This is a guest post by Dr Brian Stout who is Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Western Sydney. He previously taught on the DipPS and the PQF at De Montfort University and worked as a probation officer in Northern Ireland. You can follow @drbrianstout on Twitter.
London Probation Trust’s initiative to use biometric technology to support its work with offenders has received a strongly negative reaction from NAPO and the Prison Reform Trust, who fear that the purple kiosks where offenders will be asked to report to will be used to replace human probation interventions, rather than complement probation officers’ face-to-face work.
Machines of this sort are used in some parts of the USA but my only personal experience of observing the operation of a biometric scheme as part of probation work was in Batumi, Georgia, when I visited as part of a CEP event last year. Georgia is perhaps the only European country that is even keener than the UK to learn its criminal justice lessons from the USA. Its biometric technology was located within probation offices, enabling fingerprints to be checked as probationers reported, verifying their identity. The Georgian scheme raised the question of what quality of relationship a worker could have with a probationer if they could not even confirm their identity but again observers were assured that the scheme augmented, but did not replace, personal work. The proposed London scheme is not exactly the same as the Georgian systems but raises similar issues. Some offenders will report to the kiosks instead of signing in to see a probation officer and the Trust argues that this will free up probation officer time to carry out more quality work with offenders. NAPO and the Prison Reform Trust are not convinced by this and argue that the use of machines is simply a further reduction in the human contact between workers and offenders.
Replacing humans by machines
The potential replacement of humans by machines is always an emotive issue, leading to concerns about human redundancy and visions of a fully mechanised future (both the fate of the shipbuilding industry and the film ‘Demolition Man’ were invoked by readers of the Observer article, commenting online). In his recently published book ‘Losing the Head of Philip K. Dick’ David Dufty describes the recent advances in robot and android technology, outlining the opportunities and limitations, particularly drawing on the efforts of a University of Memphis team to develop a working android replica of the late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Philip K. Dick was chosen particularly as he, like NAPO, had an apprehensive view of where the introduction of robot technology might lead. However, the work of Philip K. Dick and the insights into android technology do hold out some hope for probation officers. In his book ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, which inspired the film ‘Blade Runner’, Rick Deckard is required to distinguish between humans and replicants pretending to be human. The one characteristic that he must look for is the one characteristic that androids cannot replicate – empathy. Androids are programmed to fake empathy through the use of particular phrases but Deckard is able to distinguish between this response and genuine, human, concern for others. As Dufty puts it ‘The androids he is hunting lack humanity, in the old fashioned sense of the word’.
Effective work requires empathy
It is right that Probation Trusts should investigate ways that technology can support probation work and it is equally right of NAPO and like-minded organisations to remind policy makers of the possible risks involved. However, we know from our own experiences, the lessons of offender autobiographies, the NOMS offender engagement project and the wider desistance research that it is the essential human qualities of workers, such as empathy and compassion, that offenders most value and that have most impact on their process of desistance. As technology advances there will be an increasing number of jobs and roles throughout society that can be carried out by machines but we can be confident that effective work with vulnerable people, including offenders, will always require a human touch.