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Developing a voluntary sector model for engaging people with convictions
Kevin Wong proposes a new model for the voluntary sector to engage with offenders built on reciprocity, reliability, consistency & emotional pleasure.

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A distinctive model

This is a guest post by Kevin Wong, Associate Director – Policy Evaluation and Research Unit, Manchester Metropolitan University and Co-Editor of the British Journal of Community Justice.

The voluntary and community sector (VCS) should develop a distinctive model for effectively engaging people with convictions recognising the contribution of: reciprocity, reliability, consistency and emotional pleasure.

The current Probation review is a golden opportunity for Government and the sector to develop and test the sector’s distinctive contribution to supporting offenders.

New research published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice by Kevin Wong and Rachel Kinsella from the Policy Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU) at Manchester Metropolitan University and Linda Meadows from Nottingham Trent University strongly supports this approach.

Why develop a VCS engagement model?

Firstly, the limited level of probation engagement with offenders since Transforming Rehabilitation TR (observed by among others the HM Inspectorate of Probation and Clinks) appears to have fostered a greater dependence on the VCS to backfill the gap. Secondly, the effective offender engagement model developed by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) prior to TR based on the risk-needs-responsivity model for probation practitioners (Andrews and Bonta, 2010), is not wholly applicable to the way that the VCS engage with people with convictions.  PERU researchers and VCS commentators such as Mike Maguire, Philippa Tomczak, Rosie Mills and Alice Meek have suggested that VCS support for people with convictions has a different function and role to that of probation and prison staff.  Thirdly, greater reliance on the VCS to work with people with convictions means that now (more than ever) there is a need for VCS services to be more evidence based. 

Research on young adults

Based on the lived experience of young adults with convictions supported by the VCS delivered Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Programme PERU researchers found that these service users highly valued the way in which the VCS delivered their services, as much as the services themselves.  The key elements were:  

Reciprocation – Perhaps something of a universal truth about human interaction generally – the young adults rewarded the commitment of the T2A staff who went the extra mile and were persistent, by engaging and co-operating with them.  

Reliability and consistency –   While it would be perverse to think that the other agencies which the young adults compared the T2A services with had a policy of not being reliable or consistent, the young adults’ accounts suggest a comparative exceptionalism among the T2A staff.

Emotional pleasure – Affording users emotional pleasure through support services may appear to trivialise and undermine the goal of rehabilitation and could easily lend itself to ridicule as part of a punitive backlash. However, the young adults in the PERU research reported an emotional pleasure from their encounters with the T2A staff. A combination of: persona – being more a friend than a worker; setting – meeting in a coffee shop rather than an office; and being cared for.  This finding resonates with the work of Jake Phillips, Andrew Fowler and Charlotte Knight about emotional literacy and authenticity in probation practice.

However it should be noted that the operating conditions for the T2A services (supported by the funder – the Barrow Cadbury Trust) was important.  It allowed for young adults to voluntarily engage (or not engage) with the services; and for engagement to be open-ended and non-time limited.

What should happen next?

The qualities identified in the PERU study: reciprocity, reliability, consistency and emotional pleasure should be incorporated into an adapted version of the NOMS effective offender engagement model– one that has the potential to be developed and tested as a distinctive VCS model for young adults and older adults with convictions.  Developing and testing such a model by the Ministry of Justice and the sector would make a significant contribution to the currently limited evidence base of VCS efficacy, as noted by the PERU team and other researchers (Carol Hedderman Anthea Hucklesby, Mike Maguire and Mary Corcoran).  More importantly, it would signal an important commitment by Government and the sector to incremental innovation – learning from and improving on existing practice rather than elusive magic bullet solutions.

Further details

Wong, K. Kinsella, R. Meadows, L. (2018) Developing a voluntary sector model for engaging offenders. The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice.  

Contact: or via Twitter @bjcommunityjust

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