Probation supervision (remote supervision using digital technologies)
The proliferation of, and advances in technology have revolutionised the way individuals connect with one another both socially and professionally, with the majority of occupational settings having been transformed. This shift has resulted in what experts have described as the ‘information age’, a period in history where the economy is based on technological advances and a major change to the way society operates (Carr, 2017).
This paradigm shift has led providers of probation to explore the possibilities offered by new technologies that might improve or enhance their operations. However, despite increased interest, advances in this field have remained slow. To better understand the current evidence within the probation setting, researchers at the Policy Evaluation and Research Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University undertook a Rapid Evidence Assessment of the use of technology in probation. This is an overview of this assessment.
What is it?
Remote supervision is often concerned with the supervision of low-risk offenders who are less likely to require intensive supervision, and can be successfully managed in the community. Remote supervision typically includes a device, either fixed or mobile, that allows offenders to access information, receive updates and maintain communication with their offender manager. In its simplest form remote supervision may refer to the use of telephone communication as a supplement to one to one sessions, although technological advances have increased the possibilities in this area. In the United States, examples include the use of kiosk machines that allow offenders to check in with probation staff, that might involve ‘face to face’ conversation or the upload of information. Innovations in the UK have typically taken the form of electronic monitoring (EM) or tagging, whereby offenders are tagged on release or probation with a device that allows for remote tracking of their whereabouts.
Should it work?
A potential driver of technological innovation in probation in Europe and North America, the use of technology in supervision has become an area of focus despite the fact that its use has been relatively modest compared to other sectors. The use of technology in this manner should in theory provide many benefits, including a reduction in costs and shorter time-periods – for instance travel times and expenses could be significantly reduced, for supervisors and supervisees, allowing both parties to engage in other productive activities. Of course technology is not without its problems, and poses new costs and other risks around technological problems and failures.
Does it work?
The answer as to whether or not technology enhanced remote supervision works remains unclear, given that this review was considered to be an example of an empty review (Yaffe et al., 2012). Empty reviews typically refer to systematic reviews that find no studies eligible for inclusion. It has been suggested that this may be due to the reviewed topic area being immature and therefore not currently suitable for review (Cooper, cited by Yaffe et al., 2012). Empty reviews may either offer no conclusions, or make conclusions based on a number of sources, such as excluded studies, other evidence, or no evidence. Whilst numerous articles showed promise, it was not possible to make a clear judgement about inclusion based on the information available. Three studies came close to meeting the criteria for inclusion due to rigorous research design, and provided some evidence that the use of technology in supervision is effective in terms of intermediate outcomes for probationers. However, whilst each of the three papers represents a valuable contribution towards advancing knowledge in their specific areas, and clearly met a number of the criteria for inclusion, the reviewers concluded that they were not eligible for further synthesis.
How strong is the evidence?
The purpose of the review was to identify and synthesise ‘trustworthy’ evidence, as the basis for making causal inferences about the effect of remote supervision and technologies on reoffending and other intermediate probationer outcomes. The Rapid Evidence Assessment sought to evaluate existing empirical evidence, examining the effectiveness of remote supervision approaches and emerging new technologies to manage probation service user and assist with their desistance from further offending.
Despite initial searches identifying 22,608 articles for screening, this number was reduced to three studies that were ultimately excluded from the review. The overall finding therefore was that there is a dearth of evidence with regard to the effectiveness (and cost-effectiveness) of remote supervision and new technologies in managing probation service users. At present, based on the findings of this review, there is a lack of evidence pertaining to the use of technology in probation supervision.
Is it worth it?
The review did not address the financial costs or benefits of using remote supervision.
Can it be implemented?
The review described here did not consider implementation or potential barriers to effective implementation.
What's missing from the evidence?
Based on the review process and findings, this topic is not currently suitable for evidence synthesis due to the lack of evidence pertaining to the use of technology in probation supervision.