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Needs assessment: risk, desistance and engagement
How needs assessment can promote engagement for people on probation.

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How to improve assessments

The most recent paper in HMI Probation’s Academic Insights series is titled “Needs assessment: risk, desistance and engagement“. Written by Kevin Wong and Rachel Horan, the paper focuses on the potential for improvements to assessment processes. The possibilities from integrating Risk-Needs-Responsivity and desistance principles are highlighted, while stressing that it is essential for such integration to provide additionality and avoid dilution (which should be subject to testing). Attention is then given to the role that assessment can play in facilitating effective engagement. Crucially, the assessment process itself can serve a purpose that goes beyond identifying the support an individual may require and what risks need to be considered. It offers opportunities for co-production, the demonstration of care, and the starting point for building a relationship.

Risk vs desistance

Wong & Horan start by discussing the two current dominant approaches to offender rehabilitation: the Risks-Needs-Responsivity (RNR or What works) model (which , in my view is the approach underpinning almost everything the National Probation Service does) and the desistance or Good Lives model which focuses more on why people stop offending than why they commit crime.

The authors outline the potential for enhancing the outcomes of probation work by integrating the two approaches, while acknowledging that getting this wrong could increase risks through diluting current risk management practice. 

The paper focuses on how to integrate both approaches in the probation assessment process, pointing out that the Youth Justice AssetPlus approach and the Active Risk Management System used with sex offenders are both examples of this integrated approach.

Effective engagement

Wong & Horan argue that since assessment takes place at the start of a period of supervision, it can set the tone for the remainder of the individual’s sentence. A positive assessment that acknowledges a service user’s strengths as well as identifying risk factors can promote desistance and encourage that person to comply with the conditions of the sentence.

The authors set out three frameworks which can help integrate these two approaches:

“The first framework is the pre-Transforming Rehabilitation blueprint for the ideal ‘engaging practitioner’ devised by Copsey and Rex. Based on the skills for effective engagement, development and supervision (SEEDS) programme , effective one-to-one interaction with a supervisee is based around four principal elements:

  • structuring sessions
  • pro-social modelling
  • RNR principles
  • cognitive behavioural techniques.

The second framework draws on the work of Shapland and colleagues; their literature review on quality in probation supervision supported the NOMS Offender Engagement Programme. They identified six factors which probation supervisors and supervisees regarded as demonstrating ‘quality’:

  • building genuine relationships which demonstrate care about the supervisee, their desistance, and future beyond control/monitoring/surveillance
  • identifying needs and setting goals, including a supervisory relationship characterised by listening from supervisors and persistence in steering supervisees towards desistance through motivation and encouraging problem solving
  • understanding desistance and applying thoughtful consideration to responses to relapses and breaches
  • attention to practical obstacles to desistance and psychological issues
  • knowledge and access to services to address practical obstacles
  • advocacy tailored to supervisees’ needs and capabilities, involving supervisor action, referral or signposting.

The third framework is a synthesis of research on disaffected children. Bateman and Hazel propose a multi-faceted model of engagement comprising:

  • behavioural engagement – an individual’s participation and cooperation with a service/intervention
  • emotional engagement – the attitudinal relationship with a service/intervention and those who work in it
  • cognitive engagement – an individual’s investment in achieving the goals of the service/intervention and their commitment to mastering the social and personal skills and investment in working towards the cognitive and behavioural changes necessary.”

The authors make three suggestions for how these engagement frameworks can be integrated into the work of the re-unified probation service (and the work of other agencies working with the same client group). 

First, they suggest that a consideration of service user strengths are incorporated into the assessment process.

Secondly, they propose a joint discussion between offender manager and service user around risk in order to promote greater honesty from service users about risks and a model of joint work.

Thirdly, they argue for the importance of disagreement. As Wong has argued before (see his guest post for me here), disagreement is often a more honest starting point and if handled well, its resolution tends to lead to more, rather, than less engagement in the supervisory process.

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One Response

  1. I would be interested to know if the effectiveness of this approach has or will be tested using randomised control trials?

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