Inside Probation and the Possibilities for Penal Reform

29 Oct

When viewed alongside international comparators the use of supervised community sanctions (such as Probation and Community Service Orders) in Ireland is relatively low. The marked increase in the prison population in Ireland in recent years has focused attention once again on the under-utilisation of community sanctions. The recent report of the Strategic Review on Penal Policy echoes calls made in numerous policy documents over the past 30 years, to reduce the use of imprisonment, particularly for short prison sentences, and to strengthen the range of community sanctions available to the courts. Alongside cost imperatives – prison is an expensive sanction – the detrimental effects of prison have been noted. Temporary incapacitation, particularly in the form of short prison sentences does not help to reduce offending in the long-term. In fact a wide range of evidence suggests the opposite effect.

However, lessons from other countries suggest that caution should be exercised in viewing community sanctions as merely a mechanism of penal reductionism. When community sanctions are positioned as ‘alternatives to prison’ prison is viewed as the ‘norm’ to which the ‘alternative’ should be provided. The result is that community sanctions are ‘toughened’ up to give them an associated punitive bite that may make them potentially more attractive to sentencers and to the public. What has been shown in other countries is that the net result of this approach may not yield the reduction that is required, but result in precisely the opposite effect.

Increasingly stringent community penalties see people being brought under the ambit of probation services where they may previously have been given a lesser sentence. An emphasis on enforcement of these ‘tougher sanctions’ results in greater numbers of people being sent to prison for failure to comply with the conditions of their orders. Constituted in these terms, probation functions as a net-widening rather than a penal reduction mechanism. One commentator who has analysed the relationship between probation and prison populations across the United States characterises this as the ‘paradox of probation’.

There are important lessons to be learnt from international research that explores the different use of community sanctions and the inter-relationship between their use and imprisonment. These include sentencing processes and practices and the effectiveness of probation supervision and services. Addressing the issue of sentencing processes and practices – the final report of the Strategic Review of Penal Policy published in July of this year calls for a more structured and transparent approach to sentencing by the Courts. To this effect it reiterates a previous recommendation that where a custodial sentence is imposed the reason for such a sentence should be provided in writing. In response to this particular recommendation, the Minister for Justice has indicated that she will seek to legislate on this matter. While placing an emphasis on the need to reduce the use of imprisonment in Ireland, the Review also recommends an increase in the use of community sanctions. However, it notes that order to achieve this community sentences will need to be ‘effective, credible and command community confidence’.

Research on what may enhance both public and sentencer support for community sanctions shows that attention needs to be paid towards how the purposes of justice can be served by such sentences. This involves both evidence-based arguments- typically premised on rational considerations of what is most effective; but critically a wider consideration about what values and functions of justice community sentences should serve. An example of such evidence-based arguments is the recent data on recidivism published by the Prison Service and the Probation Service which shows lower levels of re-offending for those subject to community sanctions when compared with imprisonment. However, appeals to the wider purposes and values of community justice should also involve an increased focus on how community based sanctions can provide greater opportunities for reparation and change. Some commentators have even argued that such ‘affective’ approaches should appeal to sentiments regarding redemption and a belief in forgiveness.

Central also to leveraging support for community sentences is focusing on the potential for people to change. Given the complex and interrelated nature of issues faced by many who are processed through our criminal justice system – including drug and alcohol addictions, mental health difficulties and homelessness – such processes of change are often likely to be complex and to take time. Importantly, also as the Strategic Review of Penal Policy notes, these challenges cannot be met alone by agencies within the criminal justice system. The role of the health services and local authorities in this area and the need for a greater coherency of approach across various agencies is noted in the Review.

The recent broadcast on RTE of the documentary Inside Probation showed some of the difficulties faced by people on probation and the complexities of work in this area. It also shone a light on a part of the criminal justice system that is often overlooked in public discourse and commentary. The recommendations set out the Strategic Review and the proposed legislative changes to modernise probation, provide real opportunities for re-orienting the criminal justice system away from an over-reliance on the use of imprisonment. The challenge will be to ensure that increasing the use of community sanctions achieves the desired effect of reducing our use of imprisonment and affecting broader positive changes in the lives of those who are its subjects.

Dr Nicola Carr

Lecturer in Criminology, School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast

Management Committee Member of COST Action IS1106 Offender Supervision in Europe 

#Blog ‘Crime, Disorder and Symbolic Governance’ by Matt Bowden

25 Oct

The Irish Criminology Research Network is very pleased to present a guest blog from Dr Matt Bowden. Matt has written a blog on his new book (forthcoming, November 2014) from Palgrave, Crime, Disorder and Symbolic Governance: Governing the Urban Periphery. His guest blog provides an overview of the work, and a fascinating insight into the continued relevance of its subject matter and the publishing process.

What I have tried to do in Crime, Disorder and Symbolic Violence is to use some of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas on the formation of the state to draw out a theory of governance of territories and of subjects. In this way we might come to understand state power as a penetrating force in physical space, symbolic space and in social space. Like Gramsci, Bourdieu was interested in the state’s quest for legitimate power as an agent of dominant classes. However Bourdieu’s emphasis is upon the use of symbolic violence – the manipulation of meaning through the imposition of arbitrary frames on reality. The state therefore acts as the shaper of conscience and appoints and legitimises various institutions and allies into this project.

In a nutshell, I have put forward a theoretical case of symbolic violence. This centres on how youth crime and disorder was dealt with in the urban periphery. Previously many social scientists had sought to conduct, like the social Darwinists at the Chicago School, ecologically informed studies of the inner-city. My focus was on the urban periphery as a new socio-spatial formation – seen by politicians and planners as a developmental environment that was supposed to be an improvement on the living conditions experienced by the working classes in inner-city areas. The outbreaks of urban disorder in these planned communities in the 1990s were upsetting for all those planners and beneficent politicians who built them. Manuel Castells in his book City, Class and Power spoke of the urban periphery as a productive ensemble of labour and the means of production: the Irish urban periphery, primarily in Dublin was an ensemble of labour power and little else. Industrial policy in the 1980s had dispersed new FDI based industries to the provinces, leaving cities surrounded by pools of surplus labour – the very conditions for urban disorder. Hence that state had to make a phoenix-like resurrection after its own benign neglect, and this is best captured in the report of the Interdepartmental Group on Urban Crime and Disorder published in 1993. Recognising the wider complexities of the problems in the urban periphery, the report effectively placed the Department of Justice as a central driver of development in a number of governing arenas. It had to find additional ways of penetrating the space and the people who lived there. Thus the argument of the book is the state found itself governing its way out of a crisis through symbolic violence.

It took me a long time to write this book but I have long since given up on seeing that as a shortcoming. Apart from the fact that the subject matter is of a type that needed the passage of time to protect those who informed it, the finished product I hope has an aged flavour. An article that I wrote based upon this book was rejected by two international journals.  Of course I could have done a better job writing it but a reviewer in one journal said that it was dealing with historical events that did not reflect what was happening in the country now. My initial anger on reading this turned later to pity for that poor soul as this year I watched, read and listened to day after day reports about how the police were treating whistleblowers, reports of the secretive and silo culture in the Department of Justice, and the cosy relationship that existed between government and police. I am very pleased that the book will be a repository for the 15 years I put into researching and writing this material and so I am cool with that.

Crime Disorder and Symbolic Violence

DIT Recruiting: 2 Lecturer in Law positions

23 Oct

The School of Languages, Social Sciences and Law is recruiting two whole-time permanent assistant lecturer in law positions. Applications are welcomed from those with experience teaching private or public law subjects at undergraduate and postgraduate level, particularly Torts, Jurisprudence and Family Law. Knowledge of socio-legal studies would also be an advantage.

The successful candidate will be research-active, with peer-reviewed publications and conference papers.

  • Masters (essential)
  • PhD (desirable)
  • Three years’ teaching experience

This is a whole-time post, in addition to teaching (approx. 20 hours per week), the successful candidate will be expected to be present on campus Monday to Friday.

The closing date is Friday 7th November. For further information please contact Dr Mary Rogan at, for information about the application process please contact Sarah Meredith at 402 3448 or email

More information available here.

Invitation to Tender: Research Project

11 Oct

IPRT has circulated an invitation to tender for a ground-breaking piece of research into the rights, needs and experiences of LGBT prisoners in Ireland. The research is supported by funding from Community Foundation for Ireland, and will address the current gap in knowledge on this issue.

‘Out on the Inside: The Rights, Needs and Experiences of LGBT Prisoners in Ireland’

International indications are that LGBT prisoners may be both disproportionately represented and especially vulnerable to abuse within the prison system, however there is little domestic research currently in existence on their specific rights and needs.

Recent developments, in the form of the “Inside Out” initiative for LGBT prison officers in Ireland, indicate that there is an open policy environment to issues of LGBT rights. IPRT believes this presents a timely opportunity to bring the specific needs of LBGT prisoners to the fore.

The research will consist of an active research study of current provisions for LGBT detainees as well as a comparative review of international standards and best practice, the research will also involve a limited number of interviews.

The key output from this project will be a concise issues paper for submission to key policy makers, with a view to securing specific policy commitments which promote inclusion and equality of LGBT detainees.

More details on the research project can be found here: IPRT Invitation to Tender LGBT Prisoners.

Tenders should be submitted to Deirdre Malone at before midday on Monday 10 November.

Call for Papers and Posters: Postgrad Symposium on Occupation, Transitional Justice and Gender

7 Oct

A Postgraduate Symposium on Occupation, Transitional Justice and Gender will be held at the University of Ulster on Friday 8 May 2015.

The keynote speaker is Dr Christine Chinkin, Professor of International Law at London School of Economics and Political Science. The one-day event will be hosted by the Transitional Justice Institute (University of Ulster) and the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (University of Ulster).

From the call for papers:

This symposium seeks to explore the interface between occupation, transitional justice and gender. The starting point for exploration is based in feminist concerns that are broadly focused on issues of power, control and hierarchies. More specifically, feminist theorizing acknowledges that women’s needs during times of occupation, conflict, and/or transition are often ignored, sidelined or essentialised; recent research is also looking into masculinities during these periods. While much research has explored transitional justice and gender, there has been limited research on the relationship and complexities of occupation and gender. Furthermore, there is a dearth of research on how these three concepts intersect, inform and/or impact each other. Some questions to be explored during the symposium may include:

1. What might be the approach in exploring the interface between occupation and transitional justice while utilizing a gendered lens?
2. How does law capture modern instances of occupation that do not fit neatly into the existing legal coding?
3. Can transitional justice mechanisms be employed while there is an occupation and can such mechanisms take the gendered needs of the population into account?
4. Can the exceptionality of occupation reveal gender differences unapparent in normal settings and, if so, what are their implications for transitional justice theory and praxis?

We invite papers from postgraduate students (PhD and Masters) who are exploring the above-mentioned questions in any context and any time period; case studies and theoretical papers are also welcomed. We also invite poster proposals to be featured during a special poster session. For paper or poster proposals, please send a title, a 200-word abstract, and a short one-paragraph biography by 31 December 2014 to Rimona Afana ( and Stephanie Chaban ( Acceptance of abstracts will be notified by 15 January 2015.

All submissions will be eligible for Best Paper and Best Poster awards. Papers will get substantive and thorough feedback from faculty with expertise in gender/transition and/or law of armed conflict. The organizers are exploring the possibility of publication for the best papers. The symposium will feature Dr. Christine Chinkin, Professor of International Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, as the keynote speaker. Gender experts from the Transitional Justice Institute and IRiSS will also participate. Furthermore, there will also be a praxis session involving domestic and international work related to women’s grassroots involvement in transitional justice mechanisms. The full schedule will be announced shortly.

The symposium is sponsored by the Feminist & Women’s Studies Association (FWSA):

Further sponsorship is provided by the Transitional Justice Institute, University of Ulster, the Research Graduate School, University of Ulster, and the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, University of Ulster. The event will be held at the York Street Campus, Belfast.

University of Limerick: ‘Research Methodologies in Law’

7 Oct

The University of Limerick will host a conference on research methodologies in law on 23 October 2014.

Often a marginalised concern within legal research, the conference hopes to share the theoretical approaches and research experience of persons working in the area.

The plenary speakers are Professor Sally Wheeler and Professor Fiona Cownie. Research methodologies for discussion will include:

  • Historical research
  • Theories of rights
  • Socio-legal method
  • Comparative method
  • Doctrinal method

Further information is available here.

Edinburgh Postgraduate Law Conference

7 Oct

Edinburgh Law School will host the second annual Postgraduate Law Conference on 1-2 December 2014. The theme of the 2014 conference is ‘Innovations in the Law: New Challenges, New Perspectives’.

Registration and a finalised programme will be available in November.

For a sense of the event, last year’s conference is reported here.


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