Probation: Putting the Unity into Community Risk Management

August 18, 2021
Professor Kieran McCartan
Researcher and Faculty MemberUniversity of the West of England, Bristol

Professor Kieran McCartan, University of the West of England, Bristol is a renowned researcher into the origins and causes of sexual offending and social responses to sex offenders. He has developed a wide ranging multi disciplinary network around sex offender management and reintegration.

As part of Probation Day, Kieran will discuss how probation works within the context of the socio-ecological model, how well it operates at each level, and some thoughts about how it can best frame, or at least consider, its engagement with the public at the societal level. Kieran will argue that probation needs to be more visible in its working so that its role in bringing together different voices to provide “unity” in the community integration of people who have offended is recognised.

The challenge probation often faces is explaining to people what it is that probation does, and therefore by default what probation staff do. Probation is often the mysterious relation in the triad of criminal justice working (i.e., police, prison, and probation) whereby policing and prison have the more publicly accessible and relatively easily understood roles. The role of probation is to work with people who have committed an offence, to hold them accountable while assisting their integration into the community in a way that promotes desistence and public protection. Which means that probation recognises desistence is a journey which takes time and their role is to facilitate the harm eradication process through controlled risk management, resulting in no more victims.

The challenge that probation faces is how to manage harm reduction in a way which protects the public, creates no more victims, and makes communities safer. Although probation does this successfully, in most cases all the public, and the media, hear about and discuss is those cases where probation fails to manage risk and people reoffend. To successfully manage risk and promote desistence while protecting the community probation staff need to understand the journey of the individual sat in front of them, which emphasises an individualised, “what works”, approach that is grounded in the biopsychosocial model. Probation, therefore, must balance rehabilitation, control, support, safety, safeguarding, and justice in their daily work.

The challenge of community integration of people who have offended, whatever their offence or risk level, is that it’s as much about community safety, public protection, and public relations as is about working with the individual client. How do you balance a person’s risk level with the realities of community life in line with the time and resources that you have? The easy answer is through increased control and surveillance, but the reality is that this approach does not enable the individual to learn to manage their own risk effectively and is very costly. Which means that we need to think beyond just the individual and the Probation Service and how they both manage risk, we must ask how does society understand risk and how do communities manage risk? Crime happens in communities and therefore communities, as well as individuals, have a role to play in preventing offending behaviour. Consequentially, probation needs to look at the whole socio-ecological landscape that it finds itself in to reduce reoffending and protect the public (see Figure 1) more effectively.

The socio-ecological model (Figure 1) argues that all behaviours and actions are caught up in the social landscape we find ourselves in and this landscape is made up of roles, relationships and contexts that effect our psychology and behaviour, restating the old nature vs nurture debate! Hence, a person’s criminal and anti-social actions are not purely because they are “bad”, “evil”, or “mad” they are because of the context that they are in and how that interacts with their biology, psychology, and socialisation. It’s important to state that the recognition that the context that someone is in can be a contributing factor to criminogenic and anti-social behaviour does not excuse or justify that behaviour, rather it gives us a platform to start from in the rehabilitative and risk management process. Also, what it does is offer insights into the ways that we can work together to prevent first time offending in new populations. The important take home is the fact that all behaviours are because of a series of interactions, and therefore if we can change those interactions, we can, over time, change behaviour. Which is why the work done by probation colleagues is grounded in an individualised, “what works” approach that emphasises a biopsychosocial model of behaviour change, through mainly psychoeducational and Cognitive Behavioural approaches. The work of probation colleagues is grounded in a holistic, recovery capital approach that emphases that to understand why someone offends and how they can stop offending, and ultimately to protect the community and prevent further victimisation, then we need to understand them individually and the surrounding context.

Figure 1: The socio-ecological model and its relationship with criminological and ant-social behaviour

Probation works across all levels of socio-ecological model, albeit more clearly and more distinctively at some levels as opposed to others (see Table 1). Traditionally the work of the Probation Service, and broader criminal justice system, is oriented around the individual, interrelationship, and community levels. The work of probation focuses on working with people one-on-one (individual) as well as working with their families, partners, and relevant other people (which can include victims) (interrelationship) in conjunction with partners (community) to plan their integration; but the challenge is how does probation operate at the societal level? Does probation change social and cultural norms around offending behaviour, victimisation, rehabilitation, integration, public protection, and community safety? The challenge is that while probation is working in the background managing the integration of people convicted of an offence into the community that community more broadly, beyond the people impacted by the person with a criminal conviction, do not know what probation does or the impact of their work. Although probation embodies societal values this narrative, and the work that they do does not come across expect when there are issues, challenges, and systematic failings.

Thus, raising the question of where the Probation Service’s message sits at the societal level, how that’s communicated, and how it allows society, as well as all the other levels of the socio-ecological system to understand it.  Is resolving this challenge about reworking the current message through reframing, media engagement, storytelling, a catchy hook, or a reality TV show? Or is it about changing the way that probation thinks about itself in society and the way that it represents society? Probation staff come from communities, work with communities, they are individuals with their own life experiences and interrelations dynamics. They are of society and part of society; therefore, they embody these values, attitudes, and behaviours but must let this narrative and experience shine through in the way that we discuss probation and it’s working.

Table 1: How Probation fits within the different socio-ecological levels

Socio-ecological levelDefinitionExamples of how probation works at this level
IndividualFactors in an individual’s biological & personal history that increases the possibility of becoming a victim or perpetrator of crime.Psycho-educational and behaviour change programs targeted at identifying the individual triggers for offending and facilitating their existence.
InterrelationshipFactors within the individuals’ closest relationships that increases the possibility of becoming a victim or perpetrator of crime.Working with and supporting family members and victims of the preparation to help them understand the offending behaviour and the potential safeguarding challenges and related risk management linked to the ex-offender’s release.
CommunityFactors on the community levels. such as relationships with schools, workplaces & neighbourhoods that may increase an individual’s risk of crime.Probation works in partnership with local communities through 3rd sector organisations, charities, and partner agencies to facilitate the safe integration of people convicted of an offence to the community.
SocietalSocietal or Cultural norms that create an environment that accepts or condones crimeProbation embodies the social and cultural values and norms of England and Wales, emphasising the importance of culture, rehabilitation, restoration, and intersectionality in working with different communities. In doing this they understand that crime maybe a social construct but that its impact is very real for individuals and communities. But is this evident to people outside probation and its working?

The last 18 months have been challenging across the board, but especially in probation with staff managing the realities of how COVID-19 has impacted their working practices, the home life balance, the lives of their people on probation, their families, the victims they support, the partners that they work with, and the communities that they protect. Covid 19 has forced a reconsideration at all levels of the socio-ecological model and probation has had to adapt. Some of these changes have been temporary and some will be more long standing, time, resource, and willingness will show. But as we continue into reunification probation is seeing a period of reflection, rebirth, and growth. Probation is building a new and adapted service that is fit for the new world. Therefore, probation needs to refine how it provides the basis for collaborative working at individual, interrelationship, and community levels that provides the unity needed for community integration. Now we must create the place to inform and deliver that at a societal level.  Probation provides the “unity”, the lynchpin, in community integration and will continue to do so moving forward into the future.

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