Doing parole differently | HMA

Doing parole differently

When you are involved in a field of practice for as long as I have (nearly 30 years – I know I am showing my age), you have the advantage of seeing things come and go. New ideas are tried. Some work. Some don’t. What always sits behind new ideas is trying to get things more right than wrong, which leads me to comment upon a project we are currently involved with. The New Zealand Department of Corrections is involved in one of the most significant practice shifts for a decade (Integrated Offender Management was the last major shift back in 1999/2000).

First a short history lesson. The development of probation services across the Western world has an interesting history. This debate has been located within a changing political debate on what should be done with people who breach the norms of society (in other words offend).

While the early period of probation work was signified by addressing moral degeneration and dangerousness through temperance and faith, there was a belief in the efficacy of the probation officers as change agents. This continued through until the 1970s where this position changed. Many of us will remember the managerial type push within agencies during this period. Coupled with this we saw a trend developing within society of risk aversion with actuarial approaches taking centre stage. Criminal justice responses to crime saw a significant increase in incarceration and less trusting of community-based justice. Probation practice found itself caught in the middle of expectations from society while endeavouring to maintain a casework approach which has historically been at the heart of the social work tradition within probation work. Probation practice changed to a focus upon managing risk and public protection and scepticism about efficacy.

Probation work has always been situated within the political debates of the time about the causes and responses to crime. Probation practice is always balancing competing perspectives: individual explanations versus social constructions, help (care) versus control, and intervention versus practical assistance. We could make the observation that towards the end of the 20th century probation practice became more prescribed and rule bound with casework taking a back seat.

How then can an organisation that has gone from a probation officer staff of 400 to around 1600 staff in a relatively short period of time, support growth while maintaining a high quality of practice? By high quality practice I refer to the ideas of: bringing together all that is known about effective intervention; managing changing (acute) risk; reducing the influence of factors that set the conditions for offending in the first place (AOD, relationship stress, impulsivity, violence propensity, etc); and maintaining the bottom line in regards to best practice.

A fundamental flaw in systems that become overly rule governed (I am not saying we don’t need rules) is that they can easily slip into managing the sentence, regardless of the risk that person poses to others. Shifting the basis of practice from managing sentences to managing offenders on sentence is a significant paradigm shift. It allows for a more responsive approach to effectively manage the three key aspects of effective practice: compliance, reducing the risk of harm to others, and reducing the propensity to re-offend through a range of interventions.

We are pleased to be able to assist Community Probation Service around this practice shift and have had a number of our team on the road for the past month assisting with the first roll-out around managing parole. The next aspect will be working with those managing home detention sentences.

For more information around this project visit:

Published on Wednesday, April 7th, 2010, under What Ken thinks

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