The rehabilitative model of probation with its inherent social work values, knowledge and methods of intervention remains the dominant approach to the supervision of offenders in Hong Kong. The major aim of this paper is to look at the perceptions and experiences of 10 female drug offenders aged from 19 to 30 of their one-year community probation sentence, using a gender analysis of criminality and drug misuse. Allowing female offenders to speak is essential not only in understanding their problems and needs related to their offending behaviour but also to empower them to inform practitioners what in practice will work best with them. According to data generated from in-depth face-to-face interviews, females used drugs as a means of coping with relationship breakdowns and their complex lifestyles, and preferred being treated as friends rather than criminals who required close supervision. These women also quoted the support of their family, and their own determination as being the most important factors to bring about change in their offending behaviour. In relation to the Chinese culture, it is argued that a concern for personal relationships is an important part of probation work in order to reduce the risk of reoffending.
The purpose of this study is to explore women's perception of their criminal behaviour and their experience of probation by using a piece of qualitative research. (1) It is indeed the first effort to look at Chinese women on probation. Research concentrating on women's personal experience of probation is scant in Hong Kong, and research that focuses on nonwestern women's experiences is even more so. Thus this paper is unique in that the women in the research are drug offenders from a specific nonwestern culture--that of Hong Kong--and in-depth interviews were used to allow them to tell their stories in their own words. This paper has three aims: to highlight the gender implications that define and account for female criminality; to discuss women's experience of the criminal justice system, particularly focusing on probation orders; and to present some aspects and characteristics of programs and probation orders, according to women's perceptions, that have been successful in preventing recidivism.
The first part of the paper will introduce the purpose and structure of probation orders in the Hong Kong criminal justice system. The second focuses on the importance of studying female offenders, including a literature review on why women offend, their experience of the criminal justice system, and programs derived from past research that show promising results for women. Next we present the findings of our qualitative study and analyse the results, and lastly we will discuss the implications of the study.
The Probation System in Hong Kong
Probation order is one of the community-based sentences available for minor offenders as a form of early intervention. There is a widespread belief that appropriate help and supervision should be offered sooner rather than later to those who have just started their criminal careers (Sheldon, 1994). To date, however, empirical evidence to support this claim is not available in Hong Kong, and perhaps the probation staff are so preoccupied with their large caseloads that they overlook the growing importance of evidence-based probation practice in guiding what works with less serious offenders. Despite this, there is a general belief that probationers would learn a lesson after being asked to comply with the conditions imposed by probation orders. Additional conditions include attending group sessions, and seeking help from the community-based or residential drug treatment programs. Before a probation sentence is imposed, a probation officer will usually inform an offender about the conditions and requirements of the order.
Under Section 19 of the Probation of Offenders Ordinance (Hong Kong Government, 1985), it is expected that probation officers will not only 'advise, assist and befriend' as required but will also apply their specialised knowledge to the practical treatment of offenders and the arrangement of services necessary for their successful rehabilitation, such as employment, schooling and accommodation (Yip, 1973; Hong Kong Social Welfare Department Corrections Section, 1994). Professional social work has been regarded as fundamental to the practice of probation in Hong Kong. A trained social worker who has completed a three-year social work qualification is supposed to be equipped with the necessary interpersonal and communication skills to build rapport with offenders as well as having the counselling skills to motivate them to change their behaviour and lifestyle. Probation officers in Hong Kong have considerable autonomy in designing treatment plans and methods of intervention. Apart from conducting regular individual interviews with offenders, officers may also arrange the home visits, family interviews and specialised treatment programs felt necessary for successful rehabilitation (Chui, 2003, 2004). For instance, community-based drug treatment programs will usually be arranged for drug offenders, and unemployed offenders will be referred to the voluntary sector to seek help with employment.
As shown in the Annual Report of the Director of Social Welfare (1997), the completion rate for probation orders is between 70% and 80%. Some researchers, such as O'Brian (1994) and Chui (2001), have raised the issue of whether and how probation works in day-to-day practice given the officers' heavy caseload, and they have also questioned how reliable these official records are. Research is therefore needed to demonstrate the usefulness and impact of probation on offenders in terms of offending behaviour and personal problems. The 'What Works' movement in England and Wales in the late 1990s has shown that identifying what works is crucial for an understanding of effective supervision (McGuire, 1995; Mair, 1997; Chapman & Hough, 1998; Crow, 2001). Furthermore, evaluative research may help probation officers to reflect on their own intervention and at the same time prove whether one particular practice model works better than others. It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate the effectiveness of probation in Hong Kong generally; instead it attempts to tease out the meaning and experience of probation among a group of female Chinese drug offenders.
Why Study Female Offenders on Probation?
At the outset, it must be emphasised that due to the lack of culturally specific studies, most researches reviewed are based on western countries such as the United States and United Kingdom, and hence their application to Hong Kong culture should be treated with some caution. Many studies report that the number of women entering the criminal justice system is increasing at a disproportionate rate to the number of men entering the system, although women are still the minority in the probation and prison population. For example, women represent a very low percentage, that is, 6% of the total US incarcerated population (Koons et al., 1997). With relation to probation orders, UK figures show that the number of women receiving probation orders increased by 30% between 1989 and 1999 (Home Office, 1999). While more attention has recently been given to female …