The empirical evidence
A new Rapid Evidence Assessment of the effectiveness of probation supervision towards reducing reoffending has just been published in the Probation Journal.
The review, authored by Andrew Smith, Chris Fox and colleagues from Manchester Metropolitan University, sought to address the question:
What is the effect of probation supervision on recidivism?
The REA analysed 13 studies, all of which employed robust research designs, originating in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia, published between 2006 and 2016.
The REA starts with the tricky task of defining what probation supervision is and notes that even approaches within the UK vary. In the UK supervision varies across jurisdictions. In Scotland the devolved administration has maintained a stronger focus on the social work dimension of community measures and sanctions with policy initiatives focused on reparation and rehabilitation and, to a lesser extent, reintegration. In Northern Ireland community measures and sanctions have been shaped by the political context although in recent years a period of ‘normalization’ of the criminal justice system has seen the role of supervision changing. In England and Wales, as readers of this blog are well aware, the probation system has just undergone its biggest upheaval since its foundation in 1907 and now operates in two parts; the National Probation Service supervising high risk offenders concentrates particularly on public protection while 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies (soon to become 10) seek to prevent the reoffending of low and medium risk offenders.
The authors then examined the empirical evidence-based underpinning supervision. They discuss a range of components in probation supervision found to be related to reducing reoffending: relationship factors; skill factors; effective reinforcement; effective disapproval; problem solving; structured learning; and effective modelling. The skills of probation officers and their willingness to follow an evidence-based approach also seem key:
Practitioner characteristics including warmth, empathy, likability and respect are fundamental in the formation of relationships, as are those common to social work practice which encourage a more in-depth connection.
Anyone interested in probation will find plenty of food for thought in the REA. I include some points which took my interest below.
The largest quantitative study in the UK in recent years was the Offender Management Community Cohort Study (OMCCS), a UK based longitudinal study measuring the reoffending rate among offenders aged 18 or over which concluded that frequent meetings between offenders and offender managers were less significant in reducing offending compared with other aspects of case management such as effective absence monitoring. As well as closely monitoring missed appointments, particularly in the early stages of an order when the propensity to offend is increased, the authors suggest that “fewer, longer meetings between offenders and Offender Managers, monitored for quality” could improve practice outcomes.
So called ‘intensive community supervision’ programmes were developed as alternatives to custody and typically focus on offender monitoring and surveillance. A 2006 meta-analysis concluded that this approach to offender management has not produced statistically significant reductions in recidivism rates, except where the focus was on treatment provision, suggesting that the treatment, not the surveillance, was the effective element.
The authors are careful to note the limitations of their study; noting in particular the wide range of studies covered by the REA which examined very different models of probation supervision. They also note that there is surprisingly little good quality evidence in this field.
However, their main (albeit somewhat tentative) conclusions are:
- The likelihood of reoffending is lower for offenders who have been exposed to some type of supervision.
- Cognitive and behavioural skills work is likely to be effective.
- So too is varying strategies according to an offender’s risk level.
- The literature offers support for the Good Lives Model (Shad Maruna’s desistance based approach) which includes satisfying offenders’ primary needs – for housing, work and social support.