Unnesting the Matryoshka Doll: An Ecological Model of Probation and Parole Decision-Making in Ireland

Published date01 February 2023
Date01 February 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2023, Vol. 39(1) 75 –93
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862221138678
Unnesting the Matryoshka
Doll: An Ecological Model
of Probation and Parole
Decision-Making in Ireland
Deirdre Healy1 and Diarmuid Griffin2
Understanding penal decision-making has become a central concern of criminologists
over recent decades. Although scholars acknowledge the complex, multi-faceted,
and contextual nature of penal decision-making, many rely on a single level of analysis
to study the process. There is a rich literature on the socio-political, organizational,
and individual context of decision-making, but few studies consider the impact of
multiple influences simultaneously. To address this gap, this article uses a multi-level
framework to shed light on the systems, processes, and actors that shape penal
decision-making in Ireland. It draws on two case studies, namely probation and
parole, to demonstrate that macro-, meso-, micro-, and individual-level influences
must be considered to achieve a comprehensive understanding. Our analysis shows
that macro-level systems such as legal and political processes play an important role
in shaping probation and parole decisions. At the meso-level, institutional policies,
values, and culture come into play while practitioner agency operates at the micro-
level to support, alter, or subvert macro- and meso-level developments. Finally, the
characteristics and behavior of victims and offenders can shape decision-making at
the individual level. The article concludes with a reflection on the implications of this
analysis for criminological knowledge.
parole, probation, ecological model, Ireland
1University College Dublin, Ireland
2University of Galway, Ireland
Corresponding Author:
Deirdre Healy, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin D04 V1W8, Ireland.
Email: Deirdre.healy@ucd.ie
1138678CCJXXX10.1177/10439862221138678Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeHealy and Grin
76 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 39(1)
The search for a comprehensive framework to chart and explain the processes, driv-
ers, and outcomes of penal policy has captured the criminological imagination in
recent decades, generating a wealth of research on penal rhetoric, policy, and prac-
tice. While space constraints preclude a full review of this literature, it is important
to highlight some key theoretical strands to contextualize our discussion of penal
trends in the Irish context. Rubin and Phelps (2017) document a theoretical shift
away from so-called grand narratives to approaches that emphasize differences and
complexities in penal trajectories both within and between countries. Most notably,
there is a burgeoning literature on penal exceptionalism which explores how some
countries, including Ireland, have eluded global penological trends. This literature
has made important contributions to our understanding of penal change, highlight-
ing the existence of counter-narratives and divergent trajectories, providing a deeper
understanding of the forces underpinning policy change and promoting a reform
agenda. However, Brangan (2020) queries the explanatory value of penal exception-
alism as a concept, given the proliferation of examples in the literature, and con-
cludes that efforts to benchmark countries against a hegemonic ideal may lead
researchers to overlook the significance of context-specific factors. Supporting this,
Tonry (2007, p. 38) concludes that “the determinants of changes in penal policies are
complex and contingent” and favors methodologies that produce nuanced analyses
of a wide range of potential explanatory variables, particularly local determinants
which are often more salient than global factors. In addition, Rubin and Phelps
(2017) reject the standard depiction of the penal state as a coherent and unified
entity, arguing that in reality the penal state is comprised of a diverse array of actors
operating at multiple system levels, each with their own agendas, values, roles, con-
texts, and cultures. Because of this, policy change is rarely linear and is better con-
ceptualized as a complex and multi-faceted process shaped by diverse forces (see
also Goodman et al., 2015). The fragmentary and contested nature of this process
often results in gaps between official and frontline rhetoric and practice (McNeill
et al., 2009, p. 421). According to Newburn et al. (2018), policy ideas are fragile and
highly mobile and, as they circulate through systems and states, both change and are
changed by the terrain through which they travel. In practical terms, this requires
attention not just to visible artifacts such as the introduction of a new policy but also
to informal aspects such as the values, beliefs, cultures, and practices that influence
practitioners’ receptiveness to new approaches (Rubin, 2019). Research also high-
lights the importance of studying multiple levels of analysis. Within the probation
field, Dominey (2019) argues that effective practice is achieved through profession-
als in different parts of the system working collaboratively—and with the commu-
nity—to support people under supervision. Taken together, this literature shows that
a comprehensive account of penal decision-making requires a foregrounding of the
local context, analysis of multiple system levels, attention to the role of actors (both
leaders and frontline practitioners), and deconstruction of the penal field into its
constituent elements.

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