Thursday, March 1, 2018

The working relationship in community corrections

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, PhD

One of the main issues that plagues our field is the inherent contradiction between public protection and the factors or outcomes (in treatment, risk management) that contribute to it. Success in treatment can look different from, and be measured in a different way from, success in risk management and probation. However, the factors involved in successful community integration/reintegration share a lot of common features with the factors that make treatment work. We know that punishment-only approaches don’t work and that completing treatment programs is associated with reduced risk. What can supervision agents (i.e., Police, Probation, Parole, Social Workers, etc) look for as indicators of success in their efforts?
A new study in Criminal Justice and Behavior exemplifies a welcome trend in evidence-based community corrections (an idea which is essential; key performance Indicators are central to the success and continued funding as well as use of these programs). Quantifying success in supervision as well as treatment can be a challenge at the best of times and often results in success factors being external to the actual program (i.e., reoffending rates only rather than personal change or successful risk management procedures), but especially in terms of people who commit sexual offences.  
For this new study, authors Brandy Blasko and Faye Taxman examined a brief and practical measure for use by community supervision staff to assess the extent to which individuals under community supervision perceive the supervision process as fair. Important to emphasize is that this was fairness as perceived by the person in community supervision and not the agent or agencies.
Many people in the lay public may have no interest in measuring whether or not the person under community supervision perceives their treatment as fair; in fact, many members of the public reject the need for or utility of pro-social, support management and/or treatment for people who have committed sexual offences. Indeed, many will believe that community supervision is part of a person’s punishment for breaking the law; however, it isn’t the actual role of supervising agents around the world is to carry out court orders while simultaneously supporting efforts at rehabilitation. Unfortunately, many supervising agents (known by different names in various jurisdictions, and including probation and parole officers) often view their work as inherently punitive and/or make clear to the people on their caseloads that they hold them in some form of moral contempt. The continued austerity, privatization and bureaucratic drives in community supervision often exacerbate these aforementioned issues and can lead to staff feeling disengaged, unwanted, unwelcome and more inclined to leave the field.
Blasko and Taxman found that their “measure demonstrated significant relationships with supervision outcomes of both crime and technical violations across two independent community supervision samples.” In other words, the better the working relationship with the agent, as perceived by the supervisee, the less likely these people were to persist in problematic behavior. Questions on this measure include areas such as to what extent the person on supervision feels that their agent takes their perspective, follows established procedures and guidelines, and treats them like others who are on supervision. However, this raises issues of how we support staff to enable them to work more effectively with people who commit sexual offences when this “relationship” goes against perceived social, political and organizational norms. Staff want to draw a distinct line between themselves and the individuals that they work with as a defense mechanism, a minimization technique and adhering to what is often argued as good working practices.
This study’s results echo decades of psychotherapy research, finding that how clients in treatment perceive the working alliance with their clinician can determine much of the outcome of treatment. The power of positive relationships in the integration of people who commit offences, generally, is well evidenced in the literature in terms of from a peer support (i.e., research on the importance of social capital) but not in terms of practitioner/professional support which is interesting when one considers that a lot of people who commit sexual offences might try to interact with probation officers (and others like them) as though they are friends or colleagues. Although, potentially irritating to the supervising agent, these kinds of interactions can indicate that the relationship is considered important to the client. It is fascinating that these findings receive so little attention within the criminal justice literature and raise the question of, why not?

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