“You can’t always get what you want…” – or can you?: Engaging offenders – an alternative approach to commissioning voluntary sector criminal justice services

On Thursday 13th October, Kevin Wong (Associate Director for Criminal Justice, Policy and Evaluation Research Unit, Manchester Metropolitan University) will be the speaker at the Academy for Social Justice Commissioning evening seminar at Manchester Metropolitan University. Drawing on research evidence about offender engagement, Kevin will explore the potential for adopting alternative approaches to commissioning voluntary services for offenders. During his talk Kevin will examine resourcing, design and delivery of these services. He will also discuss how engagement and needs data can be used to monitor and evaluate effectiveness.

In this blog, Kevin sets the scene for his presentation.

To reserve your free place for the event click here: http://www.mmuperu.co.uk/events/engaging-offenders-exploring-alternative-approaches-to-commissioning-volunt

The review of probation services announced by David Gauke, the Justice Minister in July 2018 (Ministry of Justice 2018) has re-emphasised the centrality of the voluntary and community sector (VCS) contribution to the rehabilitation and support of offenders in England and Wales. Regarded by many in the justice sector as having failed to live up to the hype, the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) reforms promised much but largely failed to widen VCS involvement in services for adult offenders. (Clinks et al 2016, 2018, HMI Probation Inspectorate 2017)

Perhaps this latest instalment in the long history of voluntary sector support for offenders can take a different direction. The review providing an opportunity for the MoJ to lead the way in rethinking the way it commissions the VCS to work with offenders.

The alternative proposed in this seminar is Commissioning By Consensus (CBC). It is a relatively simple concept. Commission the VCS to do what they have long argued makes their services different to probation and prison. Firstly, most VCS offender services are voluntary opt-in services – the sector would argue – because offenders choose whether or not be involved – they engage better. Secondly, VCS offer holistic support dealing with all the offender’s needs – criminogenic and non-criminogenic –unlike statutory probation provision which tends to focus on solely on criminogenic needs. Thirdly according to the sector and their advocates the VCS provide “…person centred interventions…with significant points of synthesis with desistance theory.’ (Martin et al 2016: 32) – i.e. VCS services contribute to desistance from offending.

Faced with this – there are two questions that a commissioner needs to consider:

  1. Are the sector’s assertions borne out by the research evidence? And
  2. Is it possible to measure VCS performance on: engagement; needs met; and desistance?

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Policy Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU) have a long history of evaluating VCS offender services. Based on their recent work with VCS services for young adult offenders, women offenders and young people involved in gangs (Wong et al 2016, 2017, Kinsella et al 2016, 2018, Wong et al 2018) and drawing on the work of other academics who have researched the VCS (Tomczak 2017,  Maguire 2016, Hucklesby and Corcoran 2016, Hedderman and Hucklesby 2016, Tomczak and Albertson, 2016, Harlock 2013, Corcoran  2012,   Mills et al 2011,  Maguire et al 2010, Brown and Ross 2010, Mills and Codd 2008) we have sought to provide answers to these two questions.  In short, they are:

Question 1 – Yes, there is evidence that the VCS offer something distinctive for offenders and it seems to be about the way that they deliver their services as well as the services they offer.

Question 2 – Drawing on the learning from evaluations of VCS offender services there are proportionate ways in which performance on: engagement and needs met can be measured. Quantitatively measuring desistance is more challenging, while there is general view that reconviction is a blunt measure of desistance (McNeil and Weaver 2010) alternative measures have yet to be found. However, using engagement as a proxy measure of desistance could offer a possibility.  Acknowledging that desistance is a non-linear back and forth process (Maruna 2001) this non-linearity is arguably mirrored by offender engagement with  voluntary opt-in services, where offenders will engage and disengage over differing periods of time.

The Ministry of Justice review of probation offers an opportunity to do something different – this time.  Perhaps the aspirations of the sector can be better met this time round  As a coda to the title of this piece: “…But if you try some time, you find you get what you need” (Jagger and Richards 1969).

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