Forensic psychologist Dr Dominic Pearson reports on the evaluation of a “Citizenship programme” that has reduced reoffending in the North East and considers the practical lessons for those wishing to replicate its success.
Unlike at any other time, probation services in the UK are under pressure to be cost-effective.
Community Rehabilitation Companies have been set up to work with lower risk offenders under ‘payment by results’ contracts. The pressure is on, therefore, to produce results i.e., to reduce reoffending.
This article traces the development and independent evaluations of a supervision programme that was designed to achieve this. As a forensic psychologist with a probation background I have always been keen that probation work is informed by research on effective practice, and here I aim to discuss the issues for those wishing to take forward evidence-based probation supervision.
What comes through is the importance of commitment and leadership at all organisational levels, including at Board level and particularly at Chief Executive level.
Internationally there has been limited research on what comprises probation supervision: it has generally been left to evolve into a combination of approaches, lacking in structure or any coherent theoretical rationale, thus limiting the possibility of research and development.
The UK is a case in point, with calls for probation supervision to be made more purposeful for offenders than merely ‘reporting to the probation office’.
It is regrettable, given what is known about effective practice, that probation supervision should be left in the background to other programming such as offending behaviour group-work. Group-work interventions are relatively short-lived, yet costly, and not suitable for all offenders.
The initiative here described therefore sought to design and evaluate a one-to-one supervision programme that was consistent with effective practice yet was suitable for all offenders subject to probation supervision. Since the programme aimed to reduce reoffending and promote community re-integration it was named ‘Citizenship’
To develop Citizenship a working group was formed comprising practitioners and managers at each grade of the then National Probation Service in County Durham. Importantly the group was under the guidance of a respected forensic psychologist, Clive Hollin, as this ensured that the programme drew upon the available international evidence regarding best practice in reducing reoffending.
Key elements of this were that the intensity of the programme should correspond to risk assessed by a validated measure (OASys); that the content should explicitly focus on reducing identified criminogenic needs; and that it should provide opportunities to practice new ways of thinking and behaving in a motivational environment in which the offender is likely to be responsive. It was also necessary that the programme be subject to monitoring and evaluation, to assure programme integrity. These are the core Risk, Need, Responsivity (R-N-R) and Programme Integrity principles of effective programmes.
The concept of Citizenship also incorporated access to community-based services to promote
opportunities for longer-term change and re-integration.
Programme modules were therefore developed that corresponded with the local area’s priority needs from its OASys data. This exercise highlighted the prevalence of criminogenic needs in Thinking & Behaviour and in Education & Employability, which is consistent with the criminological literature suggesting that cognitive skills deficits often underpin poor self-regulation and the development of anti-social attitudes.
Consequently a core module was developed named Induction that aimed to be educational and motivational but took a problem-solving approach to addressing offending behaviour.2 In addition, external agency links were formed for need areas that were outside probation expertise, such as accommodation and financial management.
For higher risk offenders requiring greater levels of intervention, a menu of additional modules was developed. This flexible modular structure is shown in Figure 1 (above).
Offender progress including their ongoing referral to relevant agencies could be monitored case-by-case in the final review module called Next Steps, and across the caseload.
Moreover, the integration of monitoring data enabled organisational inspection of targeting, attendance, and completion.
After the programme had been implemented an internal pilot study was conducted on the one-year reconvictions of the first 100 cases supervised by a core set of trained staff, compared with a matched group of 100 cases supervised by the same staff but terminating before Citizenship implementation.
This showed that nearly one-half had completed the required modules in their individual plans, and nearly three-quarters had been referred to external support agencies.
One-year reconvictions were lower in the Citizenship group than in the prior practice group, with offenders being nearly twice as likely to desist under Citizenship. The promising results made the case for a wider evaluation.
Due to the cultivation of academic-practice links between Durham probation and the University of York, a full independent evaluation then followed.
This compared reconvictions of a total cohort of 3,819 Citizenship cases over two years against those of a total cohort of 2,110 prior practice cases from the previous year.
Results were clear-cut and showed that proportionally fewer offenders had re-offended, both after one- and after two-years, compared to prior practice.
Using a time-to-offence analysis, controlling for age, risk scores, and opportunity to offend, the proportion reconvicted was reduced by 30% under Citizenship. This staggering effect was achieved with medium- and lower risk offenders because when levels of risk were examined it showed that high-risk offenders did not show any reduction.
This was not altogether surprising: the greater emphasis on control than on rehabilitation and social inclusion may have compromised effectiveness with this sub-group.
The first evaluation was very encouraging but it was limited by the groups being run in different times.
Since the sentencing or policing environment may be different, the best way to control for this is to use a randomised trial in which at any one time all offenders have equal chances of being in either Citizenship or practice-as-usual.
There was an opportunity to do this ‘gold standard’ evaluation in a neighbouring probation area that was interested in the programme.
The senior management team there was open to it because it could be incorporated with a staggered implementation plan, which was appealing logistically.3
We therefore conducted a second independent evaluation. This compared 1,091 offenders on supervision randomly allocated to Citizenship or practice-as-usual depending on the office to which they reported during a one year period.
Only medium- and high-risk cases were included; prioritisation consistent with the risk principle of effective practice where there are insufficient resources to deliver service-wide.
Given the harder-to-reach group, we expected a lesser effect of Citizenship to be achieved compared to the previous evaluation.
Results showed that there was an overall non-significant 20% reduction in reconvictions under Citizenship compared to practice-as-usual. However, this was achieved despite only a minority of the Citizenship cases receiving the programme (38%).
Furthermore, the risk analysis showed that this overall reduction masked a difference by OGRS risk profile: high-risk offenders showed a 34% decrease in reconviction risk, while the larger group of medium-risk cases showed no real change.
This was surprising until we saw that more of the higher risk cases were in the 38% exposed to Citizenship sessions. Thus officers appeared to be delivering Citizenship sessions more consistently with offenders at high-risk of re-offending than with medium-risk offenders, although take-up of the programme overall was low.