Professor Jonathan Shepherd comments on the dire need for reliable and rigorous evidence to determine what works in probation services.
Offending imposes huge costs on tax payers which are especially burdensome in prevailing economic conditions. Never before has there been such a need for effective and cost-effective rehabilitation of those who offend. But compared to other public services such as the NHS, there is little reliable evidence about what works, and therefore relatively few effective interventions which can be implemented to tackle the problem.
This is not to say that knowledge of effectiveness is entirely absent. We know from systematic reviews of evidence by the Campbell Collaboration Crime and Justice Group that cognitive behavioural therapy, therapeutic communities and drug courts are effective, and that the augmentation of educational and job skills hold promise. We also know that ‘boot camp’ approaches and ‘Scared Straight’ programmes (taking at risk youth to prisons with the intention of dissuading them from offending) actually increase offending, showing that interventions and programmes can do more harm than good. Government has taken steps to apply what little evidence there is; the Correctional Services Accreditation Panel (CSAP) annual report 2010-2011 at the Ministry of Justice identifies and accredits effective interventions.
Comparisons across public services of evidence generation and the development of effective interventions based on this evidence show that arrangements which integrate research, practitioner training and services are most beneficial, both for society and for economic growth. These arrangements for co-production have not been established in probation.
First, since solutions to what can only be described as an evidence crisis in probation are more the responsibility of the probation profession than of non-practitioner social scientists, a new professional body should be set up to provide probation professionals with an independent national voice, and the power to advance practice standards. As in medicine and engineering institutions, this new national body should have no interest in the terms and conditions of employment or any other trades union functions. Second, to generate evidence in this neglected area, rehabilitation institutes within research intensive universities are needed to innovate and evaluate interventions with and in probation services. These could be developed from existing criminology centres. Third, a new evidence synthesis function is needed. Given the obvious synergy and opportunity to share resource and limit cost, it seems logical to co-locate this with the new What Works Centre for Crime Reduction.
These reforms to professionalise probation are overdue, and are particularly important in the context of reforms that are designed to move the rehabilitation of those who commit less serious offences into the private and third sectors. These are uncharted waters where dependable evidence anchors are needed.
Payment by results means that rehabilitation providers can gain commercial advantage by scouring the literature for reliable evidence and applying it to improve performance. Probation service bidding has begun for payment by results contracts worth £450 million to supervise 225,000 low and medium risk offenders each year. Service Commissioners and the two directors of the new National Probation Service (scheduled to start in April 2014) should, as professionals, demand for an evidence-led approach. The motivation to take full account of the evidence, and to demand more, is at the heart of professional practice. Indeed, a profession can be defined as such according to the presence or absence of this impetus to improve.
The rapid and successful development of the College of Policing (evidence dissemination and promotion), the new alliances it is forming with universities (evidence generation) and its own What Works Centre (evidence synthesis) is an evidence ecosystem for probation to adapt it to its unique needs. The embryonic drive in probation to do this should be nurtured. Helpfully, Lord McNally, the justice minister, has written, “I hope and intend that one of the outcomes of the reforms (to rehabilitation) is a greater professional status for probation, perhaps overseen by a chartered institute of probation.” The Probation Chiefs Association, the Probation Association, key unions and the Ministry of Justice are now consulting with academics and other potential partners to design this.
The views are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence.