Working with young adults in supporting processes of desistance

This guest post comes from Pete Judd, Probation Service Officer, for the National Probation Service Court and Offender Management Team, Portsmouth (email:, Twitter: @pete_judd).

I have recently completed my work based learning project as part of the probation qualification framework. The project was based on my experiences as an offender manager (OM), working with two young adult offenders (YAOs) (aged 18-24) in supporting the process of desistance. I have worked within Probation for nine years, and chose this topic due to my experience of working with this offender group and my interest in the desistance paradigm, which has developed over the last few years of academic study. I have decided to write this blog to give readers some insight into some of the challenges OMs face in supporting processes of desistance.

Bottoms and Shapland (2011, p.43) highlight the challenge of successful desistance amongst YAOs through consideration of the ‘age-crime curve’. Evidence suggests in England and Wales that between the age of 17-19 for males, and 14-18 for females, criminal convictions peak before there is a decline (sharper for males) (Farrall, 2002, p.5). It should be noted that not all individuals follow the same trajectory over their lifetime, although such a curve suggests that the criminal justice system (CJS) could be influential in helping or hindering the movement towards desistance for YAOs (Shapland, Bottoms and Muir, 2012, p.128) in different ways over the course of their lives. McNeill (2003, p.160) states that being desistance focused within probation practice requires an understanding of three key areas; maturational reform (levels of maturity), social bonds (personal history and current social circumstances) and narrative theory (subjective narratives around change, motivation, views and attitudes). Maturational reform is the explanation offered for having stopped offending in relation to age and level of maturity (McIvor, Murray and Jamieson, 2004, p.187). The concept of maturity is currently not assessed within probation practice, and the probation offender assessment tool OASys only has the partial means of assessing maturity in offenders. The assessment of YAOs is therefore largely based on professional judgement, which brings about issues of subjectivity and inconsistency (Prior et al., 2011, pp.30-31). In 2013, the Taking Account of Maturity: A Guide for Probation Practioners (T2A, 2013, p.3) was issued within my local probation trust and offered guidance on how maturity impacts at different stages of the criminal justice process. By understanding how maturity impacts on offending behaviour it is hoped that the service can respond more effectively in facilitating the design of individually tailored assessments and interventions. The current Risk Need and Responsivity (RNR) framework of offender assessment requires the sentence plan to be formulated to address the legal requirements of the order and to address risk. Ward and Brown (2004, p.245) argue that the RNR approach to treatment goals focuses on the negative, rather than promoting pro-social and personally more satisfying goals. I have found that by giving YAOs positive future objectives helps motivate them to engage with the other sentence plan objectives and having future goals is one way of promoting positive futures with YAOs (T2A, 2012, p.6).

McNeill (2003, pp.156-157) also highlights the importance of personal histories and how current social circumstances can aid desistance. This is inherently difficult to achieve within current probation practice, due to targets in relation to the completion of initial assessments. Initial assessments for offenders assessed as medium or low risk of serious harm need to be completed in ‘sufficient time’ within the Practice Framework – National Standards for the Management of Offenders for England and Wales (NOMS, 2011, p.21). The term ‘sufficient time’ is open to interpretation, however the probation trust I work for introduced guidance stating that assessments needed to be completed within twenty working days (HPT, 2011). I have often found that the twenty day target is problematic as offenders often live disorderly lives which they struggle to make sense of (Maruna, 2001, p.7). This then makes it difficult to fully understand what may have led to particular behaviours which are important in understanding how an individual’s previous experiences have helped to shape later life decisions (Laub and Sampson, 2003, p.58).

An offender’s narrative around change, motivation, views and attitudes is important in the assessment phase (McNeill, 2003, pp.157-158). Motivation is pivotal to desistance (Farrall, 2002, p.99), as it is important in determining the structure and content of interventions. However, it is one element within OASys that is only briefly assessed (Lancaster and Lumb, 2006, p.286). To address this, motivation within probation practice is widely assessed using Prochaska and Di Clemente’s (1982) ‘Cycle of Change’. Being able to identify where an individual is on the cycle of change enables OMs to be able to use appropriate skills to take interventions forward (Fuller and Taylor, 2003, p.15). If an offender is assessed as being in the ‘pre-contemplation stage’ or “contemplation stage” of change they may be less likely to complete offending behaviour programmes. For me, to recognise this initially, work needs to be done to build a positive working relationship in order to deal with the more practical obstacles that were present and resolve ambivalence around his offending behaviour. By using a motivational approach and listening to the barriers to change, the offender may gain the confidence to change and move forward to the action stage of the cycle in time, with perseverance.

Once an offender has moved to the ‘action stage’ of the cycle, evidence from ‘What Works’ suggests that structured programmes based on cognitive behaviourism have a greater effect on reducing recidivism amongst YAOs (Losel, 2012, p.88) and help build ‘human capital’ amongst individuals. I often find that cognitive behavioural programmes focus on the negatives aspects of an offender’s lives and McNeill (2009, p.34) highlights the importance of expressing optimism rather than focusing on the negatives. In order to achieve this in practice, I focus on the positive aspects of skills practice from work undertaken such as self talk, time out and safe negotiating, in order to build the confidence of those I work with. For an individual who may have suffered rejection as a child, it is hoped that building confidence in using these skills would develop encouragement and optimism for the future and help reduce the risk of further offending. Throughout the course of the programme there was an improvement in insight into previous behaviour and a more optimistic outlook on a future self. Thinking behaviour and a desire to change may not be sufficient if social problems are overwhelming or excessive (LeBel, Burnett, Maruna and Bushway, 2008, p.154). It is vital that attention is given to improving employment opportunities and family formation to significantly impact on desistance process (Farrall, 2002, p.145).

Evidence within desistance research suggests that the mobilization of social capital (Burnett and McNeill, 2005, p.237), around ties to family, employment and education are significant in explaining change in criminal behaviour (Weaver and McNeill, 2007, p.5). Funding cuts to education training and employment (ETE) budgets have impacted on resources available within my local probation trust. Funding is available for offenders who are subject to unpaid work requirements because ETE contracts for this particular offender group have been contracted out to external companies. At this particular time I was aware of Pompey in the community (the charity arm of Portsmouth Football Club) operating ‘the respect programme’ that was aimed at young people and crime (Pilmoor, 2013). The initiative helped one of my case studies secure the required certificates to secure work in the demolition industry that had been a goal of his for a period of time, although I believe the way resources are allocated is problematic as this offers opportunities to certain offenders based the type sentence they have received rather than targeted at offenders who are motivated to address social difficulties. This situation highlighted to me that I need to be more aware of different initiatives available to me in the local community, particularly as the future brings a host of services that operate and run in different ways.

Moving forward, the introduction of a maturity assessment tool, a relaxation in local policies in relation to timeliness targets, along with alterations to OASys, to focus more on motivation and strengths would assist OMs in creating desistance focussed assessments and collaborative sentence plans. This would then lead to more accurate, individually tailored interventions that focus more on what the YAO has to offer going forward rather than focussing on the negatives of the past.


Bottoms, A. and Shapland, J. (2011). Steps towards desistance among male young adult recidivists. In S. Farrall, M. Hough, S. Maruna & R.Sparks (Eds.), Escape Routes: Contemporary Perspectives on Life After Punishment (pp.43-80). Oxon: Routledge.

Burnett, R. & McNeill, F. (2005). The place of the officer-offender relationship in assisting offenders to desist from crime. Probation Journal, 52(3), 221-242. DOI: 10.1177/0264550505055112

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Fuller, C. and Taylor, P. (2003). Toolkit of Motivational Skills. London: National Probation Directorate.

Hampshire Probation Trust (HPT) (2011b). Practice Framework: National Standards for the Management of Offenders 2011, Aide Memoir 1. Unpublished intranet document.

Lancaster, E. and Lumb, J. (2006). The assessment of Risk in the National Probation Service of England and Wales, Journal of Social Work, Vol. 6 No. 3, pp.275-291. DOI: 10.1177/1468017306071176

Laub, J.H. & Sampson, R.J. (2003). Sharing Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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Losel, F. (2012). What works in correctional treatment and rehabilitation for young adults? In F. Lösel, A. Bottoms & D.P. Farrington (Eds.), Young Adult Offenders Lost in Transition? (pp.74-112). Oxon: Routledge.

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Maruna, S. (2001). Making Good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

McIvor, G., Murray, C. & Jamieson, J. (2004). Desistance from crime: is it different for women and girls. In S. Maruna and R. Immarigeon (Eds.) After Crime and Punishment: Pathways to offender reintegration, (pp.181-200). Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

McNeill, F. (2003). Desistance-Focused Probation Practice. In W.H. Chui & M. Nellis (Eds.), Moving Probation Forward. Evidence, Arguments and Practice. (pp.146-162). Essex: Pearson Longman.

McNeill, F. (2009). Towards Effective Practice in Offender Supervision (Report 01/09). Retrieved from the SCCJR website:

National Offender Management Service (NOMS) (2011). Practice Framework: National Standards for the Management of Offenders: For England and Wales. London: Ministry of Justice.

Pilmoor, E. (2013, June 01). New project aims to warn about the dangers of drugs and crime. The News. Retrieved from

Shapland, J. Bottoms, A. & Muir, G. (2012). Perceptions of the criminal justice system among young adult desisters. In F. Lösel, A. Bottoms & D.P. Farrington (Eds.), Young Adult Offenders Lost in Transition? (pp.128-145). Oxon: Routledge.

Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance (2012). Transition to Adulthood Alliance response to ‘Breaking the Cycle’: Effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders’. Retrieved from:

Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance (2013). Taking Account of Maturity A Guide for Probation Practitioner., London: T2A Alliance.

Ward, T. & Brown, M. (2004). The Good Lives Model and Conceptual Issues in Offender Rehabilitation. Psychology, Crime & Law, 10(3), 243-257.

Weaver, B. & McNeill, F. (2007b). Giving Up Crime: Directions for Policy. Retrieved from the SCCJR website:

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