objectives, the impact of community service can be assessed in a number of ways. On a very practical level, the work carried out by offenders can be quantified both financially and in terms of hours and can often be seen to produce tangible benefits such as improvements in local amenities. At an interpersonal level, interaction happens on a daily basis between persons carrying out the work and people who benefit from it, though we still know relatively little about the nature and impact – positive or negative – of such interaction.

However, there is some evidence of the potential ‘generative’ and re-integrative benefits for offenders of giving something back to their local communities. For example it has been found that offenders appreciate the opportunity to acquire new skills and undertake work that is valued by the beneficiaries and those who have a more positive experience of community service are less likely to re-offend.

Community service can have re-integrative impact through enabling offenders to continue working with community organisations on a voluntary (and sometime paid) capacity after they complete the work that they have been ordered to carry out.

With regards to re-offending, while much more data is required there is some evidence that community service is more effective than imprisonment. For example, controlling for a range of relevant variables, Scottish government data have indicated lower reconviction rates among those given community service than among those receiving prison sentences, particularly among offenders with more extensive criminal histories.

A study of community service in Switzerland found lower rates of reconviction among offenders given community service, especially among those who considered their sentence to be fair, while a study in the Netherlands showed that lower reconviction rates for property crime and violent crime among offenders given community service were sustained over 8 years.

by Faye S. Taxman
George Mason University (USA)

As a community-based vehicle for sanctioning offenders, probation services offer a three-fold array of benefits: to the individual offender, to the community at large, and to the justice system. For the individual offender, the person remains in the community while repaying society and the person can continue with civic responsibilities such as employment, being a family member, and being part of the community. The probationer can also become connected with community resources for substance abuse, mental health, employment services, and so on – resources that should assist the individual to resume a role as a citizen.

Probation services relies on these community resources and can contribute to building community-based organizations that meet the broader needs of the community such as behavioral health services, gang prevention and resistance efforts, housing supports, and social support networks. Community organizations, both government and non-profit, are important resources for both probation service and probationers since they assist probationers to repay society through community service work. Or the services can provide supportive services to assist probationers to avoid being part of the justice system.

The flexibility of the probation sanction (in some jurisdictions)—as either a stand-alone sentence or as a platform to add components pertinent to the factors that affect offending behavior and can expedite desistance from a life of crime—is an asset. The probationer can contribute to the community through paying fines, probation fees (in some jurisdictions), restitution, and other financial resources.

The justice system can use probation to foster goals of desistance by focusing probation conditions around factors that will allow the offender to repay society, address factors that contribute to offending, and allow the offender to obtain new skills (i.e. education, employment, parenting, etc.) to contribute to society.

The costs of probation are as diverse as the benefits. The main cost are the probation officers and staff of a probation agency and the infrastructure costs for the office. The probation personnel are cheaper than prison cells given that there is no need to pay for personnel that operated twenty-four hours a day or provide secure physical space to detain an offender. But, overloading the probation personnel with high caseloads can artificially reduce the actual costs of probation.

The higher the caseload, the more likely that probation personnel cannot employ effective practices such as risk management, or developing the ‘working alliance’ (with the probationer) to create trust and fairness, or case management and service referral, and service provision. That is, probation officers can achieve many of the goals of a sanction if they have sufficient time to address the criminogenic risk and needs of probationers.

Other related costs of probation are related to service provision to address the substance abuse, mental health, employment, educational, and other unmet needs of probationers. The cost of probation is entirely related to the size of the caseload, and the degree to which the probation officers link offenders to community based services. In some jurisdictions, these costs are sometimes offset through revenue from financial penalties such as fines, probation fees, drug testing fees, restitution, and any other court-related costs.

Probation is a penalty that can benefit the community without overextending the system in terms of resources. But the system can undermine the ability of probation by overextending the resources and by stacking conditions on probationers that intensify the sanction. Probation is elastic in terms of goals, operations, and benefits. An assessment of its costs and benefits will need to play close attention to exactly how probation is operationalized in any given context, and the articulated goals.