Inside Probation and the Possibilities for Penal Reform

When viewed alongside international comparators the use of supervised community sanctions (such as Probation and Community Service Orders) in Ireland is relatively low. The marked increase in the prison population in Ireland in recent years has focused attention once again on the under-utilisation of community sanctions. The recent report of the Strategic Review on Penal Policy echoes calls made in numerous policy documents over the past 30 years, to reduce the use of imprisonment, particularly for short prison sentences, and to strengthen the range of community sanctions available to the courts. Alongside cost imperatives – prison is an expensive sanction – the detrimental effects of prison have been noted. Temporary incapacitation, particularly in the form of short prison sentences does not help to reduce offending in the long-term. In fact a wide range of evidence suggests the opposite effect.

However, lessons from other countries suggest that caution should be exercised in viewing community sanctions as merely a mechanism of penal reductionism. When community sanctions are positioned as ‘alternatives to prison’ prison is viewed as the ‘norm’ to which the ‘alternative’ should be provided. The result is that community sanctions are ‘toughened’ up to give them an associated punitive bite that may make them potentially more attractive to sentencers and to the public. What has been shown in other countries is that the net result of this approach may not yield the reduction that is required, but result in precisely the opposite effect.

Increasingly stringent community penalties see people being brought under the ambit of probation services where they may previously have been given a lesser sentence. An emphasis on enforcement of these ‘tougher sanctions’ results in greater numbers of people being sent to prison for failure to comply with the conditions of their orders. Constituted in these terms, probation functions as a net-widening rather than a penal reduction mechanism. One commentator who has analysed the relationship between probation and prison populations across the United States characterises this as the ‘paradox of probation’.

There are important lessons to be learnt from international research that explores the different use of community sanctions and the inter-relationship between their use and imprisonment. These include sentencing processes and practices and the effectiveness of probation supervision and services. Addressing the issue of sentencing processes and practices – the final report of the Strategic Review of Penal Policy published in July of this year calls for a more structured and transparent approach to sentencing by the Courts. To this effect it reiterates a previous recommendation that where a custodial sentence is imposed the reason for such a sentence should be provided in writing. In response to this particular recommendation, the Minister for Justice has indicated that she will seek to legislate on this matter. While placing an emphasis on the need to reduce the use of imprisonment in Ireland, the Review also recommends an increase in the use of community sanctions. However, it notes that order to achieve this community sentences will need to be ‘effective, credible and command community confidence’.

Research on what may enhance both public and sentencer support for community sanctions shows that attention needs to be paid towards how the purposes of justice can be served by such sentences. This involves both evidence-based arguments- typically premised on rational considerations of what is most effective; but critically a wider consideration about what values and functions of justice community sentences should serve. An example of such evidence-based arguments is the recent data on recidivism published by the Prison Service and the Probation Service which shows lower levels of re-offending for those subject to community sanctions when compared with imprisonment. However, appeals to the wider purposes and values of community justice should also involve an increased focus on how community based sanctions can provide greater opportunities for reparation and change. Some commentators have even argued that such ‘affective’ approaches should appeal to sentiments regarding redemption and a belief in forgiveness.

Central also to leveraging support for community sentences is focusing on the potential for people to change. Given the complex and interrelated nature of issues faced by many who are processed through our criminal justice system – including drug and alcohol addictions, mental health difficulties and homelessness – such processes of change are often likely to be complex and to take time. Importantly, also as the Strategic Review of Penal Policy notes, these challenges cannot be met alone by agencies within the criminal justice system. The role of the health services and local authorities in this area and the need for a greater coherency of approach across various agencies is noted in the Review.

The recent broadcast on RTE of the documentary Inside Probation showed some of the difficulties faced by people on probation and the complexities of work in this area. It also shone a light on a part of the criminal justice system that is often overlooked in public discourse and commentary. The recommendations set out the Strategic Review and the proposed legislative changes to modernise probation, provide real opportunities for re-orienting the criminal justice system away from an over-reliance on the use of imprisonment. The challenge will be to ensure that increasing the use of community sanctions achieves the desired effect of reducing our use of imprisonment and affecting broader positive changes in the lives of those who are its subjects.

Dr Nicola Carr

Lecturer in Criminology, School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast

Management Committee Member of COST Action IS1106 Offender Supervision in Europe 

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