Recently, I have been in conversations with academics and professionals about the effectiveness of offender reintegration programmes, risk management and public protection. There seems to be an idea that “risk management” is an evil concept and a by-line for punitive state control, which is worrying. A notion that public protection means a dictatorial system, with no flexibility, originality and a preserved need for rhetoric as well as justification – which is also concerning. The most disturbing though, which I have heard from professionals on both sides of the Atlantic, is the notion that reintegration is returning offenders to communities for them to get kept separate from said communities and not being allowed to interact with them because of risk management and public protection concerns. Which creates a perfect storm; for a lack of integration, support and partnership working can result in an increased likelihood of re-offending. The question that I have been pondering is whether we have become jaded by the system and that we cannot see the interrelated beneficial outcomes of these terms?
The big debate is reintegration versus integration. I think that these are two different things that often get confounded. The idea behind reintegration is to return someone to the same point in a situation that they were at before they were removed from that situation; but that is not what we want with offenders or sex offenders. We want to return them to society to a new, improved more adaptive situation. We do not want them falling into old habits, bad ways or being more likely to reoffend. We want them to develop good relationships, new relationships and positive social capital. Therefore, it’s not really reintegration as much as integration. It’s integration informed by treatment, risk management, social support and adaptive thinking. This is important because this perspective means that sex offender integration is a group activity involving the criminal justice system, the offender and the community; it is not simply “review, release and go,” instead it's more “review, release and support.”
Successfully integrating offenders into communities means that risk management is important, as it’s a proactive and forward-looking endeavour rather than a reactive and negative one. Risk management is not, and should not be, a one-size-fits-all model. Different individuals pose different risks and need different responses; additionally, over time, the same individual's risk can change and therefore so too will their risk management needs. Risk is fluid and, therefore, so should be risk management! However, there is a view that risk management is fixed, bureaucratic, autocratic and unchanging. If our role is to integrate ex-offenders, especially sex offenders, with all the labels that they bring with them, we have to change this view of risk management. We need risk management to work on an individual level so that offenders can get the best from the system and increase their likelihood of returning to the community and living offence free.
Both offender integration and positive risk management tie in with ideas of public protection. Generally when we talk of public protection in respect to sex offenders we are talking about proactive policing, social work, and probation; we are talking about how the system can limit the freedom of known offenders to protect the public from victimisation. Again, this form of public protection is not necessarily a bad thing in regard to certain offenders, but it cannot be a blanket approach, it needs to be a more individually driven approach that takes into account the individual offender. As risk management can be proactive in helping sex offenders integrate into communities post release, so too can public protection strategies, especially those that involve the community, multi-agency working and reflect the notion that people can change.
We have to reconsider the interrelationship between integration, risk management and public protection; they are not separate (but interrelated). They are not always negative (they can be, but they can be positive too). They can give us freedom to help offenders re-entering communities in a productive, individualistic way (so move away from one-size-fits-all models to more individualistic ones). If we as the people who work with these terms, concepts, guides, and frameworks on a daily basis see them as negative, undermining and problematic, imagine the impact that this has on the offender that has to live by them; therefore it would be worthwhile to reconsider how, why and in what way we use them.
Kieran McCartan, Ph.D