Street-level bureaucracy in prisons and probation services

  • Sabbe, Mathias (UCL)
  • Moyson, Stéphane (UCL)
  • Schiffino, Nathalie (UCL)


In contemporary governance, transfers in decision power are not only horizontal and do not only concern policymaking: nowadays, there is increasing awareness that “street-level bureaucrats” exert an influence on policy implementation (Hupe et al., 2016). This is mainly related to the discretionary power they hold in delivering public services (Lipsky, 2010). A large number of public administration studies analyze street-level bureaucrats’ work in a wide variety of contexts. Surprisingly enough, however, only a handful of these studies were conducted in the context of prisons and probation services. Using the PRISMA approach, this paper reports a systematic review of 50 public administration and criminology studies that investigate the interactions of officers with offenders in the context of prisons and probation services. The main objective of this review is to provide an overview of existing research on the nature, conditions, and effects of these interactions.

Our findings demonstrate a growing – but geographically disparate – interest in this issue. The reviewed articles are methodologically eclectic. Despite its complementary focus on the administrative structures, processes and actors conditioning officers-offenders interactions, public administration research remains relatively scarce, compared to criminology. Existing research provides knowledge on typical topics of street-level bureaucracy, such as the management and effects of officers’ discretion power and professionalism. At the same time, it draws the attention to context-specific issues, such as offenders’ behaviors and the effects of their interactions with the administration on their reintegration. Few studies, however, combine those insights together. All in all, the results of this review demonstrate that street-level bureaucrats are key actors of policy decisions and their implementation in prisons and probation services. We conclude with an agenda for future public administration studies on street-level bureaucracy in prisons and probation services.