Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 45Evaluation of the Airborne Initiative (Scotland)
Gill McIvor, Janet Jamieson, Vernon Gayle, Kristina Moodie (University of Stirling) and Ann Netten (University of Kent)
The Airborne Initiative (Scotland) (AIS) was established in 1994 to provide residential courses for offenders with the aims of reducing offending behaviour and enhancing employment and training prospects. AIS is part-funded by the Scottish Executive under the 100% funding arrangements and this study was commissioned to evaluate the effectiveness of Airborne since its relaunch following a management review in 1996.
- Airborne was generally viewed by sentencers and by social workers as providing a useful addition to the range of non-custodial programmes for offenders who were otherwise at risk of a custodial sentence;
- Information provided by Airborne to potential referrers was clear, comprehensive and accessible but had not kept pace with developments in the programme;
- Professional respondents and former trainees believed that the balance and length of the programme was appropriate for its objectives to be achieved;
- 58 per cent of trainees had completed the programme. Non-completion was higher in more recent courses and among offenders with drug-related problems;
- Reconviction rates were significantly lower among offenders who completed the Airborne programme than among non-completers and among a comparison group of offenders who received alternative sentences. The effect of Airborne upon offenders' employability was more difficult to ascertain;
- Airborne is not a cheap option in comparison with other sentences. However, some of the costs of participating in Airborne may be offset by the savings to the criminal justice system and to society which accrue from reduced levels of re-offending among offenders who successfully complete the Airborne programme.
The Airborne Initiative (Scotland) was established in June 1994 to provide residential courses as an alternative to custody for male offenders aged 18-25 years who are referred by the court as a condition of a probation order. Its objectives are to enhance offenders' employment prospects and reduce their risk of further offending behaviour. These are pursued through a nine week programme involving outdoor activities and structured support aimed at developing self-esteem, teamwork, self-discipline, group values and the work ethic. The programme is delivered to teams of 10-12 trainees which are guided by a team leader and four key workers. This research was commissioned to evaluate the effectiveness of the Airborne Initiative since it was re-launched in October 1996 following an independent review.
The research consisted of an analysis of information from project files about offenders referred to Airborne; interviews with offenders who had participated in the Airborne programme; interviews with sheriffs, social work managers and practitioners and Airborne personnel; a comparison of reconviction among Airborne participants and a quasi-matched sample of offenders who received other sentences; and a comparative costing of Airborne and other sentences.
The Airborne Programme
Sentencers, social workers and trainees were generally satisfied with the quality of information they received from the Airborne Initiative. Most believed that they were sufficiently well appraised of the programme, though some social workers expressed concern that the information they had may have been out of date.
Social work managers and practitioners agreed that Airborne was most suitable for persistent offenders who demonstrated a reasonable degree of maturity and who gave some indication that they were beginning to contemplate change. It was not considered appropriate for very immature offenders, serious violent offenders, sexual offenders, offenders with learning disabilities or mental health problems and offenders who had significant problems with alcohol or drugs. Airborne had, however, recently begun to explore how offenders with substance misuse problems might be managed on the programme.
Social workers and sentencers were broadly happy with the quality of assessments undertaken by Airborne and the assessment process was generally considered to run smoothly.
Social workers, sentencers and trainees considered the content and balance of the programme, the length of the programme and the provision of two home leaves to be appropriate.
Home leaves formed the main vehicle for contact between social workers and their probationers while the latter participated in the Airborne programme. There were no formal mechanisms for Airborne staff to maintain contact with trainees after they had left the programme, though some trainees kept in touch on an informal basis.
Offenders referred to Airborne
Information was available from Airborne files in respect of 242/251 offenders who had been referred to the initiative between October 1996 and June 1999. This included 82 offenders who received an alternative disposal, 13 who were accepted for Airborne but who did not attend the programme, 86 who completed the programme and 61 who began the programme but dropped out.
The average age of referrals was 19 years. The majority of those referred were unemployed and had no academic qualifications. Almost two-thirds of referrals to Airborne were initiated by the court. The majority of cases were dealt with in the sheriff court on summary proceedings.
Offenders were most commonly referred to Airborne for offences involving dishonesty, violence or breaches of existing court orders. Those referred had an average of 10 previous convictions and two-thirds had previously served a custodial sentence.
There was limited information about the alternative sentences received by unsuccessful referrals to Airborne. In nine of the 12 cases in which this information was available the offender received a custodial sentence, while just under three-fifths of a pseudo-matched comparison group of 135 offenders received a probation order, a community service order or a sentence of imprisonment. Sheriffs and social workers generally viewed Airborne as an alternative to a custodial sentence, suggesting that Airborne occupied a slightly higher position in the sentencing tariff than a probation order with a requirement to attend an intensive probation programme.
The effectiveness of Airborne
Fifty-eight per cent of offenders who began the Airborne programme completed it successfully. Programme drop-out was most likely to occur within two weeks of the start. Offenders with drug problems and those who had previous experience of high tariff disposals were less likely to complete the programme. Completion rates appeared to have decreased slightly over time, possibly reflecting changes in enforcement practices or the increasing proportions of offenders with drug problems. Completion rates were also higher among offenders who started an Airborne course between one and three months after being assessed for the programme.
Social workers and sentencers believed that successful participation in the Airborne programme provided trainees with a considerable sense of achievement and enhanced their self-esteem. No single component was thought by professional respondents or former trainees to have been more effective than the others. Instead, the combination of the three elements was perceived to be important.
The majority of interviewed trainees who had completed Airborne indicated that they had not been reconvicted and all but one considered it unlikely that they would re-offend. Most former participants suggested that taking part in the Airborne programme had had a positive influence upon their attitudes and behaviour.
Sheriffs and social workers were less convinced that Airborne was successful in helping trainees access education, training or work. However, five of the eight interviewed trainees who had completed Airborne had subsequently secured employment while none of the six non-completers had done so. Those who had found work attributed this both to taking part in Airborne and to their own efforts.
Reconviction rates were significantly lower among those who completed Airborne than among programme non-completers and among comparison group cases who received alternative disposals. Airborne participants were slower to reconvict and participation in Airborne significantly increased an offender's likelihood of remaining free of further convictions. The differences in reconviction may have partly reflected differences in the characteristics and motivation of Airborne completers but could not be solely attributable to these factors. Overall it appeared that participating in Airborne reduced reconviction rates by 21 per cent in comparison with rates for offenders who received alternative disposals.
The costs of Airborne and alternative sentences
The cost of a successfully completed Airborne disposal was estimated to be £25,240. This was considerably higher than the average cost of an alternative sentence which was £3,570 or the cost of an average alternative custodial sentence at £6,341. The costs of Airborne would be lower if a higher proportion of trainees succeeded in completing the programme. However, some of the costs of participating in Airborne may be offset by the savings to the criminal justice system and to society which accrue from reduced recidivism among successful programme participants.
The Airborne Initiative (Scotland) has, increasingly, adopted approaches to intervention with high tariff, high risk offenders which appear, on the basis of previous research, to be likely to bring about reductions in offending behaviour. Offenders who complete the Airborne programme are less likely to be reconvicted and they may - though this could not be quantified - be more employable or better prepared for further education or training as a result. These findings suggest that Airborne does, as social workers and sentencers suggested, provide a valuable addition to the range of non-custodial options available to the courts. Airborne is, on the other hand, a relatively costly disposal and the possibility of reducing unit costs should be explored.
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