Strengths, resources or controls? The assessment of protective factors in probation practice

AuthorRob Whyman
Published date01 June 2019
Date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
PRB833455 219..235
The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice
Probation Journal
Strengths, resources
2019, Vol. 66(2) 219–235
ª The Author(s) 2019
or controls?
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0264550519833455
The assessment
of protective factors
in probation practice
Rob Whyman
National Probation Service, UK
This article is based on research that explored how well protective factors are
understood, assessed and used in risk assessment within probation practice. The
research was facilitated by the Sir Graham Smith Award, administered by the Pro-
bation Institute. Semi-structured interviews explored the knowledge, ability, confi-
dence and attitudes of a sample of probation officers working in the National
Probation Service. The findings suggest that understanding of the term is varied, and
there are some limitations around knowledge, but that attitudes towards protective
factors are positive and there is some good practice in terms of assessment.
protective factors, risk assessment, desistance, risk of serious harm, risk management,
Traditionally, risk assessment has taken a predominantly deficits-based approach
whereby practitioners rely on statistical and/or dynamic risk assessment tools that
assess empirically-derived risk factors to arrive at an overall risk classification or
judgement (De Vries Robbe´ and Willis, 2017). However, offenders also have
Corresponding Author:
Rob Whyman, National Probation Service, c/o Frank Lord House, 72 Chapel Street, Luton, LU1 5DA, UK.

Probation Journal 66(2)
strengths and resources that they can use to overcome obstacles to desistance
(McNeill et al., 2012), and recently the focus has broadened to encompass factors
whose presence may decrease the likelihood of recidivism, that is, protective factors
(Yesberg et al., 2015). In the broadest sense, a factor that may be deemed pro-
tective is one whose presence decreases risk for further offending (Thornton et al.,
2017). Protective factors help to explain why some offenders desist from offending
despite the presence of multiple risk factors (Yesberg et al., 2015). Whilst the exact
added value of assessing protective factors during risk assessment is still uncertain
(Cording and Beggs Christofferson, 2017), it is now widely argued that a focus not
only on offenders’ risk-related deficits but also on their strengths or resources leads
to more accurate risk prediction (Yesberg et al., 2015) and enables practitioners to
support desistance.
As a relatively new area of academic enquiry, the concept of protective
factors is not without its problems. Not least, there is not one, clear, accepted
definition of what the term ‘protective factors’ means. Furthermore, when
alternative definitions of protective factors are considered it is clear that they
can relate to quite distinct things, be used in a range of ways in assessment and
have various implications in terms of risk management and rehabilitation. For
example, Durrant describes a protective factor as ‘a mirror image of a risk
factor . . . a factor that moderates the impact or influence of risk factors’ (2017:
5), whilst Nee and Vernham contend that protective factors are ‘qualities or
traits that are inherently positive within the individual and are not just factors
that mitigate risk’ (2017: 38). The main reason for the lack of clarity around
definition is that the evidence base for protective factors is not nearly as
extensive as that for risk factors and there is no clear understanding of why
protective factors protect (Durrant, 2017).
It is important to recognise that this is the context in which probation prac-
titioners are completing risk assessments and which may well have a bearing on
how they are considering and assessing protective factors. Indeed, as Fortune
and Ward (2017) outline, these issues in turn have implications for practitioners
trying to assess protective factors and use them in risk management. They state
that the way protective factors are defined and classified means practitioners
can become confused about their appropriate use. Further, practitioners are
often unaware that the concept of protective factors has distinct meanings, and
therefore different functions. Finally, and perhaps most challenging, in different
contexts factors can potentially be regarded as both risk factors and protective
factors (Fortune and Ward, 2017). To emphasise the point about context, it is
telling that a search of the term ‘protective factors’ in the Probation Journal
shows it occurs just 36 times within articles whilst the term ‘risk factors’ occurs
836 times. This is somewhat crude but it highlights the point that the very subject
of protective factors is less researched, documented, discussed and ultimately
known about within or in relation to probation practice when compared to risk

Relevance of protective factors in probation practice
The National Probation Service’s (NPS) approach to assessing and managing risk
of serious harm is outlined in two key guidance documents: Risk of Serious Harm
Guidance (NOMS, 2009) and Risk of Serious Harm: Supplement to 2009 Gui-
dance (NOMS, 2014). The guidance states that the underpinning model of risk of
serious harm assessment is that, whilst offenders are responsible for their own
actions, their behaviour is influenced by the interaction of risk factors and protective
factors that make the offender more or less likely to cause serious harm to others and
by the interaction of offender, potential victim and circumstances (NOMS, 2014).
The guidance makes clear that practitioners need to assess which factors are indi-
cative of risk of serious harm and which act as protective factors. The 2014 docu-
ment contains a definition of protective factors as follows:
Protective factors that may make risk of serious harm less likely . . . range from controls
that are externally imposed on an offender to strengths and resources developed by an
offender over time which enables them to exercise self-controls and pro-social beha-
vior. (NOMS, 2014: 7)
As well as defining the overall term ‘protective factors’, this document also briefly
explains what it means by ‘strengths’, ‘resources’, ‘external controls’ and ‘capacity
to engage’, as follows:
Strengths – (or internal protective factors) refer to what the person has within them-
selves to support pro-social behaviour (e.g. hopefulness, well-developed social skills).
Resources – (or external protective factors) refer to what the person can draw on from
the world around them to support pro-social behaviour (e.g. rewarding personal rela-
tionships, satisfaction in their employment, rehabilitative interventions provided as part
of the sentence).
External controls – are actions taken by criminal justice and other agencies that place
restrictions on an offender’s actions, whereabouts etc to limit their capacity to cause
serious harm to others.
Capacity to engage – refers to the extent to which the person is motivated and able to
respond to and make a positive commitment to those activities and restrictions which
are in place to manage the risk of serious harm, taking account of any learning
difficulties. (NOMS, 2014: 7)
These definitions were used as the working definitions for the purpose of the
research, as it could be reasonably assumed that practitioners would be aware
of them.
Within risk assessment there are far more tools that focus on risk factors than
those that either solely or partly incorporate protective factors, and such tools
typically assess empirically derived risk factors to arrive at an overall risk-
classification or judgement (De Vries Robbe´ and Willis, 2017). Indeed, this is

Probation Journal 66(2)
true within probation practice, where the primary risk assessment tool, the Offender
Assessment System (OASys), whilst multi-faceted, ultimately serves to support
practitioners in assessing risk factors and producing plans to manage risk. OASys
does enable practitioners to evidence and assess protective factors, but the term
‘protective factors’ features minimally within the tool or its extensive guidance. There
is more reference to the term ‘positive factors’, which may or may not mean the same
thing, but largely OASys is geared more to identifying ‘problems’ and whether
these are linked to offending behaviour and/or the risk of serious harm.
There is one tool used in probation practice that does incorporate protective
factors, and that is the Active Risk Management System (ARMS). ARMS is a dynamic
risk management framework that draws information together into a risk manage-
ment plan for managing adult male sex offenders (NOMS, 2015). Rather than
relying upon historical factors to guide risk assessment, ARMS focuses on the ‘here
and now’ and a range of dynamic risk and protective factors found to be predictive
of recidivism or desistance from offending (NOMS, 2015). ARMS came into use
within the NPS in 2015 and was the first risk assessment tool to explicitly incor-
porate protective factors, to define specific protective factors within a tool and
encourage practitioners to assess them in their own right. ARMS has therefore
brought to the fore within probation practice the importance of assessing protective
factors, as well as risk factors, but for all its merits, it has in some ways highlighted
the limitations in the knowledge of probation practitioners about the significance
and role of protective factors and how to...

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