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Offender/Offender Manager Relationships - image of paper people holding hands

Positive Relationships in Offender Management

We are delighted to welcome Prof Darrick Jolliffe, Professor of Criminology at the University of Greenwich as a guest blogger. Prof Jolliffe has worked with GtD on our offender management work and here he discusses the role of relationships in that work.

Positive relationships have the power to change us. This is not just the catchy slogan of the International Coaching Federation, but something that resonates with all of us.  The constructive relationships that we have, or have had with our parents, teachers, friends and colleagues not only define our interactions with them, but our interactions with all others, while defining who we see ourselves to be. Translating this ‘common sense fact’ into the management of those who have committed offences has an extensive history, and some would argue is the bedrock on which the probation service was founded. However, like many things that are common sense, such as we only use 10% of our brains, and carrots provide good eyesight, the suggestion that if ‘offenders’ have a positive relationship with those providing their supervision they will have more positive outcomes, the actual relationship might actually be a bit more complicated. 

I was invited by Get the Data Director Jack Catell to speak their event, Transforming Rehabilitation – Learning from the PbR results, about my experience of attempting to capture the evidence that positive relationships between offenders and offender managers results in definable benefits. This was something that I first worked on over a decade ago, having first been commissioned by the Home Office to develop an Offender Management Feedback Questionnaire, which was a series of questions that asked offenders about their engagement with their named offender manager. I was subsequently commissioned to work on revised versions, and also helped develop a mirror version which asked about how offender managers viewed the relationship that offenders had with probation.

Some findings fit with expectation, for example, female offenders consistently had more positive relationships with offender managers than males, and the longer that an offender had spent on probation the more they felt they had developed positive relationships and acquired useful skills.  However, some findings were very far from expected, for example, those who reported greater engagement with probation were not less likely to reoffend, and even more concerning, or at least confusing, those who reported greater acquisition of skills while on probation were significantly more likely to reoffend.

How do we reconcile these findings with what we know about the power of positive relationships?  Well, I don’t think there is an easy answer here.  I suspect that positive relationships with offender managers are important for offenders, but they may not be important enough to have an impact on a blunt measure such as reoffending over and above the other issues that many of these people are facing in their lives.  We put the finding, that those who reported greater acquisition of skills were more likely to reoffend, down to offender’s overly optimistic view of how easy it would be to continue to stay crime free.  When we looked more closely at the scores of the questionnaires, it was the items which referred specifically to acquiring skills which would reduce later reoffending that those who reoffended tended to endorse more strongly – almost as though they were trying to convince themselves of their ability to stay on the straight and narrow.

Reflecting back on this work, I am really proud of what we did achieve, despite not getting the common sense result we all expected.  I think there would be a lot of mileage in revisiting the offender/offender manager relationship as a potential desistence tool, and if I was going to do this again I would be looking to measure changes in relationships (so administering items more than once) and see how these changes might relate to more short-term outcomes (e.g., offender’s motivation), as well as longer-term outcomes (e.g., reconviction).