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Restrictions on freedom: the paradoxes of supervision

Types of supervision for prisoners on conditional release include the requirement to report regularly to a parole officer, electronic house arrest or community service. These are all serious measures for the person on whom they are imposed and for society. But it is a subject on which little research has been done. Professor of Criminology and Comparative Penology Miranda Boone wants to change this. Inaugural lecture on 28 September.

Supervision is a broad concept, Miranda Boone explains. She is referring to supervision subject to conditions or obligations, following sentencing for a criminal offence or suspicion of a criminal offence, where the offender remains within society. ‘We're talking about community service, or the requirement to wear an electronic tag, but it could also mean guidance or treatment of a person who is on conditional release,' Boone explains. Conditional release is becoming more common: at the end of 2016, 250 out of every 100,000 Dutch people were under the supervision of the Parole Board. 'That's five times the number of people in prison,' Boone says. She also sees that the supervision is becoming more intensive. 'Supervision today can also be via technological means - and for a longer period. Until recently, there was a maximum term of three years for supervision but since 1 January detainees and those convicted of serious violence or sex offences can have lifelong supervision imposed on them.' 

More supervision and more custodial sentences

Does this increase in sentences served in the community mean that there are fewer people in prison? Supervision is often introduced as a punishment that deprives people of their freedom, isn't it? ‘That's what is so remarkable: we generally see the opposite,' Boone says. 'In comparative research between countries or states, we see that an increase in supervision often goes hand in hand with more custodial sentences.' This is one of the apparent contradictions related to supervision on which Boone wants to focus in her research. 

Prison via the back door

Boone does, however, have a theory about what lies behind this parallel increase. The criminal measures that are imposed reflect the characteristics of a society. This applies to all punishments - whether it is the imposition of supervision, or imprisonment. If a society is punitive, i.e. aimed at punishing people for their actions, both forms will be imposed more frequently. Moreover, there is another effect, which means that more supervision leads to more deprivation of liberty: if someone violates his conditions, he or she can still be detained. In this way, a person can still be put in prison, even if he or she has never been detained for the original offence.

A favour or a punishment?

A second paradox that Boone examines has to do with the nature  of supervision. 'It is often presented as a "favour" rather than a punishment: you may serve your punishment outside prison, you have "only electronic supervision" or "only an obligation to report". But as I said, the intensity of supervision has increased dramatically over the years. Moreover, it is often experienced as a very heavy burden by the person being supervised. Some of them even say they find it harder than serving their sentence in prison.'

Commotion and emotions

The professor sees a third striking paradox in the emotions and public opinion about supervision, apparent in the conditional release of Volkert van der G. in 2014. The conditions imposed were not insignificant: for many years to come he would have to report every week to his parole officer, he had an area ban covering several cities and had to wear an electronic tag; he also had to undergo compulsory supervision by a psychologist, and was banned from the media. Yet a storm of protest followed when he was released. 'That certainly didn't get any better when he started to challenge these conditions - successfully,' says Boone. 'Public opinion about his conditional freedom was anything but positive. And we often see this kind of commotion in the media, especially about people who have been convicted of a more serious crime.' That can give the  impression that there is no or less support for supervision. 'But sound scientific research shows that this is not the case. People are positive about punishments in the community and contributing to restoring contact with society for those convicted.'

Involved citizens

This support is also evident from the involvement of citizens in the implementation of supervision. Around 40,000 community service penalties are imposed every year,and there are various successful initiatives to assist sex offenders in their return to society. These projects often rely heavily on volunteers. Boone: 'I would like to do more research into how citizens experience supervision. What happens between them and the convicted person? Boone also wants to gain more insight into the decision-making process for the lifting of supervision - when and why is someone detained if the conditions have been violated - and how? 'It is such a big part of our criminal system, but in fact relatively little research has been done on it. I hope to change that a little.'

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