Decarceration and minimum intervention
Unpaid work is frequently the Cinderella of the probation service, largely ignored except for in photos accompanying MoJ press releases emphasising how tough on crime the latest government is. So it’s refreshing to see it being the subject of the latest Academic Insight from HMI Probation.
A tripartite strategy for unpaid work in the community by Dr Eoin Guilfoyle and Dr. Louise Kennefick proposes a strategy based on the three principles of desistance, restorative justice, and social justice, to guide policy and operational developments relating to unpaid work in the community:
- a review of national and international research findings, policy materials, reports and publications relevant to unpaid work, points to the potential of desistance theory to reconcile the core functions of this sanction, and to reinforce a wider cultural message that people who offend can change their behaviour
- restorative justice research findings highlight the significant, functional contribution that practices and techniques can make towards facilitating desistance in terms of repairing harm and supporting reintegration
- underpinning these two approaches with a firm social justice ethos not only aligns with international social policy signals, but frames unpaid work resolutely as a community-based endeavour with a view to making our localities safer, through better reoffending outcomes, in a way that minimises the collateral harm to the individual that can arise from punitive attitudes and practices.
The proposal draws on findings from a report commissioned by the Irish Probation Service as part of its strategy to maximise the potential benefit of community service in the Irish criminal justice system, and to reform and revitalise the current operating model.
The authors argue that unpaid work has the potential to form an important step on a person’s desistance journey, and therefore reduce reoffending, if implemented in a way that supports change at both the individual and social level. They point out that desistance happens in the community, and so the unpaid work requirement has the potential to support desistance, in particular, where that work is meaningful and undertaken on behalf of local organisations.
The authors highlight one research study which demonstrates how community service can be part of a restorative justice approach in which a person’s placement or assignment is a direct response to the offence and harm caused, where that is feasible and appropriate. They argue that a restorative justice approach would also help build better working relationships between the person who has offended, the unpaid work supervisor, and the probation officer.
To date social justice has mainly been discussed around early intervention and diversion strategies but the authors argue that there is potential for unpaid work to play a greater role in recognising and responding to crime as a social problem at the post-conviction stage, primarily by becoming a more frequently used alternative to incarceration, rather than an extra element of punishment now routinely attached to so many community sentences.
The paper also identifies two key practical challenges to implementing the tripartite strategy: public perceptions and the challenges of monitoring and evaluation. It highlights the need to develop approaches to communicate with the public in order to enhance public understanding of the unpaid work requirement and to gain public support and buy-in.
It also emphasises the need to develop and use a wider range of monitoring tools to more comprehensively evaluate the unpaid work requirement, to further develop the operation of the requirement, and to highlight what it is currently achieving for judges, community organisations, and the public.
Clearly a future where unpaid work enables people on orders to learn relevant employment skills and be engaged in working for local charities is not hard to imagine. It would require political will to move away from the desire to present unpaid work as some sort of chain-gang light with those sentenced to it mainly engaged in litter picking and canal clearance.