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In the last few years, the idea that “nothing works” has been systematically confronted, and more and more knowledge is accumulating to demonstrate that a lot could be done to reduce reoffending and improve public safety. An extensive body of literature now emphasizes what is known in terms of evidence-based practice and interventions based on different theoretical perspectives (risk/needs/responsivity, desistance, good lives model). Increasingly, research uncovers other aspects that influence the effectiveness of interventions, like treatment readiness and motivation for change, organizational structures, neighborhood characteristics, and so on. From time to time, a focus on the skills and characteristics of probation and parole staff appears in the literature and then disappears again. At the origins of probation, staff skills seemed to be quite crucial. Later they became important but not essential, and then they almost disappeared in the years of “nothing works.” As a new body of evidence on “What Works” and desistance is accumulating, staff attributes make their way back into the mainstream of effective practice. Indeed, empirical research conducted mainly after the 1990s seems to support the idea that not only program content or offender attributes but also the characteristics and style of the personnel in charge of the implementation of probation interventions matter for effective practice. With this optimistic view a new line of research has developed in recent years on “who works” in probation service. However, some aspects remain unexplored, including the factors that explain differences between professionals in terms of skills and characteristics and how particular skills are associated with different supervision results.
In this research paper the concept of staff skill is understood as a behavior that could be learnt and is aimed at supporting the probation officer in doing his/her job. In contrast, others consider staff characteristics to be inner traits of the probation officer that are relevant to his/her job (e.g., morality, reliability). Obviously between these two categories, there is not a clear-cut but a fluid line that can be crossed sometimes, depending on the circumstances. One typical example is empathy. Some authors consider empathy as inherited or a moral quality, while others emphasize the idea that empathy could be taught and therefore could be considered as a professional skill (Trotter 2006).
Men Of God
A number of scholars (Jarvis 1972; Vanstone 2004) suggest that the origin of probation was in the work of the Church of England Temperance Society (in England and Wales) and the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society (Boston, United States). The activity of early probation officers was almost exclusively missionary and was based on “Christian charity and humanitarian concern” (Jarvis 1972, p. 1). The main duty of the probation officer was to “save the souls” of the “drunkards” (Jarvis 1972, p. 2, citing the letter of Frederick Rainer from 1876). To achieve this goal, missionaries were expected to visit prisons and police courts; speak at temperance meetings; deal with “individual drunkards” (Jarvis 1972, p. 4); and provide practical help in terms of accommodation, employment, and emigration. Being mostly sustained by their religious beliefs, the missionaries had to have faith in every single individual and treat them all as holders of the “divine spark.” For instance, to become a missionary at the London Police Court Mission, one was expected to be a “man of God, a man with vocation, a man of character, a man with experience and tact and full of the milk of human kindness” (Jarvis 1972, p. 8).
Thus, the early probation officer was expected to be “a man of God” and possess the right vocation and personality animated by the desire to make good. Going back to the distinction between skills and characteristics, note that a “suitable” probation officer was defined in the literature by his moral characteristics and not by his skills. What was primarily important was what the probation officer should be like and not what exactly he or she should do in offender interactions. In most of the historical literature, the probation officer was presented in a descriptive manner with no reference to effectiveness. The ideal probation officer’s characteristics were taken for granted and described as if they emanated logically from the missionary of humanistic philosophy.
The Caring Officer
After the first Probation Acts were passed in United States and England and Wales (in 1878 and 1907 respectively), the courts were asked to consider the offender’s age, offence, and character before making a sentencing decision. Punishment had to fit not only the offence but also the personality of the offender. In the process of determining “true responsibility” (Saleilles 1911), probation officers were asked to contribute in separating those offenders who deserved to be saved from those considered incorrigible. This new approach of punishment claimed indirectly a certain level of specialism. Not everybody could provide the court with a reliable and robust assessment. In this context some officials and scholars started to think about probation as a profession.
Trought (1927), for example, stated that probation as a profession “involves training and a technique based on scientific principles. It requires not only personality – the principal asset – but training on and off the job” (p. 193). However, probation officers continued even after the First World War to consider in their daily practice evangelical principles and the spirit of God as well as factors such as education, employment, social structures, and so on (Vanstone 2004). The tension between science and religion was mentioned several times in the literature (see for instance Le Mesurier 1935). Dr. Selbie (cited by Trought 1927) even went so far to define the probation officer as “the great teacher and the good shepherd” (p. 194). This tension is very well emphasized in the following: “knowledge without love is almost as useless as love without knowledge.. .” (p. 193). Therefore both dimensions – science and religion – were required to make a good probation officer. How these two factors worked together was an important source of ambiguity.
As defined in the Probation of Offender Act 1907, Section 4(d), the duty of the probation officer is “to advise, assist, and befriend [the client], and, when necessary, to endeavor to find him suitable employment.” In order to implement these duties, a probation officer had to acquire or possess certain types of characteristics and knowledge:
Apart from any question of personal qualities, such as tact, patience or common sense, it is evident that to deal effectively with all these different applications definite knowledge of two kinds is required: The officer must possess a sound knowledge of the law governing the grounds on which various summonses may be granted by the court .. . And it will be equally vital for him to have a practical working acquaintance with the charitable organizations .. . (Le Mesurier 1935, p. 58).
According to the same author, while Probation Committees were still interested in considering personality and vocational call in the hiring of probation officers, their training was key. This observation is even more obvious in the job requirements in England and Wales at the time: (a) Education: Preferably graduation from college or its equivalent, or from a school of social work
(b) Experience: At least one year in casework under supervision
(c) Good personality and character: tact, resourcefulness, and sympathy (Probation and Supervision, Juvenile Courts at Work, cited in Trought 1927)
In the process of professionalization, the link between probation and social work played an important role. Not only were significant parts of the probation responsibilities common with social work, but also the technicality borrowed by probation service from social work enhanced the professional status of probation. Even the casework approach comes from the social work tool kit, including the idea that the process should follow the so-called ASPIRE framework (assessment, planning, intervention, review, and evaluation). At the same time, religious values such as “love,” “charity,” and so on were still present in the probation discourse but apparently not on the front page of job descriptions.
The link between probation and social work was further strengthened after the Second World War. For many years in England and Wales, most probation officers were educated in social work. In the context of significant progress in the social sciences, new methods of working with offenders were developed. One of these new methods was social casework, which was defined as “the creation and the utilization, for the benefit of an individual with personal problems, of a relationship between that person and a trained social worker” (Home Office 1962, p. 24). The same idea was emphasized by Perlman (1957) “.. .[the] casework process, like every other process intended to stimulate growth, must use relationship as its basic means” (p. 64).
Therefore, the principal medium of intervention was the relationship between the specialist and the client. The importance of this relationship was even greater in the context of working with “unwilling clients”:
If the relationship becomes one which [the client] values and which is of help to him, he is likely to be willing to use it. If it provides an experience which is unpleasant, he will be less willing to try to use it. (Monger 1964, p. 45)
Thus, in the mid-twentieth century it was believed that a significant part of the skills and characteristics that the probation officer should possess related to the imperative of creating a positive relationship. King (1958), for instance, stressed the capacity for “a warm and sincere concern” (p. 73). Describing the abilities of a caseworker, Heywood (1964) mentions that he or she needs to have the ability to be a “person of warmth and likeability” (p. 45) and a “quality of imaginative sympathy, allied to temperament” (p. 45). There are also multiple nuances that influence the relationship: the caseworker’s “demeanour, attitude to life, optimism, pessimism, courtesy, thoughtfulness, warmth, coolness, perhaps the things revealed by his moral qualities” (pp. 45, 46). Furthermore, Heywood considers that the basis of casework consists of two elements: the application to supervision of casework principles of acceptance, self-determination, client participation, and confidentiality, and “the ability and mastery of his subject which the worker brings and which give hope to the client so that he goes forward confidently with the worker to try to do something about his problem” (p. 46).
Increasingly during the postwar period, probation officers were required to develop certain skills in order to diagnose and treat offenders as well as develop positive relationships with them. As McWilliams states:
The gradual movement from the religious, missionary ideal to the scientific, diagnostic ideal, depending, in part, on notions of professionalism, required that probation work should be something for which people were trained to enter rather than called to follow (quoted in May 1991, p. 12)
It appears that after the Second World War, probation officers were expected to acquire and develop technical skills specific to a scientific approach. At the same time their personal characteristics, although present, ceased to represent an important aspect of the recruitment and selection process. For instance, qualities like reasonableness, maturity, openness, warmth, and so on, although mentioned, were not high up in the requirements list. On the contrary, candidates were expected to attend different classes or to demonstrate some skills in order to be successful.
The aim of the probation officer was quite clear: to “heal” the offender through casework and other rehabilitative interventions. The offender was perceived as ill or not fully aware of their inner thoughts and therefore in need of treatment. It comes as no surprise that this phase of probation development is also known as the “medical stage.” A large number of concepts and procedures employed by probation come from the medical world via the social work profession.
In the early 1970s, at the request of the US Government, Martinson and colleagues evaluated a significant number of parole interventions and concluded that “with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism” (1974, p. 25). The arguable conclusion was therefore that “nothing works,” which meant, among other consequences, the abandonment of the rehabilitation ideal in public discourse. If rehabilitation does not work, what is left for the probation service to aim for?
As an answer to this question, Bottoms and McWilliams proposed the “non-treatment paradigm” (1979). This model prescribed a new role for the probation service, taking into account the structural characteristics of the service in England and Wales (e.g., proximity to prisons, a relatively large geographical coverage) and also the research on effectiveness. According to this paradigm, the probation service is left with four “primary aims”: “(1) the provision of appropriate help for offenders, (2) the statutory supervision of offenders, (3) diverting appropriate offenders from custodial sentences and (4) the reduction of crime” (p. 168). Unlike the previous model of practice, the notion of “help” is defined by the client and not by the so-called expert, the caseworker:
The caseworker does not begin with an assumption of client-malfunctioning; rather he offers his unconditional help with client-defined tasks, this offer having certain definite and defined boundaries (Bottoms and McWilliams 1979, p. 172).
Under this new paradigm the probation officer was expected to deliver help in client-defined terms. Based on a number of parolee studies, “help” was mainly understood as practical support aimed at assisting the parolees to overcome the obstacles of reintegration.
The “non-treatment paradigm” transformed the role, and therefore the profile, of the probation officer from treatment provider to a help provider, with the main role played not by an expert (as in the previous “medical model”) but by the client himself. Furthermore, the probation officer was expected to select and supervise those offenders that could be diverted from custody. As Smith (2005) puts it, “The purposes of the service were thus re-written to stress its value as a vehicle for reducing, or at least controlling, the prison population” (p. 626).
The probation officer was expected to practice a new form of casework that maximized the areas of choice for the offender within the limits of the probation order. “Within-officer” skills such as collaborative assessment, task setting, and so on were still important, but the probation officer’s personal characteristics were rarely mentioned. From the literature it seems that the shift towards a more “law enforcement”-oriented practice did not call for any special staff characteristics – at least, not the ones typical for social workers. The “nothing works” era was characterized not just by client-centered help but also a focus on crime control and surveillance. Although the control element existed previously to a limited extent embedded in the concept of supervision, during this era it became as important as the care dimension, if not more important.
The New Rehabilitator
At the beginning of the 1990s, Raynor (1988) and others in England and Wales and Ross et al. (1988) in Canada started to question Martinson’s conclusions. For example, Ross and his colleagues (1988) reviewed 40 years of experimental work with offenders and noticed that persistent offenders “suffer” from a range of thinking skills deficiencies (e.g., lack of awareness of consequences, lack of rigorous planning skills, insufficient negotiation skills). On this basis they designed the Reasoning and Rehabilitation program, which aimed to reduce crime by dealing with these deficits. Most of these initial studies mentioned different qualities that an effective probation officer should have, including the ability to motivate, model reasoning and problem solving, and identify cognitive distortions; creativity; and so on (Ross and Fabiano 1985). However, the role of staff skills in effective programming was unfairly overlooked at the policy level (Raynor et al. 2010).
Several meta-analyses (e.g., Andrews and Bonta 1998; Dowden and Andrews 1999) have suggested that interventions based on the principles of risk, need, and general responsivity (RNR) are associated with important reductions in reoffending. In short, the principle of risk suggests that the intensity of a program or intervention should match the level of offender risk. The need principle states that an effective intervention should target the offender’s criminogenic needs (e.g., substance misuse, peer associations, antisocial attitudes). The responsivity principle suggests that the style and mode of interventions should match the learning style of the participating offenders. Cognitive– behavioral and social learning strategies proved to be most effective in reducing reoffending. Other meta-analysis indicated that the integrated application of these three principles could reduce reoffending by 26–30 % (Dowden and Andrews 2004). However, most of these observations focus more on the program content and less on the way they are implemented by staff. At the beginning of the What Works movement, staff skills and characteristics were neglected to a certain extent. “[P]rogramme fetishism” (Smith 2005) replaced the focus on the attributes that a good probation officer should have.
Trotter (1996) was probably one of the first modern researchers to put staff skills back on the agenda. In his experimental study of probation services undertaken in Victoria, Australia, he concluded that prosocial modeling and reinforcement by probation officers were significantly correlated with a lower reoffending and imprisonment rate; the use of problem solving and role clarification was related to reduced reoffending; and empathy together with prosocial modeling was associated with reduced reoffending. In their meta-analysis, Dowden and Andrews (2004) completed the picture of the core correctional practices (CCP) essential in reducing reoffending. In their analysis they found that five particular skills and characteristics were associated with significant reduction of reoffending: effective use of authority, anticriminal modeling and reinforcement, problem solving, use of community resources, and quality of interpersonal relationship between staff and client.
Bonta and colleagues (2010) demonstrated that probation officers trained in using risk–need– responsivity principles are more effective than others. In that study, probation officers who were trained within the Strategic Training Initiative in Community Supervision (STICS) increased adherence to the need principle and also had a more clearly defined structure of the intervention (teaching focus), had better relationship skills, and employed more cognitive techniques than the probation officers that did not attend the training. These techniques were also correlated with reoffending rates after 2 years and the conclusion was very optimistic: the difference in reconviction rate between the control group and the treatment group was 15 % (25.3 % for the treatment group and 40.5 % for the control group).
Most of these conclusions were confirmed in the Jersey study by Raynor and colleagues (2010). This research was based on analyzing 95 videotapes involving 14 probation officers with a total of 384 offenders under supervision. The skills employed by the probation staff during supervision were evaluated using a checklist with nine dimensions: setup, nonverbal communication, verbal communication, use of authority, motivational interviewing, prosocial modeling, problem solving, cognitive restructuring, and the overall interview structure. Raynor and colleagues (2010) concluded that there are significant differences between individual probation officers in terms of “structuring” skills intended to bring about change (e.g., problem solving, prosocial modeling, cognitive restructuring), which might influence offenders’ progress. They also suggest that offenders supervised by probation officers who scored above the average on the skills scale had significant improvements in their LSI-R scores. Another important preliminary finding is that “use of authority” and “problem solving” are also strongly associated with improvements in LSI-R score (Raynor, personal communication). As Raynor suggests, all these preliminary findings need to be investigated in larger studies.
Another group of researchers (see McNeill 2006 for a review of the literature) reformulated the question from what makes offenders reoffend (specific to the risk/needs/responsivity paradigm) into what makes ex-offenders desist from offending? This shift of interrogation generated a whole new body of research contributing to the desistance paradigm (McNeill 2006). From a desistance perspective, change is understood as a process that a probation officer needs to promote and support. Desistance is placed at the intersection between structure, agency, and reflexivity, emphasizing at the same time the importance of human and the social capital and also the motivation and the subjective identity of the offender.
One of the great merits of this new theoretical framework is that it stresses even more the importance of staff skills and characteristics in order to create a “legitimate and respectful relationship” (McNeill 2006, p. 55) and provide help to offenders in a more collaborative approach. This observation is in line with Farrall’s (2002) conclusions based on the experience of a group of 199 probationers. After interviewing the probationers in three waves, Farrall (2002) concluded that desistance could be attributed to probation interventions in only a few cases where a probation officer helped with finding a job or reconciling an offender with his family. Apart from those isolated cases, desistance took place away from the probation service, in the probationer’s personal and social context where different obstacles to desistance were addressed. The importance of overcoming obstacles to achieving desistance was stated again in (Farrall 2002), casting the role of the probation officer as supporting desistance by helping individuals to overcome barriers within their own personal and social context. Instead of “managing” the offender, an effective probation officer should practice a more collaborative approach in the “co-designing [of] interventions” (McNeill 2006, p. 57).
The importance of the mutual relationship between probation officer and offender was further explained in Rex’s (1999) study of 21 probation officers and 60 probationers. The study was based on semi-structured interviews that were made in 1994. From the interviews, Rex (1999) concludes that probationers who attributed change to the probation experience benefited from an active and participatory supervisory experience. In terms of professional skills that probationers would like to see in the probation officer, Rex (1999) noted that the probation officer needs to be experienced, knowledgeable, reasonable, and also to display “expert qualities” (p. 371) that would encourage probationers to disclose sensitive information and feel confident that they are listened to and taken seriously. The same study stated that in order for probationers to feel committed and positively engaged in the supervisory relationship, the probation officer needs to demonstrate empathy and have the capacity to listen and show interest and understanding, enabling probationers to talk. Although it is not known whether or not these probationers were “desisters” and there is no demonstrated causal relationship between staff skills variables and desistance, the contribution of this study is significant for understanding the “user’s perspective” of an effective supervision experience.
A new body of research focuses on the question of how to assist offenders to become constructive members of society (Ward and Maruna 2007). Together with others, Tony Ward developed a new theoretical paradigm of rehabilitation – The Good Lives Model (GLM) – that looks at the offender as a potentially useful member of the family, community, and society rather than a “risk carrier.” Within this positive psychology framework, based on the human dignity principle, it is crucial to treat the offender with respect in their endeavor towards a better life.
The concept of “good lives” has a few interrelated features. The most important assumption is that humans are intrinsically seeking to live a fulfilling life. In order to do that, they look for basic goods that are worthwhile in themselves, such as knowledge, health, intimate relationships, and excellence in play and work. These are defined as primary goods and are considered objective and based on human nature. The secondary goods are instrumental to securing these goods (means). Most often crime is described as an illegitimate and inefficient way to secure the primary goods. Therefore, the treatment plan should incorporate the primary goods relevant to the person and provide conditions to legally secure them. It seems that using GLM enhances treatment engagement, promotes positive working alliances, and contributes to long-term desistance (Purvis et al. 2011).
As demonstrated above, the role of staff skills and characteristics in probation services has had a sinuous career. Staff characteristics used to be very important in the early days of probation but faded away as professionalization and crime control paradigms advanced. As effectiveness studies became more prevalent, staff skills were initially neglected but have increased in importance over time. Within the new theoretical frameworks, thefocus on staff attributes finds its way back to the forefront, especially as they relate to developing effective or positive relationships with offenders. Research is replete with evidence that some skills are better than others in reducing reoffending or desistance. The danger is now that the practice may take on board only those skills and attributes that are evidence-based (demonstrated by research that they are effective). By doing that, probation practice would suffer from being too restrictive and not allowing innovation and creativity. Probably a balance between evidence-based and practice-informed approaches would promote a more nuanced practice that would have as a core element the so-called human touch (see Partridge 2004). Although research has advanced a lot in studying probation skills and characteristics, more should be done in order to validate these findings in real life situations. Sometimes the “technology transfer” (Bourgon et al. 2010) into the real world is quite problematic and results do not always confirm what was discovered in experiments. Moreover, more research should be invested into producing explanatory models of how different characteristics and skills develop in probation officers. As most of the changes have an important subjective dimension, qualitative methodologies should be employed more and more. Probably, ethnographic methods would be more appropriate to capture the individuality and also the psychological features of the change process. Realistic designs described by Pawson and Tilley (1997) represent an approach that rejects the mechanical feature of the experiment and focuses the analysis on the person(s) in a given concrete situation. Thus, researchers can obtain a richer, a more sensitive, and complex picture of the social and psychological realities.
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