Regulating Justice: The dynamics of compliance and breach in criminal justice social work in Scotland

Project: Research

Project Details


"Over 40 per cent of people serving community punishments are subject to breach (not complying with a disposal because of further offending or failing to keep to conditions), yet the processes of compliance and breach are little understood or researched. This study of breach and compliance in Scotland uses quantitative and qualitative data to explore how offenders and professionals interpret compliance and breach; what factors relating to policy, practice and offender characteristics affect compliance and breach; and how breach policy and practice can be enhanced so as to encourage the cessation of offending.

A literature review, the collection of aggregate data nationally and 548 interviews with professionals and offenders in 3 case study areas are the 3 methods to be used. A Research Advisory Group has been set up and Strathclyde University's Ethics Committee has approved the research methods.

The study seeks to impact politically (boosting confidence in criminal justice social work amongst the judiciary, offenders and the wider public), economically (ensuring that social work engagement with offenders works to secure their cooperation and reintegration), and operationally (offering new ways for supervising social workers to engage meaningfully with offenders subject to community-based disposals and post-custodial orders)."

Key findings

"1. Contrary to theoretical explanations, this empirical study suggests that offender compliance is not determined by perceptions of legitimacy: indeed the opposite may be the case: people comply because they are obliged to, or lose their liberty if not, and not because they believe in the legitimacy of the system. We were able to develop a 'continuum of compliance' which focuses more on obligation and fear compared with other theories of compliance which focus on legitimacy and cooperation.

2. Different professionals, however, referred to a spectrum of levels of engagement from superficial to substantive, reflecting different motivational postures. If compliance is measured by degrees of behaviour, e.g., attendance and engagement; willingness and ability to comply; and the effects of contextual enablements and constraints - as with all regulatory practices, those doing the regulating need to 'govern the gap' between what counts as acceptable and non-acceptable levels of conformity from the specified standard. Yet, the regulation of professional decision making is more concerned with adherence to processes of engagement than with quality of engagement practices.

3. There are notable differences in the regulation of compliance within and across different forms of community-supervision reflecting distinct tolerance thresholds for non-compliance. While this distinction in tolerance thresholds and regulatory practices is explicitly concerned with riskiness, it should be noted that tolerance thresholds and regulatory practices also vary across different forms of community supervision - not least because different orders imply different purposes, have different demands and may include different levels of risk and need. These dynamics inform assessments of reasonable cause for non-compliance which influences the exercise of discretion. High risk offenders are being breached at a higher rate than low risk offenders, and post-release licencees at a higher rate than those on community-based sentences, suggesting that social workers have a lower tolerance of non-compliant behaviours by high risk and post-release offenders.

4. Data collection by social work departments is neither research-friendly nor consistent across geographical areas, and information is often held in different databases. There are also wide variations in completion rates across the country. Over 50% of reasons for breach and outcome of breach were not recorded on the various criminal justice social work databases, and yet such data are crucial in understanding the rationale and processes of criminal justice social workers."


Regulating Justice: The dynamics of compliance and breach in criminal justice social work in Scotland
Effective start/end date1/12/1230/05/15


  • ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council): £206,657.00


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