The shadow of penal supervision

Dimensions of ‘Mass Supervision’

‘What’s your book about?” This is a question to which I’m quickly becoming accustomed. Six weeks into the fellowship and I think I have already lost count of the number of times it has been asked.  Trying to explain it in ‘lay’ terms, I usually respond along the following lines: “It’s about how pervasive punishment has become in contemporary societies — and how punishment (in the criminal justice system) extends far beyond the prison and into communities; so much so that some criminologists now talk about the emergence of ‘mass supervision’. The book is about what ‘mass supervision’ means, whether it exists and, if so, how we best understand it — and change it”. [In truth, my answers aren’t usually that fluent!].

One of the key challenges at this stage is mapping out some of the dimensions that need to explored in the book.

We can think about its ‘scale‘ — and that is probably what people have most in mind when using the term. As the Scottish stats in the pictochart that accompanied my last post make clear, the numbers are striking — and that pattern recurs in many Western jurisdictions. Of course, questions of scale are necessarily relative — and we need to unpick the implied comparisons with other places or other times or in thinking about the relative numbers of supervisory sanctions and fines or imprisonment, for example.

We can think about ‘distribution‘ too. By this I mean that we need to examine where supervision has increased most dramatically; that’s both a matter of geography and a matter of supervision’s social stratification. Who is subject to which forms of supervision in what number — and where do they live? The answers to those questions will tell us a great deal about the phenomenon.

In another sense, we should also consider the ‘shape‘ of mass supervision. What are its institutional, organisational and legal forms — how do these differ in different places and with what effects. Here, for example, we need to think both about the what kinds of supervisory sanctions are available (unpaid work, behaviour change programmes, treatment, curfews, etc.) and about who delivers them (professionals, para-professionals, volunteers) and in what context (state, voluntary or private organisations). To what extent are these kinds of sanctions delivered in a standardised or an individualised way?

One of the most important and interesting areas for me — and a key focus of the book — is the ‘intensity‘ of supervision. Borrowing once again from Ben Crewe’s (2011) work (as discussed in another previous post on penal severity), what is the depth, weight and tightness of supervision. To what extent and in what ways does it degrade as well as disciplining?

Questions of ‘legitimation‘ also arise. How is supervision (in its various forms) justified? What are its formal (and informal) purposes in the criminal justice system? How do these narratives and rationalities feed through into logics and practices of decision-making in the system — crucially about who gets selected for (and debarred from) supervision, and how and when supervision is breached, revoked or terminated? What forms of intervention flow from attempts to interpret and implement supervision in line with its formal and informal purposes? And how do these criminal justice system narratives and rationalities around supervision chime with or contradict public sensibilities about punishment and reintegration?

Finally, what are the ‘effects‘ of supervision? I don’t mean here simply the question of its effects on reoffending rates (though that remains an important area of research). Rather, I mean to question how mass supervision effects its subjects more broadly, how it effects the criminal justice system, and how it effects society itself. Perhaps ‘impact’ would be a better word.

I say ‘finally’, but I’m sure you can suggest other important dimensions that I am missing? As we say in Scots, “speak now or forever haud yer wheesht” [hold your peace, that is]. It’s about time I started writing, so your suggestions will be very welcome — not just about dimensions that may be missing, but also about which of those above I should be prioritising…




1 Comment

  1. Hi Fergus,

    What about relational aspect of supervision? Co-creating space and therapeutic dimension in this human contact? How supervisor’s presence in the here and now with the offender shape and colour the atmosphere of supervision? It is offender supervision, it is in criminal justice system space but it is still a contact between two human beings isn’t it?

    Best wishes,

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