Question 4

What is the impact of probation on reducing re-offending and supporting desistance?

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.

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