DISENGAGEMENT WORK IN THE AUSTRIAN PROBATION SERVICE


Since the rise in the number of terrorist attacks in Europe in 2015, the threat of terrorist violence has received greater attention across the continent. Consequently, the Austrian probation service, NEUSTART, decided to place a much stronger focus on convicted terrorists and developed its own supervision guidelines.


Since 2015 NEUSTART has taken care of 75 persons, who were sentenced based on the so-called "terrorism paragraph" (§ 278c Strafgesetzbuch (Austrian Criminal Law)). NEUSTART aims to ensure that the offender reintegrates into society with applicable values and takes control of his or her life with a new, positive perspective – and, most importantly, without engaging again in criminal activity.


Since 2015, around 40 specialists have been trained to guide these persons. The training focuses on:

  • dynamics of radicalization and threat management;

  • providing basic knowledge on violent jihadist manifestations of Islam;

  • risk assessment of radicalized persons; and

  • social work practice in deradicalization work.

Although the regional focus of this specific client group of convicted offenders is in Vienna, NEUSTART takes care of cases all over Austria and has specialists distributed in all Austrian regions.


Who are the clients?

The majority of clients under the care of NEUSTART are people who planned or attempted to leave Austria for terrorist purposes or who have committed criminal offenses, such as distributing violent jihadist material like videos or publications. The majority of clients were convicted on the charge of leading or being a member of a terrorist organization. However, people who were conditionally sentenced and released from prison are also among them. In the latter case, the best possible approach to ensure a functioning transition from prison to societal reintegration proved to be preparation by both the prison system and the probation service before release, since the immediate period after release is considered to be risky and decisive for the further development of the person (this process is regulated by a decree of the Directorate General for the Execution of Sentences).


What are the priorities in care?

Social work with radicalized and violent extremists at the probation service is part of the Austrian Strategy for the Prevention of Extremism and Deradicalization. NEUSTART contributes to the deradicalization process by providing long-term support to ensure sustainable disengagement from violent extremism. This process is implemented in close cooperation with other organizations that specialize, for example, in working with counter-narratives targeting violent interpretations of religion and worldviews (e.g. the NGO “DERAD” – www.derad.at). The main goal in this context is to positively change the attitudes of the clients through the sustainable development of viable alternative courses of action and perspectives. Important elements are: strengthening the positive social environment; ensuring support in securing livelihoods; clarifying residence status; working on self-image and identity; processing offenses; biographical work with a focus on key experiences and the radicalization process; as well as risk assessment.


The following points are considered in the work with individuals to initiate this positive development:

  • Develop sustainable positive alternatives to violence: reject violence as a means, develop non-violent alternatives and constructive conflict resolution strategies.

  • Develop an understanding of the effects of problematic behavior on oneself and others.

  • Distance oneself from a violent environment - learning to resist.

  • Personal stabilization based on strengths and resources.

  • Strengthen taking responsibility for one’s own actions.

  • Better understand one's biography, key experiences, and the process of radicalization.

  • Develop sustainable positive perspectives.

Risk assessment and biography work

In addition to a professional assessment and specific supervision, ongoing risk analysis plays an important role in these cases. The Austrian probation service uses the IT-based assessment tool VERA-2R which is designed to query all relevant topics so that potential "blind spots" in supervision can be kept to a minimum.


For clients in the specific context of disengagement and deradicalization, the focus is particularly directed towards ideology in relation to the respective offense. Both the personal history of the individual (methods of biography and genogram analysis) and the factors of attraction to a radical ideology are of great relevance. The ultimate aim is that the person recognizes what subjective needs the connection to radical thoughts is supposed to satisfy and what alternative, constructive and, above all, legal and hence legitimate possibilities exist to satisfy these needs.


Challenges

This approach requires strong personal trust between the radicalized individual and the counselor, in which problematic developments, contents and situations come to light. However, the more these risk areas are known to the probation service, the more concretely it can be dealt with, and preventive countermeasures can be taken. The care of radicalized persons always treads a fine line: information on risk areas is essential to help with positive change and enhance risk reduction. At the same time, deradicalization and disengagement work regularly experiences setbacks leading to (self-)doubt, changing value systems, and fluctuating attitudes of the persons in care.


The Austrian terrorist attack in 2020 and its consequences

The terrorist attack on 2 November 2020 in Vienna was a major setback for NEUSTART. Nonetheless, it led to an immediate critical analysis of applied standards, and it became clear that cooperation and having security-relevant information at hand are crucial factors to recognize dangerous developments in advance in order to take necessary countermeasures. In the aftermath of the attack, an investigation commission (so-called “Zerbes Committee”, named after Ingeborg Zerbes, a professor of Criminal Law at the University of Vienna, who chaired the committee), appointed by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Justice and the Federal Ministry of the Interior examined the processes leading up to the attack. Despite the fact that improvements are always possible, the final investigation report produced by the committee did not contain any critique concerning the probation work of NEUSTART in the specific case of the attacker who was in the care of the Austrian probation service at the time of the attack. The committee proposed to review the processes leading up to the attack, which was ultimately reflected in the so-called "anti-terror package". This is a series of legal measures taken by the Austrian government to prevent similar incidents in the future. For example, such measures include conducting case conferences (“Fallkonferenzen”) which bring the main actors involved in the process of prison release and probation together systematically.


The continuous development process at NEUSTART

The critical analysis of the applied quality standards of care for the specific client group of radicalized individuals led to important further improvements in deradicalization and disengagement work. Current international developments, insights from research, and experiences gathered from international cooperation partners and networks were taken into account and resulted in expanded training offered to colleagues working at NEUSTART. The content of the practical work was also adapted through an increased focus on continuous, closer and constant care. In addition to this, it also proved important to expand specialized knowledge at a higher level of quality assurance by ensuring the vigorous application of a multi-eye principle to thoroughly analyze and jointly reflect on all cases. Internal review conferences and regular evaluations further highlight the challenges in this area and ensure continual process improvement.


In the context of immediate care, a stronger focus is now placed on the analysis of social and family environments in addition to a content-related orientation as described above. Visits at the home of the respective person help to ensure a better understanding of the concrete living situation and consequently ensure better evaluation of the social environment and factor this into the risk analysis.


Outlook

Numerous positive steps were taken in the Austrian probation service to minimize the likelihood of the occurrence of similar and further terrorist attacks in Austria. It must be made clear, however, that there is no guarantee of this. All involved administrations and organizations are working together across disciplines to reduce the threat as much as possible. The goals of the EUTEx project – currently under implementation with funds from the European Union – are to develop a European framework for better reintegration and disengagement of extremist offenders (www.eutex.eu). NEUSTART participates in the project as an end-user and will make an important contribution in helping NEUSTART to further learn and adapt its current approaches if deemed fruitful.

Spiros Papadopoulos has been working with the Austrian probation service NEUSTART since 2016. He is specialized in caring for released offenders sentenced due to terrorism-related offenses. Since 2020, he has managed the disassociation and exit project KOMPASS. Since 1.5 years he holds responsible for the coordination of the nation-wide deradicalization work of NEUSTART. He studied social work.

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