This suggests promising intent but recidivism data show most of them don’t make it. Most return to live among the very conditions and influences that contributed to their offending in the first place. The support they have is so poor as to be unable to spare much moral, and even less practical, help. Often they are reliant on people who are wholesale criminal or drug and alcohol addled.
Talk about individual responsibility all you like, but making serious life changes under these conditions is a battle too big for most.
It was little surprise, then, that when we reviewed Pathway Charitable Group’s prisoner reintegration programme we found the thing most valued by people leaving the prison gates was the support offered by their two field workers. All of the offenders appreciated the facilitation of the things they individually needed (alcohol and drug programmes, help with housing, employment etc) but nothing was more important than having somebody to rely on when the chips were down. This included having a positive voice to help with simple things like setting up appointments, and more intimate things like being supportive when old negative associations were being broken.
The results after year one were undeniably encouraging. Prisoners who engage with the Pathway programme were found to be 33.3 per cent less likely to be reconvicted and 42.8 per cent less likely to re-imprisoned. This doesn’t just say good things about what Pathway does but, in my view, it should guide changes to New Zealand’s probation service.
Currently, probation officers are meant to assist people on parole by reintegrating them back into society, ostensibly fulfilling the role successfully employed by the Pathway programme. They are also tasked – quite rightly – with protecting the community through monitoring offenders’ activities. These two roles are often at odds, however, making them absolutely untenable.
Take this for example: a recently released prisoner is on parole and banned from drinking. He has some life stress and finds himself drunk. He knows he needs help so he goes to his probation officer and says, ‘I’m in a bit of trouble and so I had a drink’.
The probation officer promptly sends him back to prison for breaching parole. Fair enough you might say, the prisoner had conditions and broke them. But what it means in reality is that people on parole, who under stress do things they aren’t meant to, don’t tell their probation officer. Instead of getting help, they get deceptive. The whole show then becomes a farce. The very thing that is meant to assist rehabilitation becomes its biggest impediment.
Instead of being counseled to deal with what is causing the stress and being placed on an alcohol course, for example, the parolee is stuck in whatever rut is causing him problems until it inevitably spirals out of control with the result being a new victim. Where exactly is the winner in that?
We need to divide up the roles of probation into surveillance and support (perhaps provided by NGOs). The latter will mean a person is assigned to those parolees who demonstrate a commitment to change (it’s a waste of money on those who don’t) to work alongside them in a mentoring and supporting role.
It is a simple solution to an obvious problem and one that will pay-off by reducing costs and victims. From a lose-lose to a win-win.