SCCJR Report Released: Towards Effective Practice in Offender Supervision

09 Jan 2009

The SCCJR is pleased to announce the release of the following publication.

Towards Effective Practice in Offender Supervision, Fergus McNeil.

You can download the full report in the publications section of this website.  Or directly here .

Executive Summary 1.1    This paper provides an overview of evidence and argument about reoffending and about the kinds of practices of offender supervision in the community that might be most effective in reducing it. As such, its remit is somewhat broader than studies and reviews which focus more specifically on the effectiveness of rehabilitative programmes. Here, the concern is less with the merits of particular programmes or interventions and more with the broader practices and processes of supervision in which they are, or should be, embedded. 

1.2    Section 1 sets out to understand the challenges of reducing reoffending through offender supervision. It outlines the many limitations of reconviction rates as a measure of the effectiveness of criminal sanctions before going on to examine the multiple social and personal problems that often lie behind reoffending. Section 1 also reviews some criminological theories about the causes and correlates of persistent offending and explores debates about the extent to which persistent offenders have distinctive characteristics or profiles. However, the section also notes that some criminologists have suggested that the search for ‘risk factors’ and ‘offender types’ is fundamentally misconceived in that it tends to pathologise offending by focusing on the individual offender as the main unit of analysis, rather than emphasising that crime, criminality and criminalisation are social constructs governed by wider economic, structural, cultural and political forces. The overall conclusion of section 1 is that the challenges of reducing re-offending in practice are very considerable. Yet most offenders, including many persistent offenders, do give up crime, despite the many needs that they have and the many obstacles that they face.

1.3    Section 2 focuses on what is known about the process of ‘desistance’ from offending and argues that practices and processes of offender supervision should be embedded in understandings of this process. Desistance relates to age and maturity, to social ties or bonds, and to changing personal identities. The relationships between ‘objective’ changes in offenders’ life and their ‘subjective’ assessments of the value or significance of these changes are pivotal. Desistance is not an event but a process and, because of the subjectivities and issues of identity involved, the process is inescapably individualised – so understandings of desistance need to accommodate age, gender and ethnicity related differences in the process. Desistance is also characterised by ambivalence and vacillation. Hope seems to be an important factor. Whereas persistent offenders tend to be fatalistic in their outlook, there is evidence that desisters acquire a sense of agency (the ability to make choices and govern their own lives) in order to resist and overcome the criminogenic structural pressures that play upon them. This discovery of agency may relate to the role of significant others in supporting offenders to envision alternative identities and alternative futures. Later in the process of change, involvement in ‘generative activities’ (which usually make a contribution to the well-being of others) may play a part in testifying to the desister that an alternative ‘agentic’ identity is being or has been forged.

1.4    Section 2 also reviews studies that have focussed on the role that offender supervision may play in supporting desistance. These studies underline the importance of strong relationships between offenders and their supervisors, characterised by mutual respect, loyalty and commitment. However, workers and working relationships are neither the only nor the most important resources in promoting desistance which also requires striving to develop the offender’s strengths – at both an individual and a social network level – in order to build and sustain momentum for change. Interventions must pay heed to the community, social and personal contexts in which processes of and obstacles to change are situated. Vitally, developing social capital is necessary to encourage desistance. It is not enough to build motivation, skills or capacities for change where change also depends on opportunities.

1.5    Section 3 outlines and compares two contemporary models of offender rehabilitation. In the Risk-Need-Responsivity model (RNR), rehabilitation programmes aim to reduce the harms caused by crime. Considerations of the offender’s welfare are legitimate but secondary. Individuals are seen as varying in their propensity to commit crimes, so it is argued that treatment should target those factors that are associated with offending; the most important treatment targets are those that have been empirically demonstrated to reduce recidivism. The Good Lives Model (GLM) assumes that people (including offenders) are predisposed to seek certain human goods, suggesting that offending represents either inappropriate attempts to secure such goods or that it arises as a collateral effect of their pursuit. Interventions should aim to promote an individual’s goods as well as to manage or reduce risk; rehabilitative work should aim to enable an individual to develop a life plan that involves ways of effectively securing primary human goods without harming others; taking account of strengths, primary goods and relevant environments, and encouraging and respecting individual’s capacities to make choices for themselves. Rehabilitative interventions must balance the promotion of personal goods (for the offender) with the reduction of risk (for society).

1.6    Section 3 also reviews emerging debates about the theoretical, empirical and practical strengths and weaknesses of these models — as well as their points of convergence and difference. Some have argued that while there is empirical support for the RNR principles to varying degrees, RNR is vague about values and core principles; that It fails to take account of the subjective and value-laden nature of concepts like ‘risk’ and ‘harm’; that it understands risk in a highly individualised way which neglects how social contexts  affect whether or not and in what ways ‘riskiness’ is ever realised; that its focus on risk and criminogenic needs neglects critical questions around offender motivation and around the individual as a whole and his or her self-identity; and that it has not really explained the relationships between risk and need factors and offending. Since it has emerged more recently, the GLM in practice has been subject to less evaluative scrutiny and in this sense has a weaker empirical basis. However, scrutiny of the GLM also raises normative and theoretical questions. For example, the GLM may assume that human goods are more universally pursued than they are; it may underplay the deep tensions that exist in contemporary societies around diverse views of what constitutes the good life and thus the conflicts that arise in the pursuit of very different versions of that life within communities; it may overstate the necessity of the holistic reconstruction of the self; it may underestimate the extent to which criminogenic social contexts (and limited life opportunities) might make a ‘criminal’ good lives plan logical and functional from some offenders’ points of view; and, like the RNR model, it may neglect the importance of interventions around the familial and social contexts of offending and desistance, and of work to develop legitimate opportunities for ex-offenders.

1.7    Recently, advocates of both the RNR and the GLM models have stressed the need for more individualised assessments, case formulations and interventions and have noted the increasingly apparent limitations of relying on more standardised programmatic approaches to rehabilitation. With this in mind, section 4 reviews the findings of a recent literature review concerned with the practitioner skills required to work effectively to reduce reoffending. The section briefly discusses assessment, planning and case (or offender) management, but it also lays particular stress on the practice processes that set the context for intervention, involving preparing, relationship-building and engaging offenders in processes of change. In the development of the concept of the offender supervision spine (meaning a central and clearly-articulated process of planned intervention to which more specific programmes and activities can be connected). These three preparatory elements (PRE – Prepare, Relate, Engage) are added to the well-known ASPIRE approach (Assess, Plan, Implement, Review, Evaluate) and at each stage of the process, the spine articulates a series of questions and issues based on the evidence reviewed in the preceding sections. These questions should inform the research-minded reflective practitioner engagement with the offender, so as to enable the development, implementation and evaluation of case-specific, explicit and evidence-based theories of change.

1.8    In ‘fleshing out’ the offender supervision spine, the remainder of the paper explores two key forms of intervention. Section 5 explores the types of interventions that might develop offenders’ motivations to and capacities for change (that is, their human capital). As such, it is principally concerned with those cognitive behavioural programmes – mostly modelled on the RNR approach — that address offenders’ thinking skills, problem-solving abilities and behavioural repertoires and have been the main preoccupation of ‘what works?’ debates to date. That said, explicit attention is also paid to the literature on the use of motivational interviewing with offenders and on the utility of pro-social modelling. Despite the successes of these approaches, albeit in varying degrees, precise knowledge about which methods seem to work best with specific kinds of offenders and offences remains limited, not least due to the important shortcomings in studies on this subject identified by many reviews and meta-analyses. Attempts to implement structured programmes in England and Wales have revealed a range of problems in turning the small scale successes of pioneering programmes into effective standardised practices in large-scale public bureaucracies. One authoritative recent review, for example, highlights the increasing attention that is being paid to the need for professional staff to use interpersonal skills, to exercise some discretion in their interventions, to take diversity amongst participants into account, and to look at how the broader service context can best support effective practice. Overall, this section concludes that there are risks in focusing exclusively or excessively on human capital.

1.9    In the final section, section 6, the focus therefore turns to interventions that aim to develop offenders’ resources and opportunities; i.e. their social capital. As well as very briefly introducing the concept of social capital, section 6 outlines some of the main ways in which offender supervision might seek to develop social capital to support desistance. Firstly, services need to find ways, where appropriate, to engage effectively with families of origin so as to enlist them, wherever possible, in supporting desistance. The importance to desisters of repairing damaged family ties implies that social workers should be routinely engaged in family work and home visits. Secondly, the literature around ‘generativity’ suggests a productive focus for work around new and developing relationships and around parenting (and preparation for it). Moreover, it implies the need for individual workers and for local services to think creatively about other potentially generative activities, including paid employment, civic volunteering and other constructive, creative activities.  The third implication of the evidence reviewed above points to wider strategic priorities linked to community engagement and community development because, in terms of desistance, while it may be necessary to prepare ex-offenders for and assist them in accessing wider social networks, including through employment, such work is not sufficient. It is equally important to prepare communities (including employers and other agencies) for ex-offenders and to support them in working with ex-offenders.

1.10    This, in turn, leads to the fourth, and most challenging, implication of considering the role of social capital in desistance. Developing the social capital of a vilified group is not easy in the context of insecure, late-modern societies like our own. Some recent research suggests that, as well as working to protect the public, criminal justice agencies should directly target public insecurities, in part by responding to signal crimes with ‘control signals’, as a means of engaging effectively with communities’ anxieties about crime and, more specifically, their anxieties about the management of offenders within the community. Beyond the issue of control, there may also be a need to provide visible signals of restitution, reparation and reform. The evidence suggests that success or failure to send such signals may have major consequences for the capacity of offender supervision agencies to generate wider opportunities for the development of the social capital that seems to be required in order to enable desistance.

1.11    The paper concludes that even if we wished that there were a model of effective practice that could be prescribed for practitioners involved in offender supervision, there is not. Precisely because offenders are heterogeneous, their needs are complex and their pathways to desistance are varied and individual, effective practice can only really emerge from practitioners’ reflective engagement and continual dialogue with those with whom they work, with the research that should inform how they work, and with the communities in which they work.