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CEP:Effective practice: the past, present and future of probation research

During the Third World Congress in Tokyo, Peter Raynor, Professor at Swansea University, held a presentation about the history, present and future of effective practice.

An article by Peter Raynor.

From early optimism to ‘nothing works’

Since researchers first began looking seriously at probation and its effects, the pendulum has swung between optimism and pessimism. This article aims totrack and explain these movements, and to argue that we now know enough to enter a new period of realism, in which the question is not so much whether probation can be effective (we know it can), but how, with what support and in what policy contexts that effectiveness can be made real.

The origins of probation itself go back to the nineteenth century, but probation as we know it, as a public service provided within the criminal justice system, is largely a product of the twentieth century, and research on the impact of probation began in the 1950s. At that time, criminologists made largely positive statements: Manuel Lopez-Rey, the head of the United Nations Social Defence Section, wrote ‘If I were asked which, among the modern methods for the treatment of offenders is the most promising, without hesitation I would say: Probation’ (Lopez-Rey 1957). For the criminologist Max Grünhut (1952) the essential elements of probation were ‘conditional suspension of punishment, and personal care and supervision by a court welfare officer’.

During the 1960s probation, like other forms of social work, expanded in Europe, the United States and many other countries, alongside the general increase in state-provided welfare services. Its effectiveness was largely taken for granted, and this was still more or less the situation when I joined the Probation Service in England in 1970. However, within a very few years this era of optimism came to an end: serious research on both sides of the Atlantic began to raise questions about whether probation was doing any good at all. The major American review reported (and somewhat exaggerated) by Robert Martinson in 1974 gave us ‘very little reason to hope that we have in fact found a sure way of reducing recidivism through rehabilitation’, and a series of studies in the UK contributed to similarly pessimistic conclusions. For example, the UK Government’s ‘IMPACT’ study published in 1976 showed that probationers receiving intensive services on smaller caseloads did no better (actually slightly, but not significantly worse) than those supervised on normal caseloads. These and similar studies came to be summed up as ‘nothing works’, which remained the widespread orthodox view until the 1990s. It was, of course, popular with some politicians who were looking for reasons to reduce public expenditure. Using social science to evaluate probation At this point we need to think about social science and evaluation methods. Social-scientific service evaluation depends largely on three processes, which can be described as understanding, measurement and comparison. In our field, we need to understand what people are doing and how they are trying to do it; we need to measure effects, and crucially we need to compare those effects with what happens to other similar people receiving different services or inputs, or none. Early studies of probation, such as that by Leon Radzinowicz in 1958, reached optimistic conclusions by measuring outcomes but making no relevant comparisons with the results of other sentences. If such comparisons were included probation did not do so well, and first offenders actually reoffended more on probation than if they were fined. The ‘nothing works’ researchers knew about the need for measurement and relevant comparisons, but did not adequately understand or describe the work actually done by probation officers. They left it as what Jim Bonta in Canada has called the ‘black box’ of supervision. Measuring outputs without understanding inputs leaves open the possibility that there is a mixture of good and bad practice, which means that any good effects from the good practice are likely to be cancelled out by the bad practice, so that researchers will find no overall positive impact – and this is what they found. Detailed study of what practitioners were actually doing, and of the results of different practices, did not become generally available in criminal justice until the 1990s and they led in due course to a new era of optimism and to attempts in many countries to implement ‘what works’.


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