The shadow of penal supervision

Recovering hope: The future of supervision?

I didn’t want to leave you for long with just the unhappy ending offered in the last post. So, here again is the plot summary, and then the happier ending…

Joe has been placed on supervision (involving probation and electronic monitoring). Pauline is his supervisor. She is a somewhat battle-weary social worker, struggling to hold on to her values and her enthusiasm in the face of a high caseload and the onslaught of managerialism. Norm is her modernising supervisor, who genuinely believes in chasing the Key Performance Indicators as a way of efficiently serving the public interest. In the penultimate episode, Joe had visited a group convened by Petra called the Conviction Collective, made up of people that have experience of criminal justice and want to work to support one another and reform the system. Pauline had thought that Joe might find some purpose and some support there — and indeed, his first encounter with the group had awoken something in him.

12 months have passed since that hopeful moment.


VII-b    The gang of four

Norm heard two sounds as he woke: his own low moan and the insistent, monotonous electronic bell tolling from his alarm clock. It read 08.01 – he had 59 minutes to get ready and catch that train. Today was the day of the Justice Committee hearing on the future of supervision.

Norm hadn’t slept well, though already he couldn’t quite recollect the plots and sub-plots of the anxiety dreams that had plagued him in the night. Did Joe bring a tin of red paint to the hearing in one version? Did Petra accuse the parliamentarians of ‘techno-fascism’ in another? He was sure Pauline had been late in every version.

The old Norm would have run for cover by now but, despite his fears, the new Norm was excited about the day ahead. There was no doubt that the past 12 months had changed him. As he looked in the mirror, tying his tie, he admitted that he liked what he was becoming better than what he had been.

His first encounter with the Conviction Collective – at Pauline’s insistence – had left him unconvinced. Initially, he was sceptical about the willingness and ability of people under supervision to provide meaningful and effective peer support. But, he reasoned that if the Collective was a free supplement to formal services, then why not give it a chance? To offset any risk to his personal reputation and standing in the Company, Norm made clear that it was Pauline’s initiative and Pauline’s responsibility.

Within weeks though, seeing the glint in her eye and the spring in her step, he decided he should attend the weekly gathering and see what was going on. At first the answer seemed to be: ‘Not much’. About 12-15 people met and shared some pizza (it was never clear who paid for it, but Norm suspected Pauline). They talked together, sometimes they walked together; someone found an old table tennis table.

But, they also got organised. Ever the accountant, Joe had been instrumental in persuading them to identify, recognise and detail all the forms of ‘capital’ that they held. He made an inventory of their skills, resources and contacts. They started to simply exchange goods and services and introductions for one another; from each according to ability, to each according to need. The group grew and so did the inventory. The founding members invested more of themselves, the new members brought new assets and abilities. They advised, assisted and befriended one another.

Group members also began to share more and more of their experiences – both better and worse – of the justice system. The invited other ‘expert witnesses’ to plug the gaps in their understanding; criminologists, lawyers, sociologists – even a historian. Norm himself had been invited to explain the logic of the current supervision system. That had been quite a challenge and quite a grilling. Soon, the Collective had written a manifesto, naming it: ‘Just Conviction, Fair Supervision’. Norm didn’t agree with all its proscriptions and prescriptions, but he admired its clarity, its use of evidence and the force of its arguments.

The press soon took an interest. Petra turned out to be quite an operator; proving more than adept at handling everything from hostile questions from cynical political hacks to irate callers on early morning phone-ins. Surprisingly perhaps, listening to Petra and the others, people seemed to become more cautious and more curious about what sentences did to people and about what they achieved or failed to achieve for society.

Initially, Norm’s bosses had liked the positive PR that supporting the Collective generated; they thought it made them look progressive. They hadn’t been so happy about ‘Just Conviction, Fair Supervision’ – worried about their market share, he supposed, if those proposals were ever to be implemented. That said, Norm and Joe didn’t have to work too hard to convince the Company that excessive supervision wasn’t especially lucrative; not at least while there were stubbornly high revocation and reconviction rates. The Company knew that re-nationalisation was back on the political agenda; it was time to look for better business opportunities elsewhere. At the very least, Joe had argued, working with the government and the courts to scale down supervision and to deliver better results might minimise losses in the meantime. And in reputational terms, it also meant that the Company wasn’t left carrying the can on its own.

It was now Norm’s job to lead the Ministry-sanctioned local pilot of ‘Just Conviction, Fair Supervision’. And it was the very early results of the pilot that had led to the invitation to Norm, Petra, Pauline and Jo to give evidence to the Committee today.

The gang of four met at the coffee stall in the train station. Even Pauline was on time. They greeted one another like old friends, collected their orders and, as was their habit, made for the front carriage. They knew they were going to be in a hurry at their destination. They had already come a long way together in a short time, but there was a lot of work still to be done.  


Again, let me know your thoughts, please? Is this just too hopeful to ring true?