Monday, 20 October 2008

Reflections from a research trip down under; A case of networking or notworking?

By Julie Trebilcock

If I had been able to secure a pound or two from every sceptical individual that I have come across in the last few months upon hearing about my research trip to Melbourne, in the State of Victoria, Australia, I could more than likely afford to go back. And on this occasion, I could probably afford to return and not actually do any work!

The concepts of ‘research trip’ and ‘networking’ seem to raise considerable suspicion, especially when it’s revealed that they are taking place somewhere as far away and as idyllic as Australia. But, my trip, no doubt like the majority of research trips, involved both considerable planning in the 12 months leading up to my visit, and a busy schedule of work during my 4 weeks away.

My aims for the trip were broad, but because my research centres around a relatively controversial development in the UK, the “dangerous and severe personality disorder” (DSPD) programme, I was interested to explore how the State of Victoria deals with individuals who may be similarly defined, as well as to consider their approach to mentally disordered offenders more generally. I was fortunate to receive a very welcoming response from my hosts, the University of Melbourne, but also from a number of criminal justice and mental health agencies based in the community, the courts, and high security, who agreed to spend time with me.

While I expected the Victorian approach to mentally disordered offenders to differ from the UK approach, not least because in contrast to England and Wales, personality disorder is excluded from their mental health legislation, I was surprised to find out just how different their approach was.

During one visit to the Thomas Embling Hospital, the most secure psychiatric facility in Victoria, the Senior Nurse who was kindly showing me around, commented “you can probably tell we are very risk averse here”. My reaction was one of bemusement and shock, as this had certainly not been my impression, not just in terms of this facility, but more generally with Victoria’s approach to both forensic patients and offenders.

Instead, I had found Victoria’s response, to be framed in therapeutic rather than punitive terms, reliant most often on the community, while prisons and high security psychiatric facilities were reserved for use as a last resort. As a PhD student from the UK, who has witnessed more criminal justice legislation under Labour than in the preceding 100 years; dramatic increases in the number of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences; and recent moves to build our way out of a prison crisis, this approach was particularly refreshing to see. Rather than being the poor relation to the prison service, the community, was presented as Victoria’s most valuable resource in their response to offending behaviour.

While it would be naive to be completely seduced by the Victorian response, not least because comparative research has shown that the context in which a policy is placed is as significant in terms of success as the programme or policy itself, it is felt that there is much that we could learn from the Victorian example, and at the very least, the fact that such an approach is possible.

This reflects that while in many respects I was notworking on my PhD during my networking trip, I was instead able to consider approaches and services that are very different to those that I usually study, and to think about what might be possible outside of the assumptions that structure the UK response to offending. In this respect, I feel the trip was particularly helpful for provoking thought in the final stages of my PhD, generating ideas for future research, and for my personal development as an academic. I only wish that I could say that all my work was this profitable and enjoyable!
Julie would like to take this opportunity to thank the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the University of Melbourne, Monash University, Forensicare, Stateswide Forensic Services, the Department of Corrections, the Court Integrated Services Programme (CISP) & the Mental Health Review Board of Victoria.
Julie Trebilcock first graduated from Keele in 2004 with an undergraduate degree in Criminology and Applied Social Studies. Today, Julie is in the final stages of a Criminology PhD and working part time as a researcher for the Ministry of Justice.

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