What are the “conversion factors” relevant to frontline practice in community re-entry for young men with mild to borderline intellectual functioning involved in the criminal justice system?

Catalano, Grazia Maria (2018). 'What are the "conversion factors" relevant to frontline practice in community re-entry for young men with mild to borderline intellectual functioning involved in the criminal justice system?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Conference Paper HDCA 2018 Conference

Academic paper

Identifying the “conversion factors” relevant to frontline practice in community re-entry for young men with mild to borderline intellectual functioning involved in the criminal justice system


The capability approach was applied as part of a social inclusion framework for an in-depth qualitative research study to examine the role of frontline community practitioners in prisoner re-entry services for young men with mild to borderline intellectual functioning (MBIF). Key concepts applied from the capability approach included functionings, capabilities and conversion factors. The study took place in South East Queensland, Australia, and involved frontline practitioners who worked in the non-government, community services sector (both funded and voluntary services) to support a combined client group of 450 men with previous involvement in the criminal justice system. Most of the community practitioners who participated in the study were drawn from what in Queensland comprises a very small workforce providing offender re-integration services. Others were drawn from the homelessness support sector. Community practitioners working in offender re-integration programs are considered to be boundary spanners for ex-prisoners between the criminal justice system, the community services sector, and the community.  Identification of young men with MBIF amongst their client group was difficult for community practitioners, especially given the lack of availability of diagnostic information from tertiary services such as the prisons and homeless hostels. Earlier prevalence studies across various jurisdictions have estimated that 30% of persons involved in the criminal justice system have MBIF. Empirical studies have indicated considerable over-shadowing of the needs and abilities of persons experiencing the effects of chronic homelessness, problematic substance use and cognitive impairment. This conflation of multiple needs characterised the vulnerability and marginality of the client group for these frontline community practitioners.

There was great variation in personal, educational and professional backgrounds of the community practitioners involved in this study. Based upon interviews with community practitioners and observations of their practice in the field, practitioners’ capabilities, functionings and conversion factors were identified through the ways that practitioners represented and reflected their roles. Under existing arrangements, advocating for their most vulnerable clients was limited and they did not have opportunity to develop and nurture collective capabilities in community in support of their clients. The research reflected practitioners’ limited agentic influence within the community services sector and within community where clients experienced exclusion in many forms. There were some exceptions to this when accounting for the role of community-based, volunteer practitioners who did not work as part of the funded sector. The study generally indicated a mismatch between practitioners’ capabilities working with clients with MBIF and what practitioners expressed to be of value to effectively support client capabilities for re-entry and reintegration. For those practitioners in the funded services whose role and presence were not immersed in community, their capability of voice and freedom to choose were compromised and not easily accommodated under the strictures of the existing re-entry and reintegration services.  Conversion factors impeding practitioner functionings and depriving worker capabilities related to those resources required for frontline tasks, the organisational climate within which they operated and managerial requirements that shaped the practitioners’ work.

The study also caste light on constraints undermining the social participation and inclusion of young men with MBIF in the community. The range and nature of barriers which limited the young men’s capabilities, as identified by the community practitioners, included the young men’s educational and skills levels, the young men’s own attitudes and aspirations, their lack of confidence and self-belief, the limitations associated with MBIF, and stigma related to criminality, disability and poverty.

The study reinforced the value of qualitative research in identifying functionings and corresponding capabilities that may be considered central to social inclusion of a vulnerable population in a criminal justice context as well as to the role and function of community practitioners working for social inclusion of vulnerable groups.  The contribution of qualitative findings in clarifying conversion factors and estimating needs in terms of resources pointed also to the need for a longer term research perspective. The paper concludes with reflections on the value of a capabilities approach for social scientific research to inform the re-visioning of community re-entry and reintegration of young men with MBIF.

Key words: qualitative research, disability/MBIF, practitioner capabilities, community reintegration


Author: Grazia Catalano, School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia

scroll to top