This post is another extract (basically the introduction and the conclusion) from a paper with big connections to this project; the full version is available on the Useful Resources page. In it, we set out what we see as some of the limitations of a preoccupation with the question ‘what works?’ when it comes to improving supervision practices — and how looking more closely at how and why people change, and at what ex/offenders and their families/supporters have to say about that process, is critical to progressive development. The paper is coming out soon in a US journal called ’Justice Research and Policy’ and so uses US terminology which may seem a little alien to some readers. We’re grateful to the editor of JRP for permission to post it here.
Questions about the role of evidence in criminal justice policy and practice have been around for a long time. One of the founding fathers of classical criminology, Cesare Beccaria, writing in 1775, put it this way:
‘Would you prevent crimes? Let liberty be attended with knowledge. As knowledge extends, the disadvantages which attend it diminish, and the advantages increase… Knowledge facilitates the comparison of objects, by showing them in different points of view. When the clouds of ignorance are dispelled by the radiance of knowledge, authority trembles, but the force of the law remains immovable’ (in Priestley and Vanstone, 2010: 11).
Alongside his early endorsement of the role of science in promoting public safety, Beccaria demanded clarity in the law, due process in its administration, and certainty and regularity in its delivery of punishments, limited by the principles of parsimony and proportionality. So, for him, as for many that have come after him, delivering criminal justice must be about both evidence and principle; both science and law; both the empirical and the normative.
It is with this central set of relationships in mind that we begin this discussion of ‘evidence-based practice’ (EBP) in the field of community corrections. More specifically, we aim to look at EBP from three different points of view. Firstly, we seek to examine the relationships between the purposes of community corrections and the ways in which we might assess its effectiveness; we argue that these purposes are multiple and contested and that the types of evidence in play are therefore varied and diffuse. Relying on any one measure will fail to capture the complexities of the task. Secondly, even in focusing on one purpose (reducing reoffending so as to better protect the public), we suggest that ‘what works’ evidence drawn from evaluation studies has serious limitations, and that it must be supplemented with evidence from explanatory studies that explore how and why people desist from crime. Finally, we argue that evidence from research is not the only evidence that matters in advancing practice; both ex/offender and practitioner voices need to be taken much more seriously if we are to develop systems and practices that fit the realities of people’s lives. In our concluding discussion, we discuss a transatlantic ‘knowledge exchange’ project, ‘Discovering Desistance’, through which we are currently trying to open up debates and developments around evidence-based corrections.
This paper has taken what might seem to some a slightly unusual path. Rather than trying to present that latest evidence from research in EBPs in community corrections and issuing academic advice on what policies or practices to adopt, we have tried instead to respect Beccaria’s injunction and to open up new vantage points from which we might examine the claims of evidence on policy and practice.
We have focused here on just three sets of questions. Firstly, we explored the links between evidence and purposes, arguing that since the purposes of community corrections are multiple and contested, a range of approaches to measuring effectiveness is required. Secondly, focusing on just one of the purposes of community corrections – reducing reoffending — we exposed some of the methodological problems that lie behind exploring ‘what works?’ and suggested a wider engagement with evidence about how and why people desist from crime. That evidence base pointed us towards practices that support ex/offenders to develop new skills and change their behaviour, but also towards interventions that can motivate people and build hope, and that engage with the relational and social contexts of change. Finally, we argued that the development of more effective practice in community corrections (as in other domains) is less about getting research evidence into practice and more about academics, ex/offenders, practitioners and others working out how to co-produce change together.
In relation to this venture, Beccaria again has some wise words for us here:
‘Ignorance may be less fatal than a small degree of knowledge, because this adds, to the evils of ignorance, the inevitable errors of a confined view of things…’ (Priestley and Vanstone, 2010: 12).
We are all vulnerable to developing ‘a confined view’; to privileging our own perspective; to preferring to rely on the small degrees of knowledge that we accrue as individuals. And we all stand the best chance of avoiding the errors attendant on taking such ‘a confined view’ by exposing ourselves to the views of others. This is not to suggest that all forms of knowledge should be assessed and used in the same ways – and, of course, it is not to refute the need to expose and reject policies and practices based in ignorance or error, whatever their source. But it is to argue for the learning that comes from mutually respectful dialogue, since it is in that dialogue that the prospects for progressive community corrections resides.
If you want to read the full version, click here: McNeill et al JRP
 We use the US term ‘community corrections’ in this paper to refer to all forms of offender supervision in the community, whether on probation or parole. We also use the term evidence-based practice (EBP) throughout given its familiarity. However, we prefer the more modest term evidence-informed practice, partly in recognition of the role of other forms of evidence (i.e. beyond research evidence) in service and practice development.