Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 50Social Work and Criminal Justice: The Longer Term Impact of Supervision
Gill McIvor and Monica Barry, University of Stirling
National Objectives and Standards for Social Work Services in the Criminal Justice System and the 100 per cent funding initiative ('the policy') were introduced in 1991 1 in order to secure the provision of services which have the confidence of both criminal justice decision makers and the wider public. This study is part of the social research programme designed to evaluate policy implementation. It examines the longer term impact on offending and on offenders' social circumstances of probation supervision and community-based throughcare.
- The majority of probationers (17/24) and ex-prisoners (8/13) believed that their circumstances had improved since they were on supervision.
- Reconviction was more likely among offenders who were under 21 years of age when placed on probation than among those who had been 21 years of age or older. Reconviction rates were highest among probationers who had 11 or more previous convictions and lowest among first offenders and those who had previously been convicted on fewer than three occasions. Male probationers were more likely to be reconvicted than female probationers though female probationers also tended to have less extensive prior involvement in offending.
- Reconviction rates were lower among probationers who had shown a positive response to supervision than among those whose responses to supervision were said by their social worker to have been mixed or poor. Reconviction was less likely in cases in which the main objectives of supervision had been achieved.
- The rate and frequency of reconviction were lower following the imposition of a probation order. The average number of convictions per offender in the 3 years following a probation order being imposed was almost half that found in the previous 3 years.
- Reconviction among ex-prisoners appeared generally unrelated to their experiences of community-based throughcare.
- Former probationers and ex-prisoners usually attributed their desistance from offending to improvements in their social and personal circumstances over the previous five years. Half of the probationers who were interviewed also believed that social work supervision had helped to bring about a reduction in their offending behaviour.
The National Objectives and Standards (the Standards, 1991) set out the framework within which local authorities are required to provide social work services where costs are met by the 100 per cent funding initiative (initially social enquiry reports and associated court services, community service, probation, parole and other aspects of throughcare).
Prior to the development of the Standards, local authorities had to fund most social work services out of their general income. Criminal justice services were, therefore, in competition for resources with other local authority services and as a result were not always of sufficient quantity and quality to meet the requirements of the courts. The main aims of the policy are:
- to reduce the use of custody by increasing the availability, improving the quality and targeting the use of community-based court disposals on those most at risk of custody, especially young offenders;
- to enable offenders to address their offending behaviour and make a successful adjustment to law abiding life.
Two earlier studies in Phase Two of the research programme examined the process and short term outcomes of probation supervision and community-based throughcare 23. The purpose of this study was to examine the longer term outcomes - principally in terms of reconviction - for those offenders included in the earlier research. The original samples had been drawn from four social work departments which had been selected to include both urban and rural areas and to represent different organisational arrangements for the management and delivery of criminal justice social work services.
The research consisted of an analysis of reconviction among 106 probationers and 53 ex-prisoners in the five years following the imposition of their probation orders or their release from prison to throughcare supervision. Interviews were also conducted with 24 former probationers and 13 ex-prisoners who had previously been interviewed shortly after their probation orders or throughcare supervision terminated 4.
Most former probationers (17/24) reported that their social circumstances had improved since they were placed on probation and that their self-esteem had increased. These changes were said by probationers to have impacted positively upon their offending behaviour.
Although almost half of the sample had been reconvicted within six months and around three-fifths within one year, many of these new convictions were for offences committed before the probation order was imposed (pseudo-reconvictions). Reconviction rates differed across study areas, reflecting the differing characteristics of offenders given probation in different areas. It was estimated that with pseudo-reconvictions excluded, 26 per cent of probationers were reconvicted within 12 months and 59% within 2 years.
Reconviction was more likely among offenders who were under 21 years of age when placed on probation than among those who had been 21 years of age or older (84% of the former and 62% of the latter were reconvicted within 24 months). Reconviction rates were highest among probationers who had 11 or more previous convictions and lowest among first offenders and those who had previously been convicted on fewer than three occasions. Male probationers were more likely to be reconvicted than female probationers (with 79% of the former and 47% of the latter reconvicted within 24 months) though female probationers also tended to have less extensive prior involvement in offending.
Reconviction rates were lower among probationers who had shown a positive response to supervision than among those whose responses to supervision were said by their social worker to have been mixed or poor. Reconviction was most likely if the probation order had been breached (with 100% of breached cases being reconvicted within 2 years) and least likely among cases in which an early discharge had been granted by the court (40% reconvicted within 2 years compared with 68% of orders which ran their course). Reconviction rates were also lower in cases in which the objectives of supervision had been achieved. Across the sample as a whole the rate and frequency of reconviction were lower following the imposition of the probation order than before.
Half the probationers who were interviewed believed that supervision had brought about a reduction in their offending behaviour. While probationers - both in the present study and in the Phase Two probation research - often attributed their desistance from offending to their experience of probation, other factors - such as improvements in their personal circumstances and relationships - were also said to have played a part.
The majority of ex-prisoners (8/13) reported that their circumstances had improved and their self-esteem had increased since they were released from prison. Important changes which had occurred in their lives were said to have centred around personal relationships, employment and accommodation.
Fewer than half of the sample (45%) had been reconvicted within five years. Reconviction rates were highest among those who were under 21 years of age when released from custody and lowest among those aged 40 years or older. First offenders were less likely to be reconvicted than offenders with one or more convictions prior to their sentence of imprisonment. Reconviction rates were also lower among those who had been sentenced for a more serious offence: none of the life licencees in the sample were reconvicted.
There was no clear relationship between ex-prisoners' responses to community-based throughcare supervision and their level of reconviction in the five years after being released. Most of the ex-prisoners who were interviewed considered it unlikely that they would re-offend. Few believed, however, that throughcare supervision had made any difference to their offending. As the earlier Phase Two study of throughcare had indicated, post-release supervision was often perceived by ex-prisoners not to be sufficiently focused upon their immediate practical needs.
The supervision of offenders in the community can, it appears, bring about positive changes in their behaviour. This conclusion is based upon research originally conducted at a time when social workers were only beginning to get to grips with the new approaches to supervision demanded by the policy and its underlying assumptions about the aetiology of crime. Since then there have been significant advances in our understanding of what is likely to be most effective in motivating and helping offenders towards positive change and these are shaping social work practice with offenders in Scotland and throughout the UK. As that understanding becomes more consistently applied in the management and delivery of social work services to the criminal justice system there should, therefore, be reason for increased optimism about the potential of social work supervision to reduce re-offending and contribute to the creation of safer communities.
The study was carried out by the Social Work Research Centre at Stirling University as part of the programme of research to evaluate social work criminal justice policy. The research programme was conducted by The Scottish Executive Central Research Unit in collaboration with the Social Work Research Centre at Stirling University and with Edinburgh University. It was funded by the Justice Department of the Scottish Executive.
If you wish further copies of this Research Findings or have any enquiries about the work of CRU, please contact us at:
Scottish Executive Central Research Unit
or VQ address
Web site: www.scotland.gov.uk/cru
If you wish a copy of 'Social Work and Criminal Justice: The Longer Term Impact of Supervision', the research report which is summarised in this Research Findings, please send a cheque for £5 made payable to The Stationery Office to:
The Stationery Office Bookshop
71 Lothian Road
Tel 0131 228 4181
Fax 0131 622 7017
Reports of other individual studies which comprised the social work and criminal justice research programme are published by and may be purchased from The Stationery Office, price £15 per copy. The following reports are available:
Social Work and Criminal Justice Volume 1: The Impact of Policy
Social Work and Criminal Justice Volume 2: Early Arrangements
Social Work and Criminal Justice Volume 3: The National and Local Context
Social Work and Criminal Justice Volume 4: Sentencer Decision-Making
Social Work and Criminal Justice Volume 5: Parole Board Decision-Making
Social Work and Criminal Justice Volume 6: Probation
Social Work and Criminal Justice Volume 7: Community-Based Throughcare
The following Social Work Research Findings for other studies on this programme are also available:
Social Work Research Findings 13: The Impact of Policy
Social Work Research Findings 14: Early Arrangements
Social Work Research Findings 15: The National and Local Context
Social Work Research Findings 16: Sentencer Decision-Making
Social Work Research Findings 17: Parole Board Decision-Making
Social Work Research Findings 18: Probation
Social Work Research Findings 19: Community-Based Throughcare
This document (and other CRU Research Findings and Reports) and information about the work of CRU may be viewed on the Internet at
The site carries up-to-date information about social and policy research commissioned and published by CRU on behalf of the Scottish Executive. Subjects covered include transport, housing, social inclusion, rural affairs, children and young people, education, social work, community care, local government, civil justice, crime and criminal justice, regeneration, planning and women's issues. The site also allows access to information about the Scottish Household Survey.
1 National Standards for Community Service had been introduced in 1989
2 McIvor, G. and Barry, M. (1998a) Social Work and Criminal Justice Volume 6: Probation, Edinburgh: The Stationary Office.
3 McIvor, G and Barry, M. (1998b) Social Work and Criminal Justice Volume 7: Community-Based Throughcare, Edinburgh: The Stationary Office.
4 The original interview sample also included five ex-prisoners on life licence, four of whom were re-interviewed in this study.