The Norweigan Way: Jo Inge Svendsen gives his thoughts on the effectiveness of community orders in Norway and the UK and reflects on discussions he has had with colleagues in both countries.
As someone who has recently changed jobs from the probation service in the United Kingdom to the probation service in Norway, I have made some initial observations about the differences in the way we are working in the two countries. This article is mainly based on my observations and discussions with colleagues as well as my views about what I consider to be important aspects of effective work with offenders.
I worked in the United Kingdom as a Probation Officer and as a Manager within the Probation Service for more than 17 years and I have myself experienced the effectiveness of community sentences, in particular the community order. I arrived in the UK in 1997, the ‘era’ of new labour and a labour government, which presided over a shift within criminal justice and probation from “nothing works!” to “what works”.
These were optimistic times and I remember colleagues enthusing to me about how they felt that, at last, there was a positive view of their work, in contrast to their previous experience of central government’s damaging and negative attitude towards community sentencing and probation over a period of many years.
Much has happened in the probation world since then – a lot of resources were transferred to the probation service during the late 1990’s and part of the 2000’s, and we saw the emergence and fast growth of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). This could have been seen as an altogether positive development but, with hindsight, it is easy to see that the resources allocated to the probation service during this period were somewhat disproportionate to the results achieved.
Changes were in my view inevitable and, with a later change in government, came a change in attitude and priorities, which moved to the opposite extreme. This resulted in plans for and realisation of privatisation of parts of the service with the mantras “rehabilitation revolution” and “payment by results”. I would argue that these simplified ideas and plans for reorganisation did not fully consider the complexity of our work and the difficulty in developing accurate measures of effectiveness and reduction in reoffending. What this failed to consider, in my view, were the views of the offenders and a consideration of the importance of the effective relationship between the supervising officer and the offender in reducing reoffending.
The results of this process and the substantial changes resulting from it are now well-known in the UK. However, in the midst of all this, when central government were looking at ways of cutting costs and making probation work more effective, NOMS produced results from research showing what we already knew – that one of the most successful factors in reducing reoffending rates is an effective relationship between the offender and the supervising officer, built on respect and trust.
To achieve this, the probation service must have highly qualified, experienced and committed staff members who are able to and who have time to engage with offenders during the period of community sentences.
The jury is still out on when it comes to how well the changes experienced during the last couple of years have supported the opportunities for probation officers to spend sufficient time with offenders to develop such effective relationship – I have my own views and thoughts about this and I am not very optimistic or hopeful. Early feedback from colleagues in the UK appears to be confirming my reservations.
So, how have the Norwegians addressed this issue and how do the Norwegian probation officers work with their offenders subject to community orders? Furthermore, and essentially in my view, what is seen as positive and effective in this work by those we are working with, the offenders themselves? In 2014, the Directorate of Norwegian Correctional Services published a report by Erlend Sand Bruer, “Community sentences in Norway – What Works in Norway”?
Before going into this in more detail, it is helpful for the reader to have some basic understanding of the Norwegian community order. What does it imply being subject to a community order in Norway and what are its requirements?
First of all, community orders are aimed at offenders who have been assessed as low risk of harm and could, where appropriate, be used by the courts as an alternative to up to a 12-month custodial sentence. The main element of the order is restriction of liberty rather than the removal of liberty altogether, as is the case with a prison sentence. The court cannot impose a community order without the offenders’ consent.
The main purpose of the community order is to work with and assist the offender in reducing the risk of reoffending, by addressing the criminogenic needs identified during an initial assessment period.
The length of a community order is between 30 and 420 hours and the court must set a length (in months) for when the hours should be completed (no longer than 12 months). This means that the offender cannot choose to complete the hours over a shorter period than decided by the court, as this is part of the restriction of liberty.
Prior to the start of the order, the probation officer and the offender will put together a plan for progress and completion and agree the various elements of the order, dividing the hours to each of the elements of the order as well as ensuring that they are evenly distributed throughout the period of the order.
The various elements of the community order in Norway are:
- Community service/work (with non-profit voluntary/charitable organisations);
- Individual supervision sessions;
- Restorative justice & mediation (in partnership with the National Mediation Service);
- Treatment (e.g. substance or mental health treatment);
- Any other crime prevention activities or initiatives.
What did Mr Bruer’s research show when it comes to the experience of the offender and how does this illustrate the important issue of the relationship between the offender and the supervision officer?
This a brief outline of the findings:
- Nearly 90% of the offenders experienced the community order as helpful and useful to address their needs linked to offending. At the same time, they also felt that the order helped them to pay back to society. This is in my view a very interesting and telling finding, as it indicates that the offender fully realises that (s)he has committed a crime and done wrong – and that they see the importance and value of restoring this situation. This proves in my view that it is fully possible to combine effective punishment with rehabilitating and crime reducing interventions.
- 98% of the offenders stated that they had been treated with respect and dignity during the community service part of their order. This is another positive and important finding and, combined with the overall positive feedback from the organisations involved with the offenders, it indicates that this part of the order is an important and positive way of providing appropriate work related to experience and -training. Many of the offenders we work with have limited or no work experience. So, it is an important area where we can start addressing the issue, providing the offender with a positive work experience and at the same time with the feeling of being valued and important. The arena also gives the offender a good opportunity to practice and improve social skills.
- Whilst 43% of offenders felt that the completion of the community order was demanding, all of the offenders who took part in the research assessed the various parts of the order as positive. Furthermore, they did not experience the order as a punishment which is in itself positive, as psychological theory and research shows that punishment in itself is not effective in changing offending behaviour.
These are important findings as they clearly indicate what is effective in our work with offenders. First and foremost, this shows what we already know, that community penalties are more effective than custodial sentences in reducing reoffending rates. This is the case for the United Kingdom as well as for Norway, but the overall reconviction rates in Norway are far below those of the United Kingdom. However, we have to take some care in making comparisons between community and prison as, generally, offenders in custody have committed more serious offences and have a more extensive ‘career’ as an offender. Nevertheless, reoffending rates for offenders subject to community sentences in the UK is 34% whilst it is in Norway is below 20% – a significant difference.
What other conclusions may we draw from the results of Mr Bruer’s research?
Offenders need to experience the content of the community order as relevant to their situation, useful and helpful. By achieving this, there is also a better chance of getting the offender to see the link between their behaviour and the crime they have committed. Furthermore, this seems to help offenders to realise that they have ‘done wrong’ and will thereby support engagement in effective work aimed at reducing the risk of further offending. As the results from the research show, this was achieved in the great majority of the cases.
It appears from the results of this research that to treat everyone, also those subject to punishment by the correctional services, with genuine respect and dignity is essential in building an effective working relationship. This was stressed by all the offenders as important in order to enable them to work with the supervising officer and in achieving the goals set in the supervision plan to support the completion of the order. It was achieved in nearly all the cases within the research and it is evidence of the importance of matching the offender with the community service/work placement in order to create a meaningful experience providing the offender with real learning of new skills as well as being acknowledged positively by others.
There appears to be no contradiction between making punishment in the community effective and demanding and at the same time a positive experience for the offenders, providing a platform for potential learning and changes in behaviour. In the end, what we want is a reduction in reoffending and to ensure that offenders become ex-offenders, law abiding citizens and good neighbours.
I have spent most of my working life working with offenders with the overall aim to reduce offending rates and protect the public.
In this work, punishment plays an essential part and I do believe that there is a need for society to take steps to punish those who commit crimes.
However, we also need to remember that these offenders also are a part of the wider society and that not addressing the issue of rehabilitation and reintegration to our communities will create issues and problems for us all.
Punishment therefore needs to be delivered in a dignified way where we treat offenders with humanity and respect, which will prevent resentment and thereby decrease the likelihood of further offending.
I accept that this is a difficult balancing act, as it is important that the punishment is ‘felt’ by the offender.
From my experience so far, supported by the research referred to above, the Norwegian way of working seems to be more effective than the approach in the UK.
Based on the evidence of what is effective in our work with offenders, it is my view that we all have a responsibility to argue and act against the repeated calls from central government and the tabloid press for more severe punishment for offenders. As professionals, it is our responsibility to act on behalf of the wider community to ensure a debate on punishment and rehabilitation, which is sober and based on evidence and experience of what works and at the same time is effective.