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Magdolna Fábiánné Blaha, Vidia Negrea and Edit Velez: The Use of Family Group Conferencing/ Decision-making with Prisoners in Prison Probation and During After-care in Hungary

Uploaded at: 2010. 07. 19.


For years now, the Hungarian Probation Service has considered it one of its main tasks to use the methods of restorative justice more extensively in their work with offenders. These efforts were supported by the fact that the probation service is now responsible for the tasks related to mediation and as such mediation in criminal cases has become an institutionalised form of restorative justice.

The possibilities of the prison probation services in using family group

The Probation Service is working on the implementation of restorative justice principles in other types of cases also, and is trying to ensure that the various techniques and procedures become integral parts of the probation officers' case management methodology. To this end, various experimental projects were launched. One of these was a project of which the purpose was to include the method of family group conferencing/decision-making in the case management of probation officers.

As a target group for family group conferencing/decision-making, we chose the inmates that were to be released from prison soon. The probation officers start their work with the inmates already prior to their release. Prison probation starts in penal institutions at least six months before the scheduled date of release. In reformatories, it is begun at least two months prior to the expected temporary release date.

Work with those already released involves two types of case management depending on whether or not the offender is under probation supervision after release. It is obtigatory to order probation supervision if the offender is released ternporarily from a reformatory but it is only optional when an offender is released from prison on parole. Probation supervision is imposed on the offender by the court responsible for the enforcement of the sentence.

Those offenders who are not placed under probation supervision may voluntarily request the help of probation officers to help them manage their life after release. These cases are referred to as "after-care" cases.

The following persons may be provided after-care services:
- persons released from prison on parole, if the prison judge has not placed them under probation supervision;
- persons released after serving their full prison term;
- persons released from the reformatory permanently - the after- care services are prepared and then provided by the after-care officer of the institution with the assistance of the probation officer.

Apart from the official element, after-care is the closest in nature to social work from those activities carried out by probation officers that are collectively referred to as judicial social work. After-care is the process of providing assistance to those requesting it. After-care focuses on the needs of the offender and is developed jointly by the provider of the assistance and the offender. The difference between after-care and probation supervision is that after-care has no function of control over the offender because in after-care no behaviour rules are imposed on the offender. The relationship between the person providing the assistance and the offender is a contractual one and therefore there are no criminal law consequences if the contract is breached. The length of the after-care relationship, and also its beginning and end dates are defined in accordance with the characteristics of the case.

Although case management methods differ depending on whether the relationship is mandatory or voluntary, the goal of the process is always the same: the ultimate goal is to prevent re-offending and to help the offenders manage their lives after release.

The areas of intervention for probation officers are as follows:
- family and community relationships;
- employment;
- housing;
- administrative tasks (such as the replacement of missing documents);
- studies/training;
- medical treatment;
- developing skills and changing behaviour.

The most common methods used for identifying the problems:
- questionnaires;
- information provided to individuals or groups while still in prison;
- management of individual cases;
- administration of social issues;
- group activities aimed at skills development.

We launched a programme in 2007 with the purpose of extending the scope of these methods. The programme was supported by the National Crime Prevention Board. The goal of the project was to test restorative techniques on offenders already released or close to release and to supplement the methodology of probation services and after-care by adding new methods. We decided to focus on one specific group of those to be released soon: those with addiction issues. We wanted to put more emphasis on family relationships and on securing family and small community resources for reintegration purposes. Our goal was to bring up the issues of alcohol consumption and drug abuse, to raise the offenders' and their families' awareness of these problems and to make the offenders willing to change and in the process to rely on their families as the number one source of support.

The method of family group conferencing/decision-making seemed to be an appropriate tool for this purpose. In the pilot project, we trained probation officers for the use of the method and we tried to see to what extent the method can be integrated with the after-care or the probation supervision of the released. The programme entitled "For a Free Life in Harmony. The Involvement of the Family, the Immediate Community and Professionals in the After-care of Offenders Struggling with Addictions" was implemented between September 2007 and April 2008.

Our partners and other participants in the programme included penal institutions, a foundation providing trainings on the family group conferencing/decision-making method, and professionals/ organisations specialised in the study and treatment of addictions.

- Budapest Penitentiary and Prison
- Juvenile Penal Institution of Tököl

- Vidia Negrea, an expert of the family group conferencing/ decision-making method at Community Service Foundation of Hungary (Közösségi Szolgáltatások Alapítványa),
- Ákos Topolánszky and Dr. Edina Kósa from the National Drug Prevention Institute [Nemzeti Drogmegelőzési Intézet)
 - Borbála Paksi, researcher and presenter from Viselkedeskutato Kft. (a behaviour research organisation);
- Dr. József Zelenák from the Peer Helper Workshop Foundation (Kortárs-segítő Műhely Alapítvány).

The implementation of family group conferencing/decision-making in the project

Reporting and preparation

As a first step in the application of family group conferencing/decision-making, the probation officers working in penal institutions acting as case managers identify the cases in which it is possible to apply the method. Prison officers may also inform the prison probation officer when they feel it is plausible to organise such a conference in the case of a prisoner. The prison probation officer has an interview with the prisoner and informs him/her of the method of family group conferencing/decision-making and identifies the prisoners motivation and needs. If the person to be released seems motivated and is willing to cooperate, the prison probation officer prepares a report for the facilitator indicating the demand for a group conference to be organised. The next phase is the preparation of the conference. The facilitator contacts the prisoner, records information of the person's family and friends, and also of any supporters or institutions the prisoner has had contact with. Then, the prisoner and the facilitator start to discover problems that may arise after release. It is the prisoner soon to be released who specifies together with the facilitator who he/she wants to be invited to the conference. The facilitator calls the family members and friends or sees them personally and invites them to the conference. The facilitator also gathers information about their needs and opinions. The case manager probation officer, the prisoner to be released. the family members, the friends and the affected institutions (school, family welfare organisation etc.) may also bring up problems that they want to be solved at the conference.

The procedure of the family group conferencing/decision-making

At the family group conference, the invitees discuss the problems identified in the preparatory phase. The conference is led by the facilitator, a neutral party present at the conference.

After the participants introduce themselves, information is exchanged. First, the case manager probation officer shares with the participants of the conference the reason for convening the group conference. The participants have a chance to respond to the probation officers ideas and may bring up additional problems. After the information exchange phase is complete, the list of the problems to be solved is compiled, and the family has to be informed of the resources and assistance available. The professional helpers can draw attention to the consequences of unsolved problems, offer solutions, and they can inform the family of how they can provide assistance to them in the process.

When the participants have reached a consensus about what the problems are, they can start developing the family plan. A part of the family plan is the so-called "private time". when the family must attempt to draft a plan on their own. The plan must be as specific as possible. It must list concrete deadlines, undertakings and responsibilities.

After this, the family presents the plan to the other conference participants, and each participant must approve it. The plan is then put in writing and is signed by all participants. The implementation of the plan is monitored by the facilitator. At the conference, the family and the professional helpers may alsó Schedule the next meeting to discuss the results. If the implementation of the plan is hindered, or if there is a risk of failure, a new conference may be convened to modify the plan. It is advisable to carry out a follow-up procedure six months or a year after the plan has been implemented. The follow-up procedure's goal is to check what has happened to the family since the introduction of the plan and whether the results have been permanent.


The problems brought to the surface by the family and the professional helpers included deteriorating or destroyed family relationships, family backgrounds burdened with conflicts, child custody and housing issues, alcohol and substance abuse, pending criminal cases, lack of motivation and indifference. In response to these problems, the family plans usually addressed housing problems, debts, financial issues, job search, vocational training, intimate relationships, relationships with parents and children, and issues related to how leisure time should be spent.

It is a key result that communication in general was resumed between family members and that the family members actually put in words what they needed. At the conference, the family members had an opportunity to communicate with professional helpers directly. The personal meeting and the honest and open atmosphere built trust between the participants and contributed to establishing a long- term relationship with the helpers. It is an important advantage of the method that the professional helpers have a chance to share their views and expectations with the other professionals, and this also promotes cooperation between professionals.


We experienced that those families and prisoners had been the most cooperative where the family was glad that the prisoner was coming home and where the family had not fallen completely apart. Where the family had suffered for a long time due to the convict's serious alcohol or drug problems, or his/her lifestyle, it had been a relief for them when theconvict was in prison. It was therefore particularly difficult to motivate such families. Family group conferencing/decision-making is the most effective when it is applied before the convict's release from prison, as both the offender and the family lose motivation after release.

Those fighting addiction tend not to realise the gravity of their problem. They often refuse to admit that they have a problem and will not discuss it, and therefore they will not attend the family group conferencing/ decision-making or they say that they do not believe that their addiction is a problem. Sometimes it happens that the family refuses to acknowledge the difficulty. In conclusion, family group conferencing/ decision-making is not suitable for settling unresolved, complex conflicts with a long history, not even after thorough preparation.

The project's future

We won funds through another call for proposals, and as a result we were given a chance to continue the project. This second part of the project finished in May 2009. Although new elements were added to the second part on the basis of the experience we had gained from the first project, we otherwise kept on practicing the method of family group conferencing/decision-making in the second phase also.

One of the most important lessons we learnt was that the real challenge is to generate and sustain motivation in the implementation phase. The members of the potential target group usually showed little interest. Moreover, some of those few who were curious about the possibility changed their minds later. Another problem that may arise is that somé of the undertakings are not kept after release as the motivation of the released prisoner may change. We therefore added a new method to the case management "toolkit" of the probation officer: we decided to use the motivational interviewing method with substance abusers while helping them. Another group of 51 probation officers and 2 prison educators were given training on how to lead a motivational interviewing and family group conferencing/decision-making. The probation officers attending the training were offered a chance to discuss cases and receive supervisory help during the programme. An educational film was prepared of the family group conferencing/decision-making which we would like to use for future trainings.

In the future, we would also like to follow certain past cases, and to evaluate the efficiency of the method, and its role in the reintegration of the released. However, it is safe to conclude that family group conferencing/decision-making already appears to be an efficient tool for probation officers. The majority of those probation officers who were involved in family group conferencing/decision- making as case managers said that the method is excellent for identifying the family relationships and friends of the offender, that is, those resources that the probation officer will be able to use while managing the case. The family group conferencing/decision-making method helps discover the dynamics and the structure of the family, and this is useful information even if no family plan is adopted or if it is not implemented.

Source: "European Best Practices of Restorative Justice in the Criminal Procedure" Conference Publication, based on the conference named "European Best Practices of Restorative Justice in the Criminal Procedure".

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