The Saxion Value of Probation research group is one of the first research groups in the Netherlands that is authorised to work with microdata provided by Statistics Netherlands (CBS). Its aim is to clarify, using large volumes of data, what the work done by the probation service is giving to Dutch society – not only in terms of financial value, but especially in terms of social value, and from every angle, lecturer Attila Németh tells us. Using a combination of data analysis and qualitative research, we get a better understanding of what the probation service is achieving with its work in the Netherlands.
Anyone who commits or is suspected of committing a crime in our country will come into contact with the probation service. Three probation institutions are responsible in the Netherlands for the supervision of offenders and suspects, and the community punishment orders that they have been sentenced to carry out. The probation service also plays a role in the diagnosis phase and in providing advice to judges and public prosecutors. With targeted interventions, such as behavioural training and counselling, the service supports current and former prisoners on their return to society. It goes without saying that there’s a price tag for these efforts, which in turn are directed at adding social value. The question here is: how do you measure the value of probation, in the complex reality of those involved, with their own issues, their own treatment plan and their results? In short, how do you research all those different variables?
Society’s calls for accountability are growing louder, especially when it comes to social issues. We are all inclined to look at the costs, but the other question is: what will we get out of it? These are two very legitimate questions. ”
Attila: ‘Research in this respect is unexplored territory. What the probation service really wanted was to set up a research group to examine this important and complex subject. Society’s calls for accountability are growing louder, especially when it comes to social issues. We are all inclined to look at the costs, but the other question is: what will we get out of it? These are two very legitimate questions.
More than two years ago, the probation service entered into a partnership with Saxion, in the form of the Value of Probation research group. In addition to research that could account for the actual outcomes of the probation service, Saxion formulated an additional research question: how can we increase the social value of probation work?
Statistics Netherlands has now granted authorisation that enables the research group to link its research data to large volumes of structured data that Statistics Netherlands is making available for the research. An intensive period of assessment, evaluation and analysis preceded this new step. Attila: ‘Over the past two years, we have systematically mapped out probation work and, in particular, the changes that clients and those close to them experience as a result. From there, we have taken steps towards finding out what the effects of this are for society. We have done a lot of literature research in the process. This involves classifying many concepts, analysing them, determining how they relate to one another and putting them into causal models. We now have a wall-to-wall model. We are trying to chart a non-linear system as best we can, so that we can model reality. The most complicated part of this is that you have to quantify the changes in clients, and you then you have to quantify what the impact on society is. There, in that quantification, is where the enormous challenge lies.’
Anyone who commits a crime enters the system and costs society a lot of money. If we can prevent recidivism, the benefits will be huge.
If we look specifically at what can be changed through the counselling that the probation service offers its clients, we are talking about their attitude, drug abuse, health, housing, starting a training course or finding a job, and changes in income. All these elements influence the likelihood of
recidivism and so they affect increases or reductions in crime. Less crime produces a list of welfare benefits, such as damage prevention, improved living environments in neighbourhoods, and the costs of safeguarding safety that do not have to be incurred. After all, fewer offences mean fewer investigations, fewer lawyers and a reduction in the entire administrative organisation underlying these things. Attila: ‘Anyone who commits a crime enters the system and costs society a lot of money. If we can prevent recidivism, the benefits will be huge. Subjective safety is also a factor. Feeling safer as a society has benefits for all of us. We are trying to create as complete a picture as possible of all the benefits that can be achieved from the work the probation service does.
Of course, what we would really like to see is people making a meaningful contribution to society again, for instance by going on a course or finding a job. Their debts are reduced,and they need less social or medical support. Identifying and listing all those welfare aspects requires a diverse research team: quantitative and qualitative researchers, a public administration expert, a sociologist and a safety expert, plus a lawyer. Students who are affiliated with our research group also come to us from all kinds of study programmes. For instance, they may be studying Social Legal Services, Public Administration or Applied Psychology. The students share an interest in this subject and learn to speak one another’s language. It's fantastic. Our provisional calculation models give a first impression of the extent of the various costs and benefits to society, but we need to deepen our knowledge.
The students share an interest in this subject and learn to speak one another’s language. It's fantastic.
The authorisation that Statistics Netherlands granted us means that our research group will soon be able to carry out analyses on larger data sets. ‘We link the probation service data to the data from Statistics Netherlands, which in turn collects huge volumes of data on all kinds of social aspects in Dutch society. This could be about work, housing or how often people have a brush with the law. In our analyses we discuss several logical groups, at type level. Privacy at a personal level is fully guaranteed in this analysis, because we only include results at group level.
Our ambition is to implement our social cost-benefit analyses in a digital environment based on the type of group. It will be a system that supports decisions, one which not only gives us insight into results, but also one in which we can change the variables to see what the potential effects are. This will give the probation service the opportunity to account for its work and to substantiate strategic decisions. If the service can increase the financial and social benefits of its efforts, our Saxion research will not only have contributed to improved accountability but also to a better society. What’s more, the method we develop can also be used for other policy sectors in social work, healthcare and safety. You could say that we are using mathematics to improve social well-being.’