SPACE II collects information on persons serving non-custodial and semi-custodial sanctions and measures. “A living tool of work”, says Ms. Natalia Delgrande of the University of Lausanne and SPACE co-ordinator. In an interview with CEP she explains the importance and limitations of data and statics.
Data and statistics are underlined as very important for Probation Institutes and organizations. What exactly would be the best way for these organizations to deal with the information, or in other words: how should the data be used?
Statistics represents a “tool of work”. The data itself do not say anything or, even worse, they may say wrong things if the person who uses them is not aware of how the figures are produced. Many practitioners and policy makers in the field of probation are continuously looking for so called “best practices”. Unfortunately, not as many make an effort to take into account the national particularities of how and why specific programmes are implemented.
Therefore, I think the most reliable way to use the data would be to accept the comparative limitations. More specifically, it is important to pay attention to the differences arising from the traditions of the Probation systems, as well as to the peculiarities that relate to the enforcement of the penal sanctions.
I would like to stress the usefulness of networking when the statistics are involved. As a basis, SPACE constantly provides elements related to the implementation of Probation in European countries. Thus far, the second step on the road to mutual comprehension is to exchange on the legal background, the future priorities of the penal systems and on the current situation in prisons. Such exchanges are necessary for relaying the practical context in which the statistics are collated.
Besides this also the analysis of the time-series is necessary for the right understating of the sense that Probation has inside the criminal justice systems.
What difficulties and problems have you and the other researchers encountered during the process of collecting and analysing data?
The quality of raw data is one of the primary concerns for any comparative study. Specifically in the SPACE surveys, we pointed this issue as being the central one. Therefore, the stages of the data collection are often long and imply the resolution of many problems related to the understanding of the national definitions and practical issues. The SPACE project is looking for possible cross-country comparisons. Therefore, one should keep in mind the adjustments that some of the data are subject to – adjustments related to the categories and definitions (e.g. “home detention” versus “home arrest”, “post-custodial supervision” versus “conditional release”) and to the understanding of those who are filling in the SPACE questionnaires.
Another “problem” is that in some countries probation is a young institution and the transfer of competences from prison to probation may lead to a only partial transfer of information. For example, some countries used to have complete datasets for many years and, as of today, not all of these statistics are still fully available.
In short one could say that the better the quality of the raw-data is (wide, clear, subcategorised etc.), the better the results for the Probation activities are.
Have you seen “trends” and/or specific developments in the world of Probation during the last years? For example certain methods that develop fast, an overall increase or decrease of the use of Probation, certain groups of people (like juveniles, female offenders or other) for whom probation is used more/less, and/or other? And do you expect these trends to further develop towards the future?
The main “trend” we first noticed was the growing number of new probation administrations that appeared across Europe in the last ten years. Some of these services were previously attached to the prison authorities or were local offices with a small amount of duties. As of today, we can see that probation has become a regular part of the criminal justice system.
Secondly, more than half of all countries are widely introducing new forms of supervision. The emblematic case is the one of the Electronic Monitoring. In 2008, there were 14 countries that used this form of supervision, in 2012, there were already 25 countries.
On the other hand, we notice as well a fast grow-up of the Probation staff workload. The diversification of the stages of intervention (e.g. pre-trial, enforcement, management of postponed sanctions, conversions, or post-release stages) leads to a diversification of the categories of staff employed and, as a consequence, of their duties.
Besides this we can see a positive trend in the development of the victim-offender mediation. In the past, mediation was relatively limited to the “low-risk” cases and/or often used only for juvenile offenders but today it is widely applied for adults as well, and the professionalization of the staff involved in restorative justice tasks was clearly identified through the recent SPACE reports.
About the future trends, we expect community work to be applied as quite the largest CSM [Community Sanctions and Measure] across Europe. Moreover, we notice that financial sanctions are an increasing part of the general pallet of sanctions. This type of sentencing is a bit problematic as we do not know precisely the impact that these sentences may have on the general profile of offenders.
How come that there is something like a “paradox in prison and probation”, i.e. that the number of prisoners does not necessarily decrease when more Probation is used, or that in countries where Probation is largely used there are still many prisoners? How can this be explained and what would be advisable for countries/organizations to do?
The paradox of increasing trends for prison and probation is a very complex phenomenon and many researchers try to explain this evolution from judicial, political, security or criminal policy perspectives. It can be concluded that for the period lasting from the early 2000s until now, the part of prisoners sentenced to short custodial terms (less than one-year custody) did not decrease at all. In fact it seemed that there was an overuse of CSM for the persons who were not supposed to go to prison. On the opposite however, the application of the CSM as alternative to custody-terms (a kind of diversion from the incarceration) was not generalised in all of Europe – this lasted mostly in a part of Central and Eastern European countries.
The only advice that I would like to give is to not continue stepping into “mass-supervision” and pretend that this approach would eliminate the “mass incarceration”. All the interventions should be prepared in accordance with the national realities and the national needs without looking for “fancy” solutions that are sometimes are presented as “best practices”.
What do good and bad statistics say about custody?
Raw-data is dangerous material. It is imperative to build indicators based on the research knowledge and to use these indicators for the comparisons. If we take as an example the probation statistics and try a comparison between 47 countries, we may find that there are countries that have probation services in charge with the supervision of all CSM, other countries where the workload is spread among two or more agencies and, finally, there are some countries that have “registered” offenders (i.e. at the police offices or at the offices of authorities in charge with the enforcement of sentences) but who are not de facto supervised by anybody. As a matter of fact, the result of such comparison can just show how many people are inside the Criminal Justice System, but it is impossible to assess the real supervision rates in each country with such different proceedings.
On the other hand, the good statistics are those that allow to enlarge the field of investigations. The broader the explanations about the general inputs, the higher the chances to get to know the peculiarities of the system applicable to these populations.
Any other information that you consider relevant and important to mention?
Yes – as a final remark I would like to stress the enormous significance of international cooperation. We are very proud about the quality of the relations established with the SPACE national correspondents across all 47 member States of the Council of Europe. SPACE is a “living tool” that can only survive if the work in the field of custody and Probation is highly professionalised. The place that both prison and probation occupy in the general Criminal Justice perspectives will condition the answers that we can gather from the systems.