Last month (October 2019), the probation inspectorate published another in its new series of specially commissioned research papers aimed at exploring the evidence base underpinning probation practice.
Authored by Professor Ioan Durnescu from the University of Bucharest, who specialises in comparative probation, this paper focuses on the Eurobarometer – a way of measuring people’s experience of being on probation.
Professor Durnescu starts by summarising the development of probation across Europe:
In the 1960s the penal legislation in many European countries introduced obligations and conditions that probationers needed to fulfil during the probation period. This is how different behavioural conditions (e.g. to attend school, to attend programmes, undertake treatment etc.) or restrictions (e.g. not to meet certain people) have appeared in the penal arena.
Once these transformations took place, the nature and the character of supervision took a more punitive turn and increasingly practitioners and scholars recognised that community supervision is not just an alternative to custody but a real punishment that is served in the community. Some even went so far as to call probation a ‘virtual prison’.
Alongside these changes in the configuration of offender supervision, scholars started to explore the differing dimensions of this supervision, e.g. the impact on reoffending, perceptions of staff, risk assessment etc. One of the most important conclusions of these studies was that the way offenders experience supervision influences the outcome of probation. In other words, those who perceive their probation officer as reasonable, knowledgeable and empathic are more inclined to attribute positive change in behaviour to probation supervision. Moreover, supervision was considered to be positive when the probation officer had a good relationship with the offender or when supervision was described as helpful in solving problems or when client’s welfare was taken into account.
The professor goes on to describe the develop a new tool – the Eurobarometer on Experiencing Supervision (EES) – to capture the subjective experience of supervision and help measure the success of probation.
The Eurobarometer on Experiencing Supervision was designed as a comprehensive tool BOTH to capture the subjective experience of supervision AND measure the success of probation. This EES tool now includes the following questions:
- six questions are used to assess supervision as a general experience (e.g. the meaning of supervision, primary and secondary stigmatisation)
- six questions deal with the service user’s perception of the supervisor (e.g. the understanding of the supervisor’s role, the number of supervisors in the last 12 months)
- the quality of the relationship is evaluated in one question with 14 items (e.g. positive, tense, distant)
- practical help is assessed in one question with 13 items (e.g. my supervisor helped me find a place to live)
- compliance is evaluated through three questions (e.g. motivation, likeliness)
- breach is measured through four questions (e.g. number of times the probationer failed to turn up, the possible reaction of the supervisor to one vignette)
- rehabilitation is covered in three questions with multiple response options (e.g. the severity of supervision, the meaning of supervision in relation to moving away from crime)
- co-production and involvement of the service user is dealt with in four questions (e.g. my supervisor works with me when drafting the sentence plan).
Each question or item is assessed from 1 to 5 where 1 is ‘totally disagree’ and 5 is ‘totally agree’.
The questionnaire was translated, adapted and piloted in eight different European jurisdictions including England. Although not representative, the results were indicative of how offender supervision is experienced by the recipients.
The barometer can be used for a range of different purposes including the perception of individuals under supervision at one point in time. By re-applying the barometer, probation services can track progress (or lack of it) or the impact of any new approaches or interventions.
Another important use of the tool is in comparing two or more separate probation offices or even probation services. Examples are set out below from Professor Durnescu’s own work comparing different probation systems from eight jurisdictions:
Based on a range of evidence, the EES is an innovative tool that can help probation staff learn more about service users’ perceptions. Professor Durnescu and his team intend to adjust and up-date the tool in line with the ongoing production of knowledge.
There is potential for many probation services to use the took on a routine basis.
If only we had a time machine, it would be fascinating to have got people’s views of their experiences of probation five years ago compared to the current system.