chapter  8
Probation – enabling or constraining desistance?
Pages 24

There exists a small but growing body of literature which examines the impact of criminal justice interventions on desistance from crime (Rex, 1999; Farrall, 2002; McCulloch, 2005; Robinson, 2005; Farrall and Calverley, 2006). As desistance is best viewed as a process which evolves over time, it is appropriate to consider how interventions could be influential at various stages of an individual’s sentence. Some authors have highlighted the possible effects that imprisonment could have on desistance and resettlement (Maruna and Toch, 2005; Maguire and Raynor, 2006; Crewe et al., 2011), while others have emphasised the role of community sentences on these processes (Robinson, 2005; McCulloch, 2010; Faulkner and Burnett, 2011; Williams and Ariel, 2012). A small body of literature has also begun to emerge in recent years which seeks to examine the role that particular types of intervention may have upon the desistance process, such as arts therapy (McNeill et al., 2011; Nugent and Loucks, 2011; Tett et al., 2012) and therapeutic communities (Stevens, 2012). Several authors have found that the quality of the ‘officer-offender’ relationship can have a meaningful impact upon the likelihood of successful desistance (Barry, 2000, 2007; Burnett and McNeill, 2005). This relationship has been found to enhance levels of engagement, and desisters have suggested that they appreciated someone being concerned about them and taking an interest in their lives and wellbeing. Talking and listening have been identified as crucial skills, and previous research has found that a willingness to resolve personal and social problems is also an important part of the relationship (Rex, 1999; Burnett, 2004; McCulloch, 2005; McNeill, 2006a, 2006b; Barry, 2007). McNeill et al. (2012) have also argued that it is essential for the practitioner to develop a relationship where the individual is valued and respected, but that the interventions delivered by the practitioner also have to be implemented in such a way that the individual’s goals and objectives are integrated within the overall process. Farrall (2002), on the other hand, found little evidence that probation had a meaningful impact on desistance, and suggested that resolving personal and social problems was beyond the control of supervising officers. His research concluded that conversational aspects of the ‘officer-offender’ relationship were, therefore, questionable. This chapter examines the perceptions of probation supervision held by the men in the study. They were asked about past and present experiences of

probation, aspects of probation that they enjoyed or found useful, whether there was anything that they would change about probation, and whether or not they felt that probation would help them to stay away from crime. The men were also asked whether probation helped them to overcome particular problems or difficulties that they were facing, and whether or not they felt probation would be able to help them in the future. The first part of this chapter examines the enabling influence of probation in the early transitions towards desistance. The interview data revealed that probation is instrumental in enhancing individuals’ agency and plays a pivotal role in equipping individuals with the necessary skills to desist from crime. The interviews also revealed that supervising officers often played a crucial role in initiating a projective orientation of agency among the men that they worked with. The importance of this is that a future outlook, strategy or plan has already been identified as an important aspect of successful desistance (Maruna, 2001), but this study highlights the role that probation plays in helping to construct these future strategies. The second part of this chapter examines the constraining effects of probation on the initial transition towards desistance. Very little attention has been paid in the literature to date towards the effect of the organisational structure and delivery of probation on processes of desistance. The interview data highlighted particular organisational or bureaucratic factors which restrict the functional ability of practitioners and their connection with the men’s experiences of the supervisory relationship. The data also showed that limited practical assistance was provided and that one-to-one discussions were often limited to fairly short durations of time. This was because of the constraints placed upon the time of probation staff, largely because of various additional bureaucratic and managerial pressures. The effect of this is that there exists a discrepancy between the planning of strategies, and discussions of how best to achieve them. Many individuals who are in the early stages of desistance are therefore left in a situation where they tend to rely upon past experiences and understandings of particular social contexts to inform their actions. Many of the men remarked that probation had helped them to develop their decision-making skills, and several suggested that their self-confidence had improved during their time under probation supervision. A number of men also commented that they felt more capable to make changes in their own lives after their experiences of probation. At times the men spoke in general terms about the positive effects of probation, and at other times they spoke about particular aspects of the sentence which were of assistance. One-to-one supervision and accredited programmes were particular aspects which were often discussed, although the men in the study had experience of a number of sentence requirements. For the current sentence at the time of interview, four of the men also had an unpaid work requirement; two had a residence requirement; one had a prohibited activity requirement; four had an exclusion requirement; and three had a curfew requirement. More than half (n = 12) of participants had to complete an accredited programme as a requirement of their sentence. Five of the men had been required to

undertake the Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme (IDAP), one had to undertake the Drink Impaired Drivers (DID) Programme, one had undertaken the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP), one had to undertake a Control of Violence for Angry Impulsive Drinkers (COVAID) Programme, two had to undertake a Low Intensity Alcohol Programme (LIAP), and two had to undertake the Controlling Anger and Learning to Manage (CALM) Programme1 as part of their sentence. Most participants spoke positively about accredited programmes and most described the experience as worthwhile, although two of the men (Martin and Chris) in particular described the programme that they were required to complete as ‘pointless’ and ‘not for me’. These negative perceptions of programmes will be discussed later, but most individuals suggested that the programmes had been beneficial, particularly with respect to developing personal agency. Typical responses included: ‘The programme has helped me to see what I was doing was wrong’, ‘The programme has given me better knowledge’ and ‘The programme has helped me want to change’. All of the men had a supervision requirement, and all had been supervised as part of the current sentence for a period of at least one month. Most (n = 16) were meeting with their supervising officer on a weekly basis at the time of interview. Most of the men spoke positively about their experiences of probation supervision, although many indicated that their initial perceptions were negative. This change in perception is, arguably, to be expected, and may even be indicative of desistance taking place. Almost all (n = 19) suggested that their supervising officers were trying to help them, and this was often linked to the aim of reducing offending behaviour, echoing earlier work in this area (Rex, 1999; Burnett, 2004; McCulloch, 2005). The men valued honesty, openness, and reliability – also in keeping with existing research – and it was suggested by some individuals that sustaining desistance was an important means of demonstrating to their supervising officer that they valued the relationship. However, the interview data suggest that supervising officers are not important simply because they are ‘friendly’ and ‘approachable’, but that they were regarded as fulfilling an important role in the transition towards desistance. Many of the men also stated that probation supervision served a control or surveillance function, often remarking that part of the probation officer’s role was to ‘keep an eye’ on the individual under supervision. Two of the men described probation in somewhat punitive terms, describing the sentences that they had received as being too harsh in proportion to the crimes that they had been convicted of. That said, even these men described the relationship with their supervising officer as being helpful and supportive. The positive statements identified in the interviews may, of course, be the result of the selection effect of the study. Individuals who volunteered to participate in the interviews may be more willing to engage and participate in activities more generally. Furthermore, the men were recruited to participate in the study through their supervising officers, and it is possible that the supervising officers selected participants who would be more likely to speak positively about the experiences of probation. However, given that the sample broadly reflected

national data and that the interview data echoed existing desistance research, it is suggested here that any possible selection effect was minimal. Moreover, given the assured nature by which the men highlighted negative aspects of probation where relevant, if these findings do represent the views of the most positive and engaged individuals under probation supervision, then the reality for many others might be rather bleak.