29th March 2017

SCCJR PhD student Griff Williams was the lead organiser of the mini-conference Community Payback and Community Justice, which took place at the University of Edinburgh last month.

Community Payback Orders (CPOs) were introduced in Scotland through legislation in 2010. They allow for the combining of a range of activities and services in a single sanction order. One striking emphasis of the Scottish CPO, compared with the ‘payback’ approach developed in England around the same time, is its reparative and restorative qualities: the English version defined payback in terms closer to retaliation and punitivism towards those who had breached the law. Since their introduction, the use of CPOs has been growing steadily, as is the amount of research being conducted to understand their impact and how they are experienced.

One striking emphasis of the Scottish CPO is its reparative and restorative qualities

One of the major challenges in organising even the smallest of conferences is finding a date suitable for every presenter – planets often have a greater chance of aligning compared to the busy schedules of academics. Thus it was incredibly fortunate that not only could several leading experts in community payback and community justice attend our conference hosted by the University of Edinburgh at the end of February, but that representatives from Scottish Government, local government, Community Justice Authorities, social work, as well as academics from across Scotland, were able to take time away from their work to discuss an area of the penal landscape that has been overlooked for too long.

Opening proceedings was  Professor Fergus McNeill (University of Glasgow), whose presentation encouraged a reconsideration of punishment, reintegration and just communities. Whilst acknowledging the persuasive arguments in favour of penal minimalism, Fergus proposed a shift in how we evaluate sanctioning: from the harms they reduce, to the goods they promote. In line with this, Fergus drew a distinction between penal sanctions that exercise negative power – those that reduce the subject’s capacity and divide them from the community – and those that exercise positive power – aspiring to enhance the subject’s capacities and worth whilst fostering inclusion. Encouraging a perspective that looks beyond purely personal rehabilitation, and instead encompasses the restoration of the subject’s identity through de-labelling, requalification and integration through practical and social opportunities that might constitute a/the ‘community’, Fergus emphasised that while the state has a duty to facilitate integration, it lacks the capacity; it falls to all citizens to develop such a community.

Fergus proposed a shift in how we evaluate sanctioning: from the harms they reduce, to the goods they promote

Following on, Professor Neil Hutton (University of Strathclyde) discussed findings on the major evaluation of the Community Payback Order (CPO) , focusing on sheriffs’ perspectives on the custody threshold between community and custodial sentences. Although there exists broad confidence in the CPO amongst sheriffs, the continuing conceptualisation of custody as a ‘last resort’ presents practical challenges. For those offenders who wilfully fail to comply with CPO requirements, custody exists as an unavoidable consequence for their actions; but there exist offenders for whom non-compliance because of wider, social and societal forces – those whose lifestyles are commonly described as ‘chaotic’ or ‘transient’. The threshold, in this latter instance, is not based on prison as a last resort, but as the only option in cases where subjects will not be able to respond to a non-custodial sentence. As a result, custody is not a question of proportionality, but more often the consequence of a ‘churn’ effect: those persistent, low-level offenders with a history of compliance failure.

After a lunch made possible by the generous donations of University of Edinburgh alumni through the Innovation Initiative, SCCJR alumnus Dr Paul McGuinness (University of Sussex) presented findings from his ethnographic study into reparative practices within the Community Payback Order. Examining the practices of a criminal justice social work office, his presentation scrutinised the extent to which reparation was thwarted and promoted, respectively, by official and unofficial social work practices. While an official focus on client compliance, visibility of work and a shifting of responsibility to clients all hindered the process of reparation, practitioners’ own personal craft, expertise and intuition on an intersubjective, personal level with clients could, by contrast, help promote it.

Risk factors and criminogenic needs were understood by social workers and responded to not as problems to be managed, but obstacles to be overcome

Bringing the event to a close, I debuted findings from my own ethnographic study into the Community Payback Order, which focussed on the interactional dynamics between the key stakeholders of its supervision and unpaid work requirements (social workers, clients and local beneficiaries) to better understand how the CPO is constituted in practice. While the day-to-day operation of CPO supervision was heavily centred around encouraging and assisting clients in achieving individual change, that had little explicitly to do with the wider policy notion of ‘paying back by working at change’. Instead, the process was a heavily personal, and personalised, one, wherein clients’ subjective perspectives acted as not only a source of information for intervention, but as a means of deep normative engagement achieved through a constantly-developing interpersonal relationship with their social worker. Within this context, risk factors and criminogenic needs were understood by social workers and responded to not as problems to be managed, but obstacles to be overcome as part of a larger, more aspirational process of clients’ own positive self-realisation, with social workers serving a supplementary role of encourager, practical enabler and catalyst for client self-reflection.

Griff Williams is an SCCJR PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.