World Congress on Probation: Report from the Chief Probation Officer

Darius Fagan
Chief Probation Officer, Department of Corrections

Author biography:
Darius has worked for the New Zealand Department of Corrections since 2001. He started his career as a probation officer and believes in the important role probation officers can play in helping offenders change their lives. As Chief Probation Officer, Darius is passionate about designing practice that adheres to evidence-based concepts that can be practically applied by officers in their day to day work.

The World Congress on Probation is administered by the Confederation of European Probation (CEP) which launched the first world congress in London in 2014.

The third world congress was held in July 2017 in Tokyo and was attended by over 400 people from more than 40 countries – including New Zealand.  The theme was “probation and the role of the community”, with a particular focus on community volunteers. Community volunteers play a significant role in the work undertaken by probation services and in a number of Asian jurisdictions the work of community volunteers is a dominant feature.

Japan has a goal to reduce the prison population by 20% by 2020 and to make the country the safest in the world. The role of the community and community volunteers is identified as being key to achieving this, and this goal will surely resonate with New Zealand and international audiences.

The use of volunteers is most prominent in Japan where people on parole are supervised by 1,000 professional probation officers and over 40,000 volunteer probation officers or hogoshi.  The service is largely focused on support and reintegration, and volunteer probation officers will do this by inviting people to their own homes for tea or meals, as well as meeting in restaurants and cafes or other community locations. There are probation centres which are largely used to deliver programmes or training and supervision for the hogoshi.

Field visits

Before the congress there was the opportunity to undertake some field visits to understand the Japanese system in more detail.  I was able to visit the Tokyo City Probation Office, a reintegration hostel for women, and a local probation office in Ota city.

Tokyo City Probation Office

The Tokyo City Probation Office is the centre of probation in the region where research, analysis, planning and some specialist treatment is undertaken. The office measures performance related data and supports the planning and co-ordination of probation officers and hogoshi across the city. While at the Tokyo City Office we were able to meet and chat with programme facilitators of a successful sex offender rehabilitation programme.  They referred to the programme as a “super compact programme” which delivered sex offender treatment in five two-hour sessions spread across 10 weeks.

Women’s reintegration hostel

Next we were taken to a women’s reintegration hostel in the Shibuya District of downtown Tokyo.  At the visit our hosts were quick to point out that this hostel was a mere 20 minute walk from the residence of the Japanese Prime Minister.  The hostel had actually been visited by the Prime Minister in 2015, the first time this had occurred in the 130 year history of rehabilitation in Japan.

The hostel was home to 20 formerly imprisoned women and provided accommodation and reintegration services.  Links were also made to local employers. Most of the women had their own rooms although there was one shared room which was used if the hostel was full.  At the time of the visit all of the women were out at work. The money they earn remains under the control of the hostel and is given to the residents when they request it “for good purposes”.

One interesting feature of the hostel was a recently introduced robot called Pepper which was programmed to encourage communication and expression of feelings. The robot could ask someone basic questions, such as “how are you feeling?”, and tell people about the weather or the news. It is programmed through facial recognition software to recognise feelings and respond to these by playing games or dancing. The general idea of this was that it was a sort of mindfulness robot which might help cheer someone up or take their mind off problems.

Probation office in Ota City

The probation office in Ota City, an outlying suburb of Tokyo, was primarily used to support the hogoshi in the local community.  Here we were able to ask hogoshi some questions to find out more about who they were and how they worked. One was also the Mayor of Ota City. Their motivation for fulfilling the role was to help people and to provide a civic service to their city.

The volunteers have a unique way of working in that they would see people on probation in local restaurants or invite them to their own homes.  One of the volunteers talked about how she had been running a group programme for eight juveniles from her small apartment. She said that there had been times of tension and fights between the youths, but that generally things went well and that the provision of a simple meal was greatly appreciated and helped to ease any tension.

The staff at the office in Ota City were particularly pleased with their connections to local businesses as the area is a thriving industrial and transport hub being located near one of Tokyo’s main airports.  They valued the growth in the area as it provided employment opportunities for people on probation through partnering with local businesses.

The congress

The congress was held over two days and guests were officially welcomed by the Honourable Yoko Kamikawa, Minister of Justice in Japan, through a video message. There followed a number of keynote speeches, plenary discussion panels, special speeches and a large selection of workshops from probation jurisdictions all over the world.

Keynote speeches were delivered by:

  • Dr. Frank Porporino, T3 Associates – Developments and Challenges in Probation Practice: Is there a way forward for Establishing Effective and Sustainable Probation Systems?
  • Prof. Peter Raynor, Swansea University – Effective Probation:  The Past, Present and Future of Probation Research
  • Prof. Todd R. Clear, Rutgers University – Imagining Community Justice Values and Probation Practice
  • Tomoko Akane, Ambassador for International Judicial Cooperation of Japan – Future of Probation: Asian Experiences and the Role of the Community.

All of the keynote speeches were very future-focused and inspired a lot of optimism in the role that probation has to play in reducing crime and forming community connections for people who have been incarcerated or involved in crime. More than one keynote speaker noted that probation should not be seen solely as another form of correctional control or a cheaper alternative to the high costs of incarceration, but a service that can support and guide people to lead productive lives as good citizens.

Frank Porporino laid out a potential framework for changing probation systems to be more aligned to the ethos of crime reduction.  His framework included an emphasis on mobilising support networks, changing inequality and promoting fairness, greater involvement of reformed ex-offenders, and more public engagement and involvement in supporting people to reform.

Peter Raynor provided a detailed history of how evidence has shaped and changed probation practices over time.  He then reflected on this and proposed potential priority areas for future research to ensure that probation practices continue to evolve in an informed way.  In particular, he proposed research in the areas of skills implementation, learning from ex-offenders, how successful policies gain support or legitimacy, and how to understand, measure and compare different approaches across the world.

Todd R. Clear delved further into areas raised by Frank Porporino and linked these to a set of core values for community justice. The values are based on a report from the Harvard Series on Community Corrections which could be used to offer a framework for a new vision for community justice.

Tomoko Akane provided a unique perspective from her understanding of the Japanese justice system and her previous role as a prosecutor.  She highlighted some of the unique features of the Japanese probation system, use of volunteers and the wider role of community in the work.  Her ideas centred on the importance of community and she stressed that the integration of people in the community requires strong collaboration between families, employers and the wider community.

Workshop sessions

A wide range of workshop sessions was available and these were grouped into themes.  I concentrated on attending the presentations on evidence-based theories and practices, offenders with special needs, and development of policies and practices.  Some of the workshops presented ideas or trials that were in the very early stages of development and did not yet have enough evidence behind them to be considered conclusively effective or applicable to NZ. However, there were some interesting highlights, such as Innovative Approaches to Reducing the California Prison Population, Expectation for Community Corrections in Lay Judge Trials, and The Entre Program: A Community-based Treatment Program for Violent and Gang-affiliated Adult Offenders.

Innovative Approaches to Reducing California’s Prison Population

This presentation was delivered by two probation chiefs from two counties in California: Sonoma and Calaveras.  It focused on the impact and innovation brought about by Assembly Bill 109 (AB 109) which de-federalised a number of crimes.  This legislation effectively pushed 40,000 cases away from the state prison system and into the county probation system.  It also reduced the numbers subject to federal parole.

In Sonoma County, the injection of extra cases and funding into the county probation system was seen as an opportunity to realign and update the service to modern evidence based practices. This included: introducing motivational interviewing, new evidence based risk and need assessments, a new offender guided case plan approach with S.M.A.R.T. goals, and a structured sanction and incentives policy.

The new approaches started to be implemented from 2014, and early analysis shows that there has been an impact in reduced use of jail as a sanction for violations, reduced revocations to prison for felony probationers, reduced recidivism, and a reduced crime rate in Sonoma County.  This is quite an achievement as there was some nervousness initially about a rising crime rate if more serious prisoners were managed on probation.

Expectation for Community Corrections in Lay Judge Trials

Since 2009, Japan has been trialling “lay judge” panels to preside over serious criminal cases. A lay judge panel is comprised of three professional judges and six community members. Since the trial started, these panels have dealt with 2.5% - 3% of criminal cases, or 11,768 cases in total. The lay judge panels process all aspects of the case including fact finding, victim submissions, the trial, and sentencing.  The cases covered a wide range of crimes from murder to drug offending.

Evaluations have found that compared to standard bench judges, lay judge panels tend to make greater use of suspended sentences, and also to impose probation conditions more frequently with the suspended sentences. When decisions and statements made by judges at sentencing were analysed, it was found that lay judge panels placed a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. They gave more weight to individual circumstances such as age, and there were clear themes of compassion and hope for perpetrators to reform.

The Entre Program

The Entre Program in Sweden targets gang-affiliated adult offenders. It is one of 14 programmes available in the Swedish prison and probation service. On average, Entre takes 22 sessions to complete over an eight month period.  It is designed for men, but a small number of women have also completed it.

The programme is based on Risk Need Responsivity principles and focuses on six themes: relations and associates, attitudes and values, aggression and violence, identity and self image, alcohol and drugs, and practical social situations. The interesting thing about this programme is that it is designed to work flexibly based on the needs of the individuals or group being treated. The dose, length, focus and intensity can all be adjusted depending on the cohort.

The programme was still in pilot at the time of the congress so full results were not available. There had been the usual issues with community treatment such as re-arrest, non-attendance, and aggression in sessions.  Anecdotal feedback was available from staff and participants who were optimistic about behaviour changes that had been observed in those who stuck with the programme.

All of the resources for these sessions and all the others are still available on the congress website.

Closing remarks

As always, the World Congress inspired a lot of ideas and reflections. It is particularly interesting to see how countries that have relatively new probation systems go about setting them up and what they focus on.  If there was one consistent theme, it was that probation services will struggle if they remain anonymous and don’t strive to achieve community support and buy-in to their work. This was deemed particularly important in helping communities to understand their role in supporting reintegration and gaining practical help such as employment.

The congress closed with a handover ceremony from Japan to Australia. The next Probation World Congress will be held in Sydney in 2019.