It’s been a while since I have posted as a part of this blog series, and this is without a doubt my most unconventional topic to date. I’m lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to travel to Shanghai as a guest of the British Consulate to visit a reasonably new system of community sentences in China. I travelled with colleagues from the National Probation Service and the National Offender Management Service, whose role it was to provide expertise on the current (and rapidly changing) role of community sentences in England and Wales. I was there to provide an expert view on the role that the voluntary sector can play in providing quality and effective services to help people desist from crime. The trip took place over two days, with day one focussed on site visits to see what was happening in and around Shanghai, and day two focussed on roundtable meetings with the Chinese Ministry of Justice, academics, and practitioners.
There were a few notable challenges that stood in the way of our discussions. One was straight forwardly a language barrier, which was simply overcome with the help of tireless and brilliant translators, who were able to translate complex areas of policy, theory, and delivery with great ease. The second challenge was attempting to make a comparison between two very different countries with radically different political systems, social norms, and geographies. Think for a second about scale, and the fact that there are approximately 26 million people resident in Shanghai alone, making London’s population of about 10 million seem rather meagre. Thirdly, there isn’t a culture of community rehabilitation in China, so you’re dealing with a very immature, yet rapidly growing, service. They don’t have a probation service or probation officers, and are yet to develop a profession that builds expertise in supporting people to desist from crime in the community. Finally, and the most challenging aspect for me, there isn’t a voluntary sector, or at least not in the way that we know and understand it.
Our visits took us to neighbourhood, district and city level ‘community correction’ offices. There is a level of police involvement in their community correction service which we would probably only recognise from Integrated Offender Management. I also noted a keen focus on tracking and the use of GPS tracking to track the location of offenders, which was attached to a case management database that was shared across the area, and accessible by police and social workers who support people sentenced at the local level. It was also interesting to observe the offices where people on licence were met. In contrast to our probation offices there was no reception, no screen separating the social worker from the ‘offender’, and no individual interview rooms to talk through issues privately. So there’s a combination of what I would see as progressive and questionable practice all mixed into one. I suppose when you’ve got a populist society like China, then you’re bound to have a different approach.
There were definitely some positives to be taken from the practice as it was described to me. There were home visits, and close attention paid to the family home and life, in a way that I think a few of our members would regard as positive. The lead contact being a social worker also seemed to put a particular dynamic on the relationship that focussed on need rather than risk, however, it was quickly apparent that the majority of the people subject to ‘community corrections’ were quite low risk, to themselves, the public, and in regards to re-offending rates. There was also a reasonably high, and growing, number of volunteers engaged locally to help deliver community correction services.
Throughout the visits it was difficult to tell if there was any sort of active voluntary sector, or NGOs (as they were frequently referred to in China). It later became apparent that there are emerging voluntary sector organisations, but the sector itself isn’t regulated in the way it is in England and Wales, which means that organisations aren’t accountable to charitable objectives, or transparent in their activities and finances in the way that we are used to. It also means that the distinction we draw between different types of organisational structures such as registered charities, CICs, social enterprises, and so on, have little relevance to the Chinese experience. This meant that I had to go to some lengths to adequately describe the reality of the sector in our Criminal Justice System. Undertaking this sort of an exercise is useful to remind yourself of how critical the voluntary sector is. Even in China, the small scale NGOs appear instrumental in bringing about innovation, seeking to address the needs of minority groups, providing specialist and flexible services, and training up professional staff to deliver services.
Because the voluntary sector in China was less developed, it seemed to me that the task fell to academics to be at the forefront of driving forward change by making recommendations based on comparative research. The constructive involvement of academics in the debate was clearly a driving force for service design and service improvement, however, I did feel like some of the debate lacked the robust involvement of ‘critical friends’, a role that is so often fulfilled by voluntary sector organisations in our system. Although, I must stress that I thought the academics we talked to clearly articulated detailed critiques of the current system and made sound recommendations for change.
During the final day’s seminars there were a number of recommendations made as to how the Chinese system of community corrections could be improved. There seemed to be a broad consensus on a number of issues, where agreement was reached between government officials, academics, and providers. The issues were:
- The need to enact robust legislation that put community corrections within a legal framework, and enabled the Government to start to set a national outline for how community sentencing should be implemented.
- A vertical management system that was able to provide more robust guidance and checks on the content and quality of community corrections services throughout China.
- Improved professional development of the staff working with people serving community sentences.
- The increased use of third party organisations such as academics and the voluntary sector to improve services and add critical evidence and research to make recommendations for change.
- Communicate the dual role of community sentences, and define both the elements which are punishment and those that work towards rehabilitation, and why they are both equally necessary.
- Involve local communities in the resettlement of people serving community sentences through structured volunteering.
After our meetings were over and our time in China was coming to an end, I was left feeling that there is much other countries can and should take from our voluntary sector (both historically and the modern day reality). As we continue to tread the path of Transforming Rehabilitation in our country, and experiencing such a time of change, it felt cathartic to pause and look upon the sector’s role in the Criminal Justice System and reflect on all the positive change it has created, and the vital role it continues to play. The voluntary sector in China may be a way off from being able to bid for large scale contracts to deliver probation services, but there is an appetite to develop a more responsive community approach to rehabilitation, and I don’t see how this can be achieved without a vibrant voluntary sector. That left me with the more complicated question of, how do you develop a voluntary sector from such a low base. But then again, a blank canvas can be a good starting point.