Phone call initiative
Lead Service Manager, Lower Hutt and Wellington Community Corrections, Department of Corrections
Since joining the Department in 2007, Gareth has worked as a probation officer, senior probation officer, practice leader and service manager. Gareth has a background in criminology and law.
The phone call initiative sprang from an idea first conceived by Department of Corrections Chief Executive Ray Smith. It was developed by the Department’s Service Development Group and chief probation officer for implementation in the Wellington Corrections District.
The key idea was to make contact with offenders who had successfully completed community-based sentences and had not re-offended within 12 months of finishing their sentence. Once contacted, they were commended for their progress and engaged in a conversation to identify if further support could be offered to better increase the likelihood of further desistance. This support could be on-the-spot advice or referrals to other services. The corollary effect of this process was to determine how effective our service has been, and to identify any areas of concern for completers of community-based sentences and orders.
The author worked with Chief Probation Officer Darius Fagan to set up this initiative. This involved creating a script for the phone calls and determining an effective process to identify who to call, how to record the calls and how to manage the process at sites. The phone numbers were taken from the Integrated Offender Management System (IOMS).
The process and questions asked were:
- identify person and get permission to continue
- build rapport and ask initial questions to determine what might be going well for the former offender
- find out what they have done already (that is, what worked when on a community-based sentence or order)
- identify if there is any additional support that would help
- make a quick plan (and check if they would appreciate a follow up call)
- end the conversation.
It was decided between the sites in the Wellington District to each run the initiative one evening per week. This occurred on a different evening across the four Wellington sites; Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt, Wellington and Porirua. Staff decided whether or not to participate in the initiative. A spreadsheet of people to call was given to staff on the night and updated so that individuals were not called on multiple occasions. The results of the calls were entered in a survey, with a brief note recorded against the person’s name in the shared spreadsheet detailing the outcome of the contact.
The sites were supported by the presence of community providers, including Care NZ for alcohol and drug support. This ensured that prompt assistance could be given to anyone who asked for help.
Initially, the parameters of the data used did not bring about the correct cohort of former offenders, and hence some refining of the data occurred over the first week. The project ran for three weeks by which time all the ex-offenders had been contacted or it had been confirmed that the phone number we had for them was no longer valid.
The initiative was visibly supported by senior leadership with calls being made by National Commissioner Jeremy Lightfoot, Regional Commissioner Paul Tomlinson, Operations Director Matire Kupenga-Wanoa, Chief Probation Officer Darius Fagan and District Manager Sue Abraham. Other members of the District Management Team also supported the initiative each night it was run. This leadership served to further inspire the staff involved who provided a lot of positive feedback on their experience.
The phone initiative allowed staff to see the effect their work had on each ex-offender we contacted – which is an opportunity that is not often available once a sentence or order has been completed. It was not always feasible to have the assigned probation officer call ex-offenders from their own former caseload, however, feedback was given via an email to the staff member who managed the case.
One example of a positive story was where a probation officer had provided an employment reference for an offender and they kept that job. Another case recalled the safety plan he had developed with his probation officer, and stated that he ensured he followed this whenever he encountered a high risk situation. There were also occasions where staff members had to manage delicate and unusual situations, such as the recent death of the ex-offender, and having to conduct the calls in another language.
Participating in the phone initiative invigorated staff across the Wellington District. They were able to feel that their skills are well suited to the role, that their work has a real and credible impact, and that engagement with offenders near the end of their sentence or order is now more targeted, in light of the results of the surveys.
Eighty-two percent of the ex-offenders contacted said they had received a good service from their probation officer. Seventy-two percent said the support from probation staff was helpful for them and many indicated that they received most of their support from probation. Fifty-eight percent indicated that they had received no other additional intervention during their sentence other than interaction with Community Corrections staff. This is probably due to the high number (68) of offenders who had served community work sentences that were contacted. This indicates that there are big opportunities to offer offenders more access to interventions – particularly Work and Living Skills.
Forty percent of cases identified employment as being an issue. A further 16% said finances were an issue which probably also indicates an employment problem. Fourteen percent had issues with not having or wanting to get a driver licence. Some requested information about the duration of their disqualification from driving and the process to get licences back. Alcohol and drugs were identified as an issue in 8% of cases, although often people were suspicious of the call so it is likely they were not open about alcohol and drug issues.
Overall, few ex-offenders had access to ongoing community support. This may indicate that very few interventions carry on beyond the mandated period of their sentence. Thirty-six percent of ex-offenders stated they were receiving some assistance from WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand). However, this was often the only support service they could identify in their lives. To support desistance from crime we should ensure we connect people to services that offer sustainable support (e.g. a free marae based health provider), to promote self efficacy beyond the end of the sentence. This is a useful finding for considering future practice and also a good rationale for offering a follow-up service post-sentence.
Was it worthwhile?
It will be some time until we know whether the initiative has any impact on reducing re-offending in Wellington. The process itself was fairly labour intensive to reach 116 cases from a starting pool of 398. Completing the initiative did deliver one immediate benefit; staff enjoyed getting first-hand feedback on the quality of our services. The feedback also helped identify some clear opportunities to enhance services. With some changes to the process and resources, it would be possible to contact more ex-offenders and put them in touch with useful support services.
Other districts, including Manukau and Rotorua/Taupō, are trying the phone call initiative. Setting up post-sentence outbound calling has been included as part of the Department’s Reducing Re-offending Strategic Plan year two. Service Development is investigating ways to set up a more permanent and sustainable method of continuing calling. At this stage we do not know if this initiative will have an impact on re-offending, but the feedback will help us consider how to get better at implementing “user informed practice” which is an approach encouraged in research into desistance. As more districts take on this initiative they will also be in a position to reflect on how probation work can change lives and where further development and support may be beneficial.