DocFest 2014

Last June, I was part of a panel which discussed the making of the Road from Crime and which looked at both documentary-making in general and the documentary I and colleagues are currently making (which is about Thatcherism and crime). The Docfest session might be of interest to those making documentaries.

The DocFest2014 session is here:

Details about the new film can be found here:


Two short films about mentoring and desistance

Ruth Armstrong of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge Univ has recently made these two films (see below). The first is about how Josh and Jody’s mentoring relationship aids desistance, and the second is a series of reflections of practitioners and researchers who watched the film and were asked for their comments. probably best watched in the order the links are given below:


Please do forward on the links to others you think may be interested.

With best wishes,


Finding desistance based practices in Canada?

Helen Collins is currently travelling in Canada and the US on a Winston Churchill Fellowship. Her fellowship is following-up some research done with the Durham Tees Valley Probation Trust into desistance based approaches in community settings. She is visiting a large number of projects broadly conceived as ‘desistance based’ in their methodology and she is interested particularly in those where service-user involvement is part of the ethos.

Helen is writing through the  fellowship using hert blog to document these visits and to discuss other aspects of desistance. I’m sure this will be of interest to readers of this blog; it  can be found at

New book on desistance and probation supervision out


Oxford Univ Press have just published a book which updates the effects of probation supervision on the lives of the men and women in the Tracking Project.

To recap, in the first book (Farrall, 2002), few thought that probation had helped them desist. In the second book (Farrall and Calverley, 2006) a few were prepared to say that probation had helped. In this installment far, far more now credit probation supervision with a role in their desistance.

A link to the book is here:


The book also deals with the spatial dynamics of desistance (ie how the places which people spend their time in and how they interpret those places change as they desist), victimisation and desistance, the emotional trajecory of desistance and citizenship and desistance.

As ever, I’d be really interested in hearing what practitioners who work with people in prisons and in the community make of the study and its findings. My take, for what it is worth, is that probation equips people with tools which are used when social and personal changes emerge which make desistane desirable and/or possible. So what is said to people is ‘stored up’ and used selectively as and when circumstances encourage desistance.

With best wishes,



Farrall, S. (2002) Rethinking What Works With Offenders, Willan Publishing, Cullompton, Devon.

Farrall, S. and Calverley, A. (2006) Understanding Desistance from Crime, Crime and Justice Series, Open University Press, London.


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

Farrall, S. (2002). Rethinking What Works with Offenders: Probation, Social Context and Desistance from Crime. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

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.

LeBel, T.P., Burnett, R., Maruna, S. & Bushway, S. (2008). The ‘Chicken and Egg’ Subjective and Social Factors in Desistance from Crime. European Journal of Criminology, 5(2), 131-159. DOI: 10.1177/1477370807087640

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.

Prior, D., Farrow, K., Hughes, N., Kelly, G., Manders, G., White, S. & Wilkinson, B. (2011). Maturity, young adults and criminal justice: A literature review. Birmingham: University of Birmingham. Retrieved from:

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:

Prison-based higher level distance learning and its role in life after prison

Anne Pike of the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University (email:, Twitter: @annepike2) discusses her PhD findings about higher level distance learning in prison. She reports that such learning gives prisoners a positive student identity, resilience and high hope for a better, crime-free life on release. These qualities help them to tackle the immense challenges facing ex-prisoners on release. If they are also able to continue studying after release then they are better placed to fully integrate into society.


Higher level education in prisons is offered mostly through distance learning. There are thought to be approximately 4000 prisoners studying through distance learning (Schüller, 2009) although the actual numbers are unknown. Prison-based Higher level Distance Learning (PHDL) is offered in most prisons in England and Wales but it is outside the funded Offender Learning and Skills Service education process. Applications to study PHDL involve a complex screening procedure and self-funding or funding through charitable trusts such as the Prisoners Education Trust (or, since 2013, a government loan). The Open University is the largest provider of PHDL, with approximately 1600 students across most prisons in the UK (in 2011) and funding for an initial Access course is partially subsidized by the Government.

Previous research (Forster, 1976, 1996; Hughes, 2012; Pike and Adams, 2012) has highlighted many barriers to studying PHDL in England and Wales. There is no internet in prison so prisoners cannot access their study material in the normal way. The education department has good computers but distance learners do not get easy access. The prison library tends to cater for those prisoners with less developed reading tastes so accessing intellectual books is difficult. Despite the problems, it was found that student-prisoners were empowered by their learning and developed aspirations for a better life, free from crime. However, these studies had not followed the prisoners out into the community after release so the longer term effects of the learning were not known and there was very little understanding of how PHDL might actually make a difference to them on release.


This research was an ethnographic and longitudinal investigation into how PHDL was transformative (Mezirow, 1997), how the student-prisoner was changed, whether it equipped them with the skills and qualities required to manage life after prison and how it related to their integration into society. The research was led by qualitative data, primarily from in-depth semi-structured interviews with prisoners before and after release. Data was collected between April 2011 and September 2013. Initially 10 ex-prisoners (including one woman) were interviewed as a pilot. They had studied PHDL in prison and had already successfully integrated into society. Then 51 prisoners (40 men and 11 women with sentences of between 2 and 20 years), who were due for release, were interviewed across 8 prisons in England and Wales. Approximately 25% had not engaged with their studies and formed a comparison group. Field-notes from observations and informal conversations with educators, prison and probation staff, family and peers provided background data. More than half of the original participants were traced after release and some were re-interviewed up to 5 times during their first year after release, providing unique longitudinal data in this field. All data was thematically analysed (Braun and Clark, 2006).


Prisons varied widely in their support for PHDL. The majority of prisons were ‘working’ prisons with fragmented organizational structures and insufficient space or time for deep, critically reflective learning. The physical structures meant that unlike the classroom-based students of Crewe et al (2014), who attended the ‘emotional zone’ of the education department to do their studies, the distance learners did most of their study in their cells, in the ‘reality’ of prison, with mostly cramped, noisy and inappropriate learning spaces. Support for PHDL came from dedicated individuals who worked against the system. Some participants fell by the wayside. They felt isolated and if they could not find work which allowed them access to a learning space with a computer, they struggled to complete their assignments. More importantly, some lacked the necessary skills or mind-set to be able to study alone. Poor assessment and guidance at induction and a lack of classroom-based education above a basic level led to some participants attempting distance learning without adequate cognitive ability or preparation. Also, many participants were anxious about how to continue their studies post-release and this posed significant problems for them later. In the better ‘learning’ prisons, participants were provided with a dedicated space for independent learning, creating a learning community where participants felt valued and a peer mentoring scheme encouraged participants to take responsible positions as teaching assistants which improved their social capital. However, across all prisons, those participants who persevered with their learning built resilience by reflecting on the barriers overcome to successfully study in prison. They developed a strong positive student identity and high hope (see Burnett and Maruna, 2004) for a better future on release. These were the main qualities which equipped the learners to manage life after prison.

In the post-release environment there were immense physical, infrastructural and organisation barriers which were mediated by a few social support factors. Life was chaotic for all the participants in the early weeks and months after release. Figure 1 is a model of the participants’ journey from prison to integration into society. Much of the accommodation, such as bed and breakfast or probation hostels, was unstable and inappropriate for learning. Some participants were unable to cope with the instability and returned to prison quickly. For those who had families, there was often more stability but there were broken relationships to mend. Most participants found the whole process of looking for work extremely demoralizing and far harder than they had anticipated. The work they found was mostly menial and very far from the employment or college places they had anticipated. Most planned college places had not materialized and, although there was no proof, it was thought that the reasons were related to the participants’ criminal past. Self-esteem dropped sharply.

Information, communication and technology problems such as old computers which refused to start and forgotten email passwords, caused a lot of frustration. Most participants only had ‘pay as you go’, text-only, mobile phones which made communication with large organisations impossible. Lack of information, such as who, or how, to contact the distance learning provider for continued study was a fundamental problem. It caused significant hardship for released participants and was a major cause of course abandonment or failure (see failure point B in figure 1).

The probation trusts, the distance learning providers as well as colleges, universities and banks had obstructive and discriminatory policies and procedures. Consistent with Farrall et al (2010), participants were labelled as ‘druggies’ or ‘ex-offenders’, causing them to feel worthless and providing significant barriers to continued study or suitable employment. For example, Nina was in university before incarceration and hoped to return for her final year on release but the University had rejected her and the bank had stopped her student loan. She said,

“I actually don’t see myself as a student anymore because other people have taken that title away from me, basically, like the bank, the University and so I feel like, basically, an ex-convict that’s a waste to society”.

Many participants made long journeys to probation offices only to find their offender manager unavailable. This caused communication problems and at least one participant was recalled back to prison on a ‘technicality’ (see failure point C in figure 1). Distance learning providers were also unresponsive to the released students’ needs. They worked on the mistaken principle that students could and would notify them post-release to continue their studies. Online access to course material was a long and poorly organised procedure. Participants felt neglected and powerless which reduced self-esteem still further and many participants failed to continue their studies (see failure point D in figure 1). There was very little support offered as a matter of policy so, apart from participants’ own resilience, the majority of social support offered to mitigate these structural barriers was individual staff who worked against the system, family or carefully selected friends, since many old friends were to be avoided as they were negative criminal influences. The final failure, point E on figure 1, was recall (to prison) due to re-offence which occurred for a few participants who had not engaged with PHDL.

The few participants who were able to continue learning after release maintained their student identity, benefitted from belonging to a learning community and integrated more successfully into society. See Doug’s comments,

It made me feel like I was part of society. It was a new circle of people, I wasn’t mixing with villains I was mixing with students and I was part of society, with other students and it was just a completely different institution with a different attitude and conversation.

In conclusion, this research has found that the positive student identity was fundamental to transformative higher level distance learning in prison. That student identity, together with resilience and high hope were the main qualities which enabled participants to face the huge post-release structural barriers. Continuing study and belonging to a learning community was a powerful force for improved integration into society. Policies and practices which nurture the positive student identity and develop a learning community in prison and post-release should therefore be a priority for all concerned.

Relating these findings to the desistance literature, I would suggest that the positive student identity change could be the “shift in identity and self-concept” consistent withsecondary desistance. Similarly, perhaps continuing study post-release and belonging to the learning community could be the “shifts in one’s sense of belonging to a (moral) community” consistent with tertiary desistance (McNeill, 2014).


Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology, Qualitative research in psychology, 3 (2): 77-101

Burnett, R. and S. Maruna (2004) So Prison Works, Does It? The Criminal Careers of 130 Men Released from Prison under Home Secretary, Michael Howard, Howard Journal 33(4): 390–404

Crewe, B., Warr, J., Bennett, P., Smith, A. (2014), The emotional geography of prison life, Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 18, pp 56-74.

Farrall, S. Bottoms, A. and Shapland, J. (2010) Social structures and desistance from crime, European Journal of Criminology, Vol. 7 pp 546-569

Forster, W. (1976) The higher education of prisoners, Vaughan papers in adult education, No. 21, Leicester, Leicester University.

Forster, W. (1996) England and Wales: the state of prison education, Journal of correctional education, Vol 47, No. 2.

Hughes, E. (2012) Education in Prison: Studying through distance learning. Farnham, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

McNeill, F. (2014) Three aspects of desistance, blog-post based ona short paper prepared for a University of Sheffield Centre for Criminological Research Knowledge Exchange Seminar at the British Academy in London on 15th May 2014, online at

Mezirow (1997), Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice, New directions for adult and continuing education, No. 74, San Fransisco, Jossey-Bass.

Pike, A. and Adams, A. (2012) Digital exclusion or learning exclusion, an ethnographic study of adult male learners in English prisons, Research in Learning Technology, 20(4): 363-374. Online at

Schüller, T. (2009), Inquiry into the future for lifelong learning, Thematic Paper 5: Crime and Lifelong Learning, Leicester, NIACE.


Building probation relationships that support change

This guest post comes from Sarah Lewis, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Psychology at the University of Portsmouth (

It has been consistently recognised within the literature that a ‘positive’ working relationship can be seen as a vehicle for change and can support processes that encourage an individual to move away from crime (King, 2013; Rex, 1999). Whilst importance has been attributed to such relationships, my doctoral work focused upon considering how probation practitioners and probationers themselves see these relationships, especially where they promote such change (referred to as therapeutic correctional relationships). It also considered those instances when the relationship becomes problematic and challenging. Within a psychotherapeutic context, it is not simply the case that relationships are developed in a linear fashion; rather, there is a recognition that ‘set- backs’ or ‘ruptures’ can temporarily threaten or tear a therapeutic relationship and so that repairing such tears provides opportunities for learning and growth (see Safran & Muran, 2006).

In response to this, I became interested in how the research within psychotherapy might be applied to correctional relationships and in the differences that may exist between therapeutic relationships and relationships within probation. This led me to develop a growing curiosity about processes that underlie therapeutic correctional relationships and the impact that these relationships may have on an offender.

In previous research, my findings had reaffirmed that, for probationers, working with someone who possessed a genuine belief in an individual and their capacity to change was an important ingredient to a therapeutic correctional relationship (Lewis, 2014). However, I also found that the longer a practitioner worked in the field of probation, the more this belief slowly diminished over time (Lewis, in press). For me, it was therefore essential that a greater insight into how practitioners can ensure that they preserve their belief in change through what Maruna (2012) calls ‘injections of hope’.

The concept of belief was revisited during a research project that developed some of my key ideas. Probationers described how honest, respectful, accepting, empathic and supportive practitioners enabled positive working relationship (Lewis, 2014). This research echoed findings from Farrall (2002) and McCulloch (2005) and furthered their work by discussing how the relationship impacted upon the probationer’s life, both at the time of the relationship and after the relationship had ceased. Probationers described how they grew as individuals both in terms of their skills, abilities, confidence and attainment of goals. They shared their experiences of feeling more comfortable and engaging more with probation as a result of these relationships, recognising the value in probation and the work that was being carried out. The research also highlighted that a lack of these characteristics contributed to a negative relationship that was experienced by probationers as destructive. Some probationers described how they sometimes offended in spite of their probation practitioner as well as ‘letting out’ their anxieties and frustrations on those close to them.

The research highlighted that more attention needs to be paid to processes that underlie the correctional relationship in order to provide guidance and knowledge to front line practitioners. With the Skills for Effective Engagement and Development (SEEDS) initiative that have been piloted and launched across the majority of Probation Trusts, practitioners have been given more opportunities to reflect upon these very relationships that can be used as a tool to promote offender transformation.

My doctoral research has aimed to deconstruct the working relationship further, exploring how practitioners (from the perspective of the probationer and practitioner) have developed, maintained and ended relationships effectively within probation practice. The results highlighted a number of similarities from the research relating to therapeutic relationships within the psychoanalytical field. Firstly, I found that a decision is made within the first one or two sessions as to whether a relationship will be established or not. Probationers were optimistic that relationships that start off ‘on the wrong foot’ for whatever reason, can be retrieved at an early stage if practitioners are willing to discuss the problems associated around the relationship and engage in discussions about their relationship.

My research also uncovered a number of ruptures that can occur within a correctional context that can shake the relationship and increase the likelihood of disengagement and non-compliance. These ruptures were typically deemed by probationers as resulting from duplicity or deception by officers and included, for example, planned arrests at probation offices and negative reports that were concealed from the probationer prior to court. Unhealthy power games were also discussed honestly by practitioners as they shared practices that increased the likelihood of ruptures. This included dismissive and exclusionary actions (blocking), baiting the probationer to react negatively and participating in arguments (battling) that led to probationer disengagement. Whilst ruptures are recognised as regular and normal within practice, it is important to focus upon how ruptures can be repaired within practice through collaborative and exclusionary practice that focuses upon talking about relationships and relational problems.

It is hoped that a greater insight into such practices can lead to developments in practice that will promote an engaged practitioner that is mindful of their values and actions on a relational level. By doing this, I argue that practitioners could develop individual relational theories that support processes of desistance in the future and create sustainable relationships that promote learning for both individuals involved.


Farrall, S. (2002). Rethinking what works with offenders: Probation, social context and assistance from crime. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

King, S. (2013). Assisted desistance and experiences of probation supervision. Probation Journal, 60 (2) 163-151.

Lewis, (2014) Learning from success and failure: Deconstructing the working relationship within Probation practice and exploring its impact upon probationers, using a collaborative approach. Probation Journal. DOI: 10.1177/0264550514523816

Lewis, (in press). Who works? Exploring positive working relationships in light of the aims of probation, using a collaborative approach. Probation Journal.

Maruna, S. (2012) Elements of Successful Signalling, Criminology & Public Policy, 11 (1), 73-86.

McCulloch, T. (2005). Probation, social context and desistance: Retracing the relationship. Probation Journal, 52 (1), 8-22.

Work based on ‘The Road from Crime’ wins ESRC Impact Award


A quick little post, just to say last week Shadd, Fergus and I were at an awards ceremony organised by the ESRC (the funder of the Discovering Desistance project) at which we were named as one of the winners of a prize for impact (that is the academic term for ‘making the world a better place’). Our prize was for impact in public policy.

More about the award and the project can be found here on the ESRC’s webpage:

Obviously, we’re delighted to have won!


Modelling Restorative Reentry

This guest post comes from Kathy Fox, University of Vermont Department of Sociology

In an article published this year called “Restoring the Social” (International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminology, Vol. 38, No. 3, 2014), I argue that correctional programs are beginning to reincorporate social understandings of criminal offending. For decades, corrections has relied upon an almost purely psychological approach to offending. In other words, the notion was that if you can correct inmates’ psychological distortions, then they would be ready for success upon release.

But now of course, we realize the complex social dimensions of criminal offending and of desistance. In the paper, I explicate a model I created to try to explain the varieties of reentry processes, based on a few dimensions: a) support of the offender; b) accountability of/by offender and community; c) the degree of engagement on the parts of offenders and community members.

Reentry processes that are simply high on support might be termed “reintegrative reentry”, which means it has a good amount of inclusion of the offender by the community. At the other extreme would be one that is high on accountability but low on support, which would be a kind of “net-widening” insofar as it is essentially piling on greater control. “Traditional reentry” is what has been typically done until the recent efforts to do better reentry planning—it was low on both meaningful accountability and effective support. The prison doors were opened and inmates’ were given “gate money” and told that they’d be back soon!

“Restorative reentry” would be characterized by high degrees of support by community members and high degrees of accountability, not in the form of compliance and control but through developing a sense of mutual community obligation, and a sense of belonging to a normative community. We might consider this the ideal, but it is accomplished through a deeper involvement/engagement on the part of the community. If the community “supervises” from a distance, that is net-wdening (not the typical coceptualization of it, rather the kind in which informal social control is not substituted for formal control, but simply added on). Accountability usually references only the offenders’ responsibility to acknowledge the harms done, and a commitment to not re-offend. In thinking of a restorative justice inspired model for offender reentry, accountability would also include the community’s responsibility to “restore” the offender. I have often been struck by the restorative justice triangle, which in diagrams shows the community, the victim, and the offender. But attention to the offender’s restoration is usually forgotten. Likewise, in my model, low levels of offender engagement is unlikely to lead to a community’s restoration.

The figure below sums up these four forms of reentry.

Restorative Reentry Model (Fox, 2013)

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Three aspects of desistance?

This post is based on a short paper prepared for a University of Sheffield Centre for Criminological Research Knowledge Exchange Seminar at the British Academy in London on 15th May.

In recent years theories of desistance from crime (how and why people stop and refrain from offending) have been much developed, discussed and debated, not just in relation to their various interconnected explanations of the process but also, increasingly, in relation to their implications for penal policy and practice. Underlying this developing scholarship lies an aspiration and an expectation that better understandings of desistance can and should enable the development of better approaches to punishment, rehabilitation and reintegration and thus to the creation of a safer and fairer society.

Defining desistance is far from straightforward, but most discussions begin with the idea of the cessation of offending behaviour. However, since it is impossible to know the moment at which any behaviour ceases permanently, scholars have increasingly come to conceptualise and to study desistance as a process (see, for example, Bottoms et al., 2004; Maruna, 2001; Farrall, 2002; Laub and Sampson, 2003). More specifically, we can think of desistance as a process of human development in social context; one that involves moving away from offending and into compliance with law and social norms. Maruna and Farrall (2004) draw an important distinction between primary and secondary desistance; the former relates merely to behaviour, the latter implies a related shift in identity. They posit that shifts in identity and self-concept matter in securing longer-term, sustained changes in behaviour as opposed to mere lulls in offending. Though the importance of this distinction has been debated by some, secondary desistance (and with it substantive or committed compliance to the law, see Robinson and McNeill, 2008) is likely to be important for people who have been heavily involved in offending and/or heavily criminalized. ‘Spoiled identities’ need to be shed if change is to be secured.

In my own recent thinking, I have been exploring whether it may also make sense to develop the concept of tertiary desistance; thus referring not just to shifts in behaviour or identity but to shifts in one’s sense of belonging to a (moral) community. My argument, based on developing research evidence (for example, Laub and Sampson, 2003; Bottoms and Shapland, 2011; Weaver, 2013), is that since identity is socially constructed and negotiated, securing long term change depends not just on how one sees oneself but also on how one is seen by others, and on how one sees one’s place in society. Putting it more simply, desistance is a social process as much as a personal one.

In fact, the links between behaviour, identity and belonging are implicit in the main explanatory theories of desistance. These are commonly divided into ontogenic theories which stress the importance of age and maturation; sociogenic theories which stress the importance of social bond and ties; and narrative theories which stress the importance of subjective changes in identity (Maruna, 2001). Recently, in an important review of desistance research, Bottoms (2014 forthcoming) has suggested a fourth set of explanatory factors which are situational in character. Drawing on his expertise in socio-spatial criminology, as well as on desistance research, Bottoms points out that various aspects of our social environments and of our situated ‘routine activities’ also provide importance influences on our behaviour, for better or worse. While our environments and activities are closely connected to our social bonds or ties (in intimate relationships and to families, work and faith communities), they deserve attention in their own right.

Much of my own work in the last 15 years has focused not so much on advancing our explanations for or understandings of desistance as on the related task of ‘translating’ the implications of this research for policy and practice, and in particular for how we approach to challenges of punishment and rehabilitation (McNeill 2003; 2006; 2009; 2012; McNeill and Weaver, 2007; 2010). Desistance research has particular policy salience to the extent that policy is concerned with reducing reoffending and its associated economic, human and social costs. Rather than simply observing or understanding desistance, the question becomes: “Can we enable desistance through criminal sanctions, or do they tend to frustrate it?” A wide range of recommendations have been developed in response to these questions, but they tend to centre on the following themes: 1. For persistent offenders, desistance is a complex and difficult process, so we need to be realistic about these difficulties, and to expect and better manage lapses and relapses. 2. Since the process is different for different people (even if there are many common threads), interventions need to be properly individualized and tailored to the circumstances of the individual. 3. Since desistance is relational, interventions need to work on, with and through professional and social relationships (and not just through individualized programmes). Developing social capital (meaning networks of reciprocal relationships) is crucial to supporting desistance. 4. Since desistance often involves developing hope for the future, interventions need to work to nurture hope and motivation. Hope seems to be connected to developing a sense of ‘agency’ (meaning the capacity to govern one’s life), interventions should seek to identify and mobilise personal strengths and self-determination. 5. The language of policy and practice matters; to the extent that it entrenches criminalized identities, it may frustrate desistance. We need to mind our language, as well as ensuring that we recognize and celebrate progress, so as to reinforce fledgling positive identities.

In the recent chapter already referred to above, Bottoms (2014 forthcoming) suggests that we need to add to this list interventions that attend to the routine activities and social environments of offenders. In other words, we need to practical supports and activities that enable and sustain change.

Looking at these issues in somewhat broader perspective, I have recently argued (McNeill, 2012; 2014) that over the last 20 years our approaches to rehabilitation have become too narrowly focused on supporting personal change, neglecting three other forms of rehabilitation – moral, social and judicial. The central argument here is that no amount of personal change can secure desistance if change is not recognized by the community (‘social rehabilitation’), by the law and by the state (‘judicial rehabilitation’). Without these forms of informal and formal recognition, legitimate opportunities (for example for participation in the labour market or in social life) will not become available and return to offending may be made more likely. In some cases, the failure in state punishment to attend directly to the need for moral rehabilitation (the settling of debts between the offender, victim and community) may undermine social rehabilitation. Restorative justice may have something to offer here. More generally, my argument is that these four forms of rehabilitation are often interdependent, and that failing to attend to all four reduces the likelihood of successful desistance.

More recently still, I have begun to argue that criminal justice policy and practice needs to reconsider how it frames its goals (McNeill, forthcoming). Studying and supporting desistance eventually forces us to address the complex question not of what people desist from, but what they desist to. In other words, if desistance is a process or a journey, how are we to understand its destination? My suggestion is that the concepts of citizenship, integration and solidarity may have much to offer in addressing this question – and that perhaps a positively framed set of goals for criminals sanctions operationalising these concepts (and a positive set of metrics for judging their successes) may help us move beyond an increasingly fruitless preoccupation with risk and reoffending.


Bottoms, A. (2014 forthcoming), ‘Desistance from Crime’, forthcoming in: Z. Ashmore and R. Shuker (eds.) Forensic Practice in the Community, London: Routledge.

Bottoms, A., Shapland, J., Costello, A., Holmes, D. and Muir, G. (2004) ‘Towards Desistance: Theoretical Underpinnings for an Empirical Study’, The Howard Journal 43(4): 368–89.

Bottoms, A. and Shapland, J. (2011) ‘Steps towards desistance among male young adult recidivists’, in S. Farrall, M. Hough, S. Maruna and R. Sparks (eds.), Escape Routes: Contemporary Perspectives on Life after Punishment, London: Routledge.

Farrall, S. (2002) Rethinking What Works with Offenders: Probation, Social Context and Desistance from Crime. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

Laub, J. and Sampson, R. (2003) Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age Seventy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McNeill, F. (2003) ‘Desistance Based Practice’, pp146-162 in W-H. Chui and M. Nellis (eds.), Moving Probation Forward: Evidence, Arguments and Practice, Harlow: Pearson Education.

McNeill, F. (2006) ‘A desistance paradigm for offender management’ Criminology and Criminal Justice 6(1): 39-62

McNeill, F. (2009) Towards Effective Practice in Offender Supervision. Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, available at:

McNeill, F. (2012) ‘Four forms of ‘offender’ rehabilitation: Towards an interdisciplinary perspective’ Legal and Criminological Psychology 17(1): 18-36 (Pre-publication final draft available at:

McNeill, F. (2014) ‘Punishment as Rehabilitation’, pp. 4195-4206 in, G. Bruinsma and D. Weisburd (eds.), Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, DOI 10.1007/978-1-4614-5690-2, Springer Science and Business Media: New York. [A final draft version of this paper is available open access online at:

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management. Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, available at:

Maruna, S. (2001) Making Good. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Maruna, S. and Farrall, S. (2004) ‘Desistance from crime: A theoretical reformulation’, Kvlner Zeitschrift fur Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 43: 171–94.

Robinson. G. and McNeill, F. (2008) Exploring the Dynamics of Compliance with Community Penalties, Theoretical Criminology 12(4): 431-449.

Weaver, B. (2013) The Story of the Del: From Delinquency to Desistance. PhD Thesis, Glasgow: University of Strathclyde.