Controversies over the EU’s precise role in criminal justice have meant that much of its most meaningful work has been in funding cooperation and knowledge-sharing between different national institutions that work in the field. Leo Tigges is the Secretary General of CEP, the European Organisation for Probation, an organisation that has existed since the early 1980s, but which latterly has received 26 per cent of its operational funding from a grant by the European Commission. I met Leo in The Hague to hear about CEP’s work, and about how sharing good practice among justice professionals can also clarify and even shape policy priorities.
CEP was set up in 1981, at a time when the proportion of foreign nationals in European prisons was growing (as it has continued to do ever since). A very real problem was that prisoners were being released without adequate preparation, supervision or support. CEP initially came into being as a liaison between different countries’ probation systems, simply so that authorities could reach their nationals held in prisons abroad. Since those early days, it has changed its functions and formalised its role as a forum for discussion, but in the last few years, prompted by the continued increase in foreign prisoner numbers, CEP has returned to the issue that originally prompted its creation. Leo sees conducting high-quality research into policy issues as one of its major roles now, citing the fact that several members of CEP are university criminology and policy departments.
Leo is convinced that collaboration between European probation services has concrete benefits. ‘I’m convinced that [international] cooperation helps to reduce reoffending’, he said, pointing to the fact that with the EU’s recent Framework Decisions on prisoner transfer and on the transfer of probation sanctions, an increasing number of offenders will reintegrate into nations other than those where they committed their offence. ‘This is the reason that CEP runs conferences such as the one on Foreign Prisoners: we know that there are some organisations, in a few countries, providing reintegrative services prisoners wouldn’t otherwise access, and that other nations can learn lessons from them’. He is convinced that EU action can have a positive effect, citing the Framework Decision as a means by which offenders convicted of minor crimes may have a better chance of avoiding pre-trial detention. Alleged offenders who are foreign nationals are frequently held in pre-trial detention solely on the grounds of their nationality, for crimes and in circumstances where a national of that country would not have been; the damage caused by such imprisonment (which often lasts for over a year) is immense. Leo hopes that cross-border supervision orders will make it easier for suspects to be sent home and supervised by probation services pending their trial.
However, there are challenges involved. While the CEP tries to persuade Member States that they cannot sit back and do nothing in the face of the exclusion created by prisons, Leo is realistic about the realities of working in the current financial and economic climate. ‘It means that progress will be slow’, he says. ‘We are making a case for increased probation provision for foreign prisoners, and the reality is that many countries are freezing or reducing the level of provision’. He hopes that a forthcoming meeting with European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding will offer the chance to put forward the business case on foreign prisoner provision that was created at the recent CEP conference on this issue. More broadly, he also believes that greater cooperation at the European level among prison services, under the aegis of CEP’s relatively new sister organisation, Europris, will help criminal justice practitioners speak with a more coordinated voice. ‘Many of the issues facing prison administrations are the same as those facing probation services’, he says, ‘and in some areas, especially prisoner resettlement, the knowledge of probation services helps to maintain the links between prisons and wider society’.
QCEA’s recent report, The Social Reintegration of Ex-Prisoners, certainly suggests that this is the case, and we support the aim of integrating prisons as far as possible with the world ‘outside’; prisons should never become ‘places of forgetting’.