Friday, 16 May 2014

Is jailing drug addicts really the way to strengthen community sentences?

I remember many years ago hearing ex prisoner turned probation officer Bob Turney explain the difference in the response to missed probation appointments in the UK and US. In the States, he said, a probation officer would go armed to their errant client’s home and arrest him. In England and Wales, he’d send him a letter. The caricature summed up how probation here was about keeping people out of prisons while in the US it was about getting people into them. 

While dealing with breach has become a lot tougher since then, the British Government is being urged to go further down the American road. Today’s Centre for Social Justice Report is the latest to favour a more robust approach to those who fail to comply with community sentences. Threatening Americans on probation with immediate short spells in prison has apparently reduced the numbers not only of those who miss appointments but also who fail drug tests and who re-offend. The mantra of swift and certain punishment is becoming a new orthodoxy in probation, promising to make community sentences both more effective and more credible. As our friends across the pond might say, “What’s not to like?”

Three things actually. First, those with long memories will recall how the fruits of North American research have been touted as the saviour of probation once before. The overblown claims made by proponents of accredited programmes in the early 1990’s took community based supervision down a psychology dominated  road that many have come to regret.  At the very least some British pilots are needed to see whether the admittedly impressive results reported in Hawaii are replicated here and whether it is in fact the deterrent threat of prison which makes the key difference.  

Second in the UK putting people into prison for short periods is generally agreed to be a problem not a solution. This is partly for practical reasons. Intermittent custody was quietly abandoned in 2006 in part because courts were reluctant to use it and in part because the prison service could not manage it. Today’s report seems to envisage failing probationers being held in police cells for several days at a time, a role for which many police stations are simply not equipped.
Finally the automatic unleashing of custodial sanctions on people who fail to comply offends both the values and evidence base for probation. It’s true that the European Probation Rules say that where offenders fail to comply with conditions, probation staff should respond actively and promptly. But they go on that “the response shall take full account of the circumstances of the failure to comply”. Swift and certain imprisonment comes close to violating this requirement as well as the rule that in gaining the offenders’ co-operation, probation staff should not rely solely on the prospect of sanctions for non-compliance.

Moreover swift and certain punishment seems to fly in the face of the growing acceptance that giving up drugs and going straight involve a process of desistance. In encouraging desistance, using authority is a crucial part of a probation officer’s role; but effective supervision demands very much more than the policing function envisaged in the simplistic and punitive approach put forward by CSJ.

1 comment:

  1. As a professional in the US federal system, I would say that this article starts off with an anecdote, while mildly humorous, is quite false. Clearly, the person that made the initial statement does not know really what goes on in the United States. Regardless, no where in our policy of graduated sanctions was there a any type of sanction for us to go armed to arrest an offender who had missed an office contact. First, in the US federal system, our supervision policy was to see and contact offenders where they lived and worked to get a better evaluation of how they were truly doing.

    Second, were they required to report to the office, it would be for a specific reason. I would suppose from my reading of this article that what my counterparts across the ocean do is hole up in their offices and wait for offenders and defendants to report. Sounds like a very reactive model to me. Granted, I believe in a crime control model and the policies put forth by James Q. Wilson. I do believe the medical model was, is, and will continue to be a failure in a large amount of the cases.

    Now, on another note, I would argree in some part with the author's point. Using data collected on results in the United States and expecting the same results with a different population as significant degrees of error. For instance, I would be very surprised if the results that were received in Hawaii could be replicated in Kentucky, Alabama, or Ohio. Different populations will give different results.

    In the early part of the 2000s, the Federal Bureau of Prisons found that the difference in recidivism between those inmates that completed substance abuse treatment and those that did not was slightly less than 10 percent. While those that completed vocational education and learned valuable job skills were 30 percent less likely to recidivate. Basically, it would appear that when more people have "skin in the game" versus those that don't, you have a greater chance at offenders being successful and achieving that loft goal of promoting and maintaining law abiding behavior.