Desistance in Practice: Interaction in Criminal Justice Groupwork

This guest post comes from Steve Kirkwood, a Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh.

Knowledge Exchange seminar (Steve)

On 22 April, Beth Jennings (a PhD Candidate) and I ran a Knowledge Exchange Seminar at the University of Edinburgh, bringing together 35 stakeholders – mostly criminal justice social workers – to discuss the methods and preliminary findings from my research project on criminal justice groupwork. The research is relatively innovative in that it uses Discourse Analysis – which treats language as actively constructing reality and as fulfilling a range of social functions – and Conversation Analysis – which is concerned with the fine-grained analysis of conversation – to explore interactions in criminal justice settings. It is my view that this type of approach is one way of making connections between research on effective interventions and processes of desistance.

Knowledge Exchange seminar.

The research is based on the analysis of video recordings of criminal justice groupwork programmes, and because the videos are too sensitive to show, we showed short video extracts that had been recreated by actors. Creating the videos was an interesting experience in itself, as the idea was to have the re-enactments as close to the originals as possible, which created some interesting challenges for delivery – especially if the actor didn’t already have a Scottish accent!

At the event, I presented some of my preliminary findings, which highlight the way that some service users may resist or show ambivalence towards ‘pro-social’ identities, such as being a good father, and the social workers may orient to this ambivalence, teasing out opportunities or evidence for positive change, while other service users’ change narratives appeared to function as ‘resources’ to support these desistance processes. A key part of the event, which was heavily influenced by Professor Liz Stokoe’s Conversation Analytic Role-play Method (see ), involved breakout sessions facilitated by me and my colleagues Prof Bill Whyte, Prof Viviene Cree and Dr Eric Laurier. The sessions involved playing part of an extract, then stopping it to ask questions such as: “What is going on here?”, “What might happen next?” and “As a practitioner, what would you do next?” The idea is that a close analysis of specific instances of practice helps to make explicit key aspects of effective practice and encourages reflective practices that are informed by an understanding of interaction.

For me, the sessions highlighted how practitioners orient to a range of concerns in groupwork, including encouraging participation, reinforcing pro-social behaviour, conveying empathy, dealing with tricky/unhelpful contributions, drawing out and relating contributions to other group members, consolidating learning, and dealing with time constraints, often in subtle and highly skilled ways. I was amazed by the way that some participants at the event could predict what might happen next – including predicting changes in body language and things that would provoke laughter – and interested in those moments that departed from expectations.

The discussion gave me a greater understanding of how practitioners convert principles for effective practice into actual instances of interaction and how concepts related to desistance can be seen or understood in practice contexts. Feedback from participants suggested that focusing on specific instances of practice, informed by discourse analysis and conversation analysis, has real potential for enhancing reflective practice and building knowledge. For instance, it was suggested that a structured research project looking at ‘common scenarios’ in criminal justice might be useful for improving practice. I think this might help to open the ‘black box’ of criminal justice practice with benefits for evaluation research, theory building and social work / probation education.

I hope to be able to take forward this research in relation to one-to-one supervision in criminal justice settings. Saying this, it is important to note that some good reflective practices are already going on, particularly in criminal justice groupwork. The research methods I’ve been using also have some limitations, particularly in terms of the problems associated with taking small instances of practice out of context. Another important aspect is to be aware that the approach is intended to analyse interaction, not judge practice, and that the discussion of real instances of practice needs to be done respectfully and constructively. Overall for me it was great opportunity to discuss my research with practitioners and it was good to hear that the approach has some relevance and potential. Please feel free to contact me at for further information about the research. We are also in the process of seeking applicants for a Collaborative PhD Studentship that will develop this work – information can be found on this webpage under the title ‘”Examination of the practice skills for addressing sexual offending through groupwork”.

Circles of Support and Accountability as a Desistance Model

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

I recently completed an evaluation for the State of Vermont Department of Corrections (USA) on a program called Circles of Support & Accountability (CoSA), which is a reintegration model that originated in Canada. The U.K. has Circles, as does New Zealand, and a few places in the U.S. CoSA is a model for serious offenders who pose a risk of re-offense in part because of their isolation and lack of social support. The CoSA is a group of a few volunteers—just ordinary citizens really—who commit to meeting with the released “core member” for a year, offering support and guidance as he or she transitions back to the community.

Vermont is the only place as far as I know that uses CoSA many kinds of serious offender; other places use it only for sex offenders. Also this tiny state (of just under 700,000 people) has run more Circles than any place in the U.S.—close to 100 since 2005.

The evaluation was a qualitative one, designed to understand how CoSAs work, what the nature of the relationships is, and how members experience it. I interviewed 20 core members and 57 volunteers (each CoSA has three volunteers surrounding him or her). What I found was interesting and I will briefly summarize here:

  • CoSA is effective in part because it is unpaid, nonprofessional volunteers. Many core members were moved by the fact that ordinary people would invest time in them; this created a sense of mutual obligation. Core members didn’t want to let their team down.
  • CoSA volunteers balanced support and accountability but seem to work best when it’s longer on support, especially initially. Volunteers often would help core members stay within their conditions of release by giving them rides places, helping them shop, etc. And they would encourage them in their job pursuits. In addition, they would remind them of what they liked to do, like fish or bike, and participate in those activities with them. I found that the deeper and more socially involved the team became with the core member, the greater moral authority they had when they had to call them on a risky behavior.
  • A function that CoSA served that I had not expected was to de-institutionalize people who had served long sentences. Because the core members were released on supervision conditions, most could not drive, and some had restrictions on where they could live. They were often, lonely, overwhelmed, and unsure how to live in a world that had changed. CoSA helped them take small steps, like learning how to use a cell phone, and to get a bus pass.

A major function that CoSA serves is to communicate to ex-prisoners that they belong in the community and that ordinary citizens think they are worthwhile. This generated a sense of optimism—reminding me of the necessary components for desistance that Maruna (2001) talked about and “secondary desistance” that Maruna and McNeill discuss, which is the more abiding desistance based on a newly emergent pro-social identity. It’s quite clear that prison alone and even prison with rehabilitation does not lead to a more optimistic self—that is a social process, one that a circles model can assist. Over the coming months, I (along with Dr. Robin Wilson, who evaluated CoSA in Canada and found it reduced recidivism dramatically) will be conducting a recidivism study with the 100 Vermont CoSAs. The U.S. federal government seems interested in expanding CoSA (which was funded in Vermont by the Second Chance Act, which is a federal reentry fund), recently releasing a solicitation for programs to run circles.[1] Interestingly, the newest federal solicitation out of the SMART office (Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Tracking, Registering and Tracking) refers to CoSA as a “supervision” strategy, whereas the original model out of Canada was called an adaptation of restorative justice.

Maruna, Shadd. 2001. Making Good: How Ex-convicts Reform and Rebuild their Lives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


Desistance, Rehabilitation and (Prisoner?) Learning

I had an interesting day today at the Prisoner Learning Alliance’s ‘Smart Rehabilitation’ conference at the Open University. Their report of the same title is well worth reading (see link below). 

My task was to connect debates about prisoner learning with those about desistance and rehabilitation. There are several obvious connections. The narrowest (and perhaps most common) connection is to see education as enhancing employability and to see work as related to desistance. More broadly, many prisoners and former prisoners say that education is or was their liberation; though they are usually referring not to work but to personal development, and to the deeper connections between education, identity and community. That said, I’m reminded of Raymond Lunn’s salutary account of his experience, related in ‘The Road from Crime’. He had made the personal changes and secured his degree, but his pathways to work and inclusion remained blocked by the problems of disclosure of his record.

In his case, as in so many others, the learning that was needed was not just personal. It wasn’t about his employability, or even his own sense of his identity and potential. Rather, the problem was with ignorance and/or rejection from employers (and perhaps communities). It was them not him that needed to be educated about their roles in and responsibilities for reintegration. Unless they learned and changed, his change could not be fulfilled or secured.

These were the core points in my conference address: education is about more than skills and more than employability – it is about human development and human dignity. As such, we need to make educational opportunities available to prisoners as a human right, not as an instrumental mechanism for reducing reoffending (though education may well play a major part in supporting that outcome).  But equally, education needs to take place at the community, social and political levels; we need to better educate the polity and the state about their roles and responsibilities.

Maybe we need not just a Prisoner Learning Alliance, but a ‘Punishment and Rehabilitation Learning Alliance’ – one that creates, secures and sustains the human rights of prisoners to their education, but also one that reaches beyond the prison walls to educate all of us – politicians, policymakers, practitioners, academics, members of the public – about what it means to punish and to reintegrate justly. That sort of agenda wouldn’t just be about reducing reoffending; it would be about working for social integration and solidarity – and for a fairer, safer and more enlightened society for all.

My presentation is available here: Desistance, Rehabilitation and Learning (PowerPoint)

Desistance, suffering and serving

Recently, I was invited to speak about desistance and criminal justice to an audience of academics, practitioners and policymakers in Barcelona (not a difficult offer to accept!). After the event, I was interviewed by a Catalan journalist. In the final part of the interview, she asked some interesting questions — sadly pertinent in many countries — about why governments turn to repressive measures to reduce crime, and what the likely consequences of such approaches might be in the light of evidence about desistance. I have reproduced the text of the interview below…

What does desistance mean?

It’s a word criminologists use to describe the process of ceasing to commit crime. Actually, there has been a long debate within criminology as to whether the word can be used to refer to the process itself or only the state of having finally desisted (when the process has unequivocally ended). However, since it is impossible to know if or when someone has finally and forever desisted (at least so long as they are alive!), most researchers now us the word to refer to the process of moving away from crime. To use an analogy, if teachers need to understand a child’s learning process to be able to teach, criminologists and criminal justice practitioners need a thorough knowledge of the desistance process to be better able to decide how to support positive change in each case.

How can desistance change judicial policies? Is it an alternative perspective on tackling crime?

Research shows that justice policies geared to combating crime have failed in many countries; or at least they show reoffending rates are often high. Desistance research has helped governments to recognize that the failure to reintegrate ex-offenders is very costly, especially at times like the present when our financial resources are limited. In that context, research into desistance seems to offer new and useful evidence for professionals and legislators to design policies and strategies better geared to supporting the reintegration process. Though there are many useful studies about the effectiveness of specific rehabilitation programmes, in my opinion, it isn’t just a question of helping individuals to change themselves, but also of achieving reintegration. It’s a question of forging bonds that generate a sense of belonging to a community, which will be conducive to that community’s collective security and wellbeing. Ex-offenders’ reintegration into society depends on our ability to rebuild those relationships. So, there have to be two aspects to our work, the first involving the ‘offender’ and the second involving the community; reintegration is a ‘two-way street’.

Could it be said that opting for desistance-based policies and practices means believing everyone deserves a second chance?

Yes, that’s right. Desistance research encourages us to believe in a second chance, a third, a fourth; as many as it takes. It’s vital to recognize that desistance can be very complicated for people who have been heavily criminalised and socially excluded. The fact is that most individuals cease to commit crime, so the question we have to ask ourselves is what we could have done better to make that happen sooner?

We’re talking about giving offenders a chance, but there’s also the matter of a change of mentality in society.

Yes, that’s absolutely correct. It’s somehow easier for us to brand criminals as abnormal, to treat them as people who are different from us. That’s part of what drives the desire to remove such individuals from our community. But the result is rejection, which affects their reintegration process. In my view, we have a duty to support ex-offenders for two moral reasons. Firstly, we’re often complicit in the social problems that generate crime. Implicitly, we tolerate social conditions of poverty and inequality, which are factors in driving crime rates. Secondly, as a matter of justice, when someone receives a punishment, we have to take responsibility for making sure that the punishment ends. The reality is very different though; the formal punishment may end but the collateral social consequences continue – for prisoners and their families.

Is it also a question of realizing that anyone can make a mistake?

Yes. It might sound like a joke, but trying to change our diets or exercise habits or drinking are similar processes to ceasing to commit crime. Many of us often fail to do what would be best for our health, such as exercising, eating healthily or spending less time at work and more with our family. We can all be weak under pressure, and we have to try to understand one another’s vulnerabilities. We tend to be very lenient with our own faults and much less forgiving of others. We mustn’t forget that we all make mistakes.

Is desistance limited to youngsters or can it happen to adults too?

It can happen at any age. There’s a general pattern in the case of persistent offenders. They begin to engage in criminal activity at an earlier age; for persistent offenders criminal activity normally begins aged 8 to 12 and ends when they’re in their early 30s. Nonetheless, some individuals follow a different process. They might begin offending when they’re 14 or 15. A good social worker or a special education programme could help a person to stop committing crime. However, unfortunately, the way we react to offending can and often does prolong criminal careers. It may be the case that we’ve rejected them, prompting them to reject us. The more we negatively label and punish people, the angrier and more alienated from society they feel, and the less they’re inclined to follow our rules. For that reason, I think our sentencing systems and the way we apply punishments can delay desistance in many cases.

Spain’s penal code is currently being reformed to make it far more restrictive. What consequences do you think that could that have?

Trying to put an end to crime through repressive policies might give results in the short term, particularly if the idea is to spend a vast amount of money on imprisoning a lot of people, but we need to be aware of all the costs and damage that this approach leaves in its wake. That’s the American experience. You’ve got to let all those people out of jail at some point, and the conditions of their release will have a bearing on the crime rate in the future. It’s also necessary to bear the substitution effect in mind. Even if we incapacitate one offender, another may fill his place, meaning the effect on the crime rate is negligible, so a repressive approach isn’t a very effective way of reducing crime in the long term. I’d say that repression has more to do with responding to a demand for punitiveness from a part of the population; that demand has a very visceral basis – it’s not a sound basis for rational policy-making, even if it sometimes makes for good short-term politics. I understand the desire to react vengefully to crime, but I think a restitutive approach is almost always a better option.

What does such an approach involve?

Committing crime breaks rules and damages social bonds. We obviously have to do something about it and take the issues very seriously. Rehabilitation is part of the response, but sometimes people don’t like rehabilitation’s focus on the offender and its lack of attention to repairing the damage caused to relations between the offender and their community. I’m more in favour of a restitutive, restorative or reparative system that has greater respect for human rights and ensures that people repay their debt to society, but in a constructive way. The difference is between settling that debt through suffering or through serving. One response places the offender in an unfavourable position, and causes him or her harm. The alternative is to require something of the offender – and to support him or her in making good the debt. I believe this second approach is both fairer and much more conducive to desistance, as it allows for bonds to be repaired, which is what ultimately protects us from crime as a community.

Is desistance also possible in cases of terrorism or sexual crime?

Yes, looking at the few studies that have been carried out in both cases, we are beginning to discern some similarities with other types of desistance. It seems that the connections between behaviour, identity and belonging may have similarities across offence types. The behaviour involved in political violence is related to ideology and identity, as well as to a sense of alienation from the community. The feeling of belonging needs to be reinforced in both cases.

So, could we conclude that there isn’t a magic formula for making desistance happen in every case?

You can design general policies and processes that might work better by attending more closely to the evidence about desistance, but you also need to adapt the approach to suit the individual in question. You can also find ways to secure greater commitment from all stakeholders, but you can’t simply systematize the process. There are lots of useful approaches, but there’s no single solution for making a community or a relationship work. It’s more a case of a deep experience of commitment, in which communication, dialogue and human development have a vital role to play. We all need to engage with that process reflexively and thoughtfully.

Profile: Fergus McNeill is professor of criminology and social work at the University of Glasgow, where he is head of sociology and works in the SCCJR. Prior to becoming an academic in 1998, he worked for a number of years in residential drug rehabilitation and as a criminal justice social worker. McNeill has carried out various research projects on institutions, punishment practices and rehabilitation. He is currently chair of Offender Supervision in Europe, an EU-funded research network involving around 100 researchers from 21 European jurisdictions. In addition to his research, lecturing and writing (notably including numerous books on desistance), McNeill has been an advisor to a range of governments and associations all over the planet.

Related links


Offender Supervision in Europe

Discovering Desistance

The Scottish Association for the Study of Offending

The Second Chance Act


Desistance in Scotland (and England and France…)

Readers of this blog might be interested to take a look at the special issue of the new journal Scottish Justice Matters (on desistance). You can access it here:


It contains a fascinating range of articles (and one from the Discovering Desistance team) covering questions about how desistance theory and research relates to probation, prisons, prisoners’ families, youth justice and sentencing.

The next edition of SJM is a special on the arts in criminal justice… and I hear very excited noises about it from guest editor Dr Sarah Armstrong, so it’s bound to be a cracker. The website for the journal is:   I’d suggest subscribing now — it’s open access and free to download.


Regular readers of this blog will know that we have enjoyed a long-running conversation (at least from time to time) about language and labelling as it relates to desistance and reintegration. Indeed, we’ve expended a lot of energy and some brain power trying to come up with alternatives to terms like ‘offender’, ‘ex-offender’, ‘prisoner’ and ‘probationer’. Not everyone gets the point. As the terrifying Minister of the Interior says in ‘The Clockwork Orange’, ‘Words… mere words. Actions speak louder than!’. I guess he had a point, except that words reflects and shape attitudes, and attitudes reflect and shape actions.

So, I was delighted when Baillie Aaron contacted me about her recent TEDx talk ‘Once a thief, always a thief?’. Bailie is co-founder and Executive Director of Spark Inside, a UK charity supporting young people in custody through life coaching. She is also the founder of Venturing Out, a Massachusetts charity teaching entrepreneurship to men and women in prison. Both ventures seek to expose latent human potential, and adopt strength-based approaches toward empowering prisoners to achieve legitimate self-sufficiency on release.

You can find the talk here: Once a thief, always a thief?

It lasts about 10 minutes… and it’s worth investing the time!

Transforming Rehabilitation: Evidence, values and ideology

I’m posting here the text of a paper recently published in the British Journal of Community Justice’s excellent special open access edition on ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’. You can access the journal here: BJCJ Open Access Special Issue on TR. I’m grateful to Paul Senior for permission to re-produce my paper here.

I’m writing this at Heathrow, on my way home from the first World Probation Congress in London on 8-10 October 2013. For me, it was a bittersweet event. Sweet to learn about and to celebrate what probation is and can be – at its best; bitter to be doing that at the very moment that the UK Government dismantles a world-leading, globally-renowned, award-winning public service with such a proud history.

On the first day of the conference – but at a separate event organized by User Voice — I was asked what my fears are about Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) – specifically from a research-informed or evidence-based perspective. In one sense, that’s a difficult question to answer. Transforming Rehabilitation is really about disestablishing probation as an institution, it is quite hard to advance a strictly ‘evidence-based’ response. Since it is impossible to experiment (in the strict sense) with criminal justice institutional arrangements, there is no ‘evidence-based’ organizational structure for probation. That said, there are many arguments that can be made about which structures might best facilitate or impede desistance. And that’s where the fears arise.

Firstly, TR seems to me to be based on several fundamental misconceptions about risk. Many informed commentators have noted the dangers of creating an organizational structure that reifies risk classifications; that assumes people can be easily or sensibly classified for any period of time as high, medium or low risk. They have also pointed out – repeatedly – that most ‘serious further offences’ by people under supervision are carried out by those classified as low or medium risk – not because the assessment and classification was wrong, but because risk is dynamic and situational; it is always changing.

My concern with risk is a slightly different one. Ever since NOMS has elected to pursue a policy that resources should follow risk, it has slipped into the assumption that people who present a high risk of harm require the most intensive supervision. In one sense they do – public safety demands that they be closely monitored. But the ‘risk principle’ in the ‘what works’ research said something quite different; i.e. that people who presented a high risk of reoffending — whatever the likely gravity of their crimes — required (and benefited most from) intensive interventions. The reason was obvious. People who offend persistently tend to have very complex personal and social problems and it takes considerable time and skill to address those problems in a way that reduces risk. Yet TR seems to me to be built on the assumption that people who represent a low or medium risk of harm (who may well represent a high risk of reoffending) don’t need skilled and intensive support – that their supervision can be safely delegated to less experienced, less skilled and less qualified supervisors or supporters. While desistance research certainly does suggest a potentially important role for peer mentors, other volunteers, friends and family in supporting change, it also makes abundantly clear that for people who have offended persistently (but not necessarily seriously), desistance is a complex and uncertain process — a long and winding road that requires skilled navigation. TR diminishes the likelihood of skilled navigation (for reasons I’ll elaborate further below) at the same time as making the route between services more complex and elaborate.

My second major fear also flows directly from research evidence. Even skilled navigators can’t enable and support change by themselves. First and foremost they need to be able to engage with the people doing the changing. That sounds simple, but it is no small task to develop relationships of trust with people whose relationships with others – especially with authority figures – have often been, at worst, abusive and traumatic and, at best, inconsistent and difficult. In those circumstances, the process of building trust is hard enough for those with shared experience or with professional skills; it is made easier where legitimacy is conferred or more often earned by demonstrating the sorts of human values so important to probation practice (and to user voice organizations). My fear is that marketization may be poisonous in this inter-personal process. A pecuniary contract preoccupied with achieving targets that generate financial rewards is not a recipe for trust and engagement; it is a recipe for service users feeling and being objectified as a potential income source – or, worse, as a waste of time and effort.

My third fear is also related to the logic of the market, but in a different way. I alluded above to TR’s creation of a more complex set of arrangements for service provision and delivery. This refers not just to the potential movements of service users between the rump National Probation Service (as and when fluctuating risk requires it) and the contractors/consortia, but also to the complexities of the partnerships involved in delivery within and across regions – and of their relationships with related services (in health, education, employment, housing, etc.). In short, this seems like a recipe for disruption and fragmentation, when desistance research points to the necessity of coordination, consistency and continuity in supporting change.

To make matters worse, competition creates new problems of intellectual property and commercial interest that risk the creation of a whole new set of silos; not this time the familiar silos of public sector bodies failing to cooperate (a perennial problem, I admit, but not one solved in any way by TR), but rather the silos of commercial competitors looking for an edge. That raises questions about the future of research-informed and evidence-based practice. First and foremost, private companies want to increase profits and shareholder returns and to grow their market share. If, as some of them argue, it is innovation and quality (and not just efficiency/cost reduction) that will drive profitability, then innovation and quality will be highly prized, and carefully guarded. Market logic demands that they will not be disposed to sharing their best ideas. An optimistic (or naïve) fan of the free market might say that this means that all will be driven to improve in a frenzied quest for quality and competitive advantage, but that means that they all have to waste time and (public) money individually inventing innovations instead of cooperating. Or, alternatively, the qualitatively best contractor will end up as a monopoly provider, in which case market logic itself suggests that the end of competition will ensure that complacency sets in and quality atrophies.

An alternative and more likely outcome is that as soon as they realise that there are no easy fixes or cheap ways of securing PbR outcomes (except perhaps by resort to the familiar problem of ‘gaming’), companies or consortia will have to make their money in the more familiar fashion — by recruiting inexperienced and unskilled staff and by overburdening them so as to drive down costs (compare the recent inspection report on HMP Oakwood). In this approach, they make money not on the unpredictable outcomes but on the reliable volume of  business; which leads of course to an even swifter abandonment of quality. It also creates an incentive to ‘grow the market’; that is, to lobby for increases in the numbers of people subject to supervision, just as some US private prison providers encouraged mass incarceration.

However, my ultimate fear is even more fundamental. I fear that privatization and marketization will corrupt criminal justice. I don’t mean corruption in the obvious sense of people carving up a quasi-market through bribes or other more subtle inducements or frauds (though that is an inevitable and serious risk in any and every market). Rather, my fear is that by transforming rehabilitation from being a moral good into a market good, something central to justice will be lost. Doing justice is not a task that we should contract out; it is a civic duty that citizens owe to one another. When we seek to sell off our mutual obligations, we weaken the moral bonds between us because we treat as merely instrumental goods that are in fact constitutive of ‘the good society’. Rehabilitation is one such good; it is a duty that citizens owe to one another. Those that offend owe it to those they have offended. Those that punish also owe it to those that they have punished. Is it really desirable that we seek to meet these obligations merely by paying others to do it for us? My view is that rehabilitation is best thought of as being everyone’s concern and no-one’s business. Transforming Rehabilitation risks turning it into some people’s business and no-one’s concern.

Re-Imagining futures: exploring arts interventions and the process of desistance

Charlotte Bilby is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University.  Along with Laura Caulfield from Bath Spa University and Louise Ridley, also at Northumbria University, she carried out the research described below.

The context

At the beginning of the year, The Arts Alliance, a membership body which supports and promotes arts activity in the criminal justice system, commissioned research to investigate the relationship between taking part in arts activities and desistance from crime.  This project is part of the Arts Alliance’s process to build, collate and publicise evidence on the possibilities of creative practice changing people’s lives.

The coalition government’s Transforming Rehabilitation strategy means rapid change for criminal justice agencies and the way in which they provide support, management, punishment and rehabilitation for service users.  The agenda presents many challenges, but also acknowledges offenders’ complex backgrounds; it does so in an environment that highlights the importance of developing vocational skills that lead to increased employability.  Yet, there is also an understanding that there is an important role for other types of learning which might, for example, improve physical and mental health.  This, along with the belief that learning opportunities need to address responsiveness and diversity issues (NOMS, 2012; MoJ, 2013), suggests that there is an important place for arts activities within the criminal justice system.  Indeed the recent rapid evidence assessment of arts projects notes the positive impact that arts projects have on ‘facilitating readiness to change’ (Burrows, et al, 2013:4), and the government acknowledges this in the review of offender skills:

There is a long tradition of the arts being used within custody to motivate and engage learners, with much good work by voluntary and community sector organisations in support of that. We recognise the important role that the arts, collectively, can play in the rehabilitation process through encouraging self-esteem and improving communication skills as a means to the end of reducing reoffending… Engagement in the arts with the possibility of fresh vision, or at least a glimpse of a different life, often provokes, inspires and delights (BIS & MoJ, 2011: 19).

However, there is a need to evidence the impact the arts have on offenders’ motivation, intentions and journey to desisting from crime and realising their potential as crime-free citizens.  NOMS states that it will concentrate on commissioning services which have a proven track record of reducing reoffending.  Evidence, based on peer-reviewed quantitative research, will take precedence over ‘case studies and anecdotal reports’ (2012: 8).  It does, however, recognise that for many interventions it will not be possible to gather a level of quantitative data that is methodologically robust. We suggest (a) that this is particularly true of new and innovative projects delivered by smaller providers, (b) that it is likely that many arts practices fit within the categorisation of small and innovative projects, and (c) that this should not stop arts providers from endeavouring to capture data that will help evaluate outcomes.

The research

This research used a qualitative approach to investigate whether there was any evidence of the links between taking part in an arts activity while subject to a criminal justice sentence and desistance from crime.  The research addresses a number of questions

  • Do the arts contribute to an individual’s journey to desistance?
  • What intermediate outcomes do arts interventions contribute towards?
  • Do arts interventions enable people to form positive identities and build new narratives?
  • Do the arts contribute towards offenders building positive relationships?
  • Is there anything significant about the working relationship between arts staff and the offender, which might enable desistance?
  • Can arts interventions enable people to make significant behavioural changes?

Five projects in four locations were chosen to take part in this research.  The choices made tried to ensure that the impact on a variety of arts practice on different offender groups in varying criminal justice settings could be evaluated. The chosen projects were:A ISS music project run by a youth offending service (YOS) in a metropolitan area; art classes in a unit for personality disordered offenders in a high security prison; a creative writing project, run by the Writers in Prison Foundation and Padbooks, a bookbinding and paper craft project in a closed women’s prison; and a week-long, intensive music project, run by Music in Prisons in a resettlement prison for adult men.

The research team spent at least four sessions with each of the projects observing the activities and interviewing participants, arts practitioners and prison staff as part of an in-depth qualitative methodology.  The team also used participants’ written work and evaluations, and examples of the work produced in the arts activities.  This data was analysed using a thematic, content analysis approach.

A total of 30 individuals in contact with the criminal justice system participated in this research, alongside project facilitators and criminal justice staff. Twelve of the participants were female and 18 were male. Ages ranged from 15 years to age 50+. Eleven adult males were incarcerated within a high-secure prison, seven adult males within an open prison, eight adult females within a women’s prison, and four young people (three male, one female) were subject to community sentences or bail conditions.

The findings

This piece of research demonstrates a clear link between taking part in arts-based activities and the movement towards secondary desistance.  It identifies the importance of arts practice for the participants and shows what types of outcomes successful projects should be producing.  The research also highlights the importance of collecting qualitative as well as quantitative data on projects and their participants when measuring changes.

Analysis of the data across all five projects highlighted the following key findings.

The status of arts practitioners as professional artists is highly significant in the success of projects and their potential impact upon participants. The value of this should not be underestimated by agencies of the criminal justice system when considering utilising external organisations. The importance of practitioners’ status as professionals in their ability to gain respect has been noted elsewhere in the research literature (Caulfield, 2011).

I feel privileged to be working with a professional (Participant)

They’re the most professional and worthwhile music project.  [They] are positive role models.  They are clear about achievements.  Quick to engage the prisoners.  They bring different music backgrounds…so that it’s not just rap that glorifies crime… (Learning and skills manager)

The role of practitioners’ professionalism leads to the finding that arts projects are responsive to participant’s individual needs. The practitioners are able to identify the areas that the participants need to work on and tailor their practice to this, while still working within a ‘highly disciplined structure’ (arts practitioner).  Current policy documentation on commissioning services to meet offenders’ needs highlights the importance of responsiveness in meeting diverse needs.  Arts projects are considered by the people who run them as being safe spaces to achieve for people who often had never experienced or expressed a sense of accomplishment before.

Art provides the safe space to explore challenging questions and to make work which allows prisoners to discover that they have a creative eloquence and confidence not seen before. (Practitioner)

We take people out of their normal groove and expose them to a fresh learning experience…in which they succeed in incremental steps…(Practitioner)

This was also felt by the participants, who celebrated their successes and commented on the positive feelings that producing something gave to them.

I feel I went on a journey with [the painting], but in the end I felt a kind of peace of mind, a sense of achievement. (Participant)

Arts projects can have a positive impact on how people manage themselves during their sentence, particularly to cooperate with others – including other participants and staff. This correlates with increased self-control and better problem solving skills.

You share paint, glue.  It sounds stupid, but you know what it’s like in here… (Participant)

I had never been involved in a group piece before; being part of something, making something, being profound from found objects. (Participant)

The projects also facilitate high levels of engagement. This is significant because many individuals in contact with the criminal justice system have struggled to engage with productive activities in the past. Participants must engage in order to be able to redefine themselves. Engagement in arts projects has also been shown to lead to greater participation in education and work related activities.

Art helps engage with other things too, like the courses [I] had to do in order to move on. (Participant)

I would be lost without art. Back in the system… (Participant)

Participation in arts activities enables individuals to begin to redefine themselves, an important factor in desistance from crime.

I’m heading towards that ‘new horizon’, more positive, happy and with a more hopeful expectation for my future. (Participant)

Even the YOT worker agrees, gone from being depressed to happy.  Big change.  Think I’ve grown up. (Participant)

At Christmas I can get the kids crafty things to do and do with them.  It’s about my family… (Participant)

For some participants arts interventions help them manage their identity while serving long sentences, and for others they are able to think about the life through the gate or outside criminal justice agencies.

The findings from this research clearly indicate that arts projects can contribute to an individual’s journey to desistance. They highlight key outcomes for participants and the importance of the relationships with project facilitators. However, there is a need for longitudinal research, combining both qualitative and quantitative methods, to assess how far the findings presented here are sustained in the long-term.

The report was launched at the Arts Alliance annual Anne Peaker event, which aims to promote discussion and debate in this field. Last year, Prof Fergus McNeill presented a lecture Is desistance art?

The full report is available at

A full write up of this year’s event will be available soon on the Arts Alliance website:

New developments in ‘Evidence-based Corrections’

The post that follows comes from Prof Jim Byrne at Griffith University in Brisbane. Jim was a participant in one of the Glasgow ‘Discovering Desistance’ workshops and was also the organiser of a similar event in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he was based until his recent move to Griffith. The post reproduces an editorial in a journal he edits called ‘Victims and Offenders’ and concerns an important new initiative that prompted his move from the USA to Australia…

Editor’s Introduction: Global Perspectives on Victims, Offenders, and Communities

I think many readers of Victims and Offenders will be interested in a very recent development: the creation of the Global Centre for Evidence-based Corrections and Sentencing (GCECS) at Griffith University. As the Director of the Centre, I encourage you to visit our webpage and find out more about our plans in the three key areas we emphasize : research, policy, and practice. I have included a brief description of the centre here, and I urge you to contact me if you would like to join our global research consortium ( ).

The Global Centre For Evidence-based Corrections and Sentencing

Our centre will provide researchers, policymakers, and practitioners a new global forum for knowledge exchange regarding evidence-based corrections and sentencing strategies, based on an expanded and more inclusive definition of what constitutes research evidence. Although the term evidence-based has been defined narrowly in many circles to only include the results of high quality program evaluations, we will take a broader view of what constitutes evidence, one that recognizes the importance of personal narratives, community  context, and non-programmatic  assessments. We plan to include the results of both quantitative and qualitative research in the area of corrections and sentencing in our evidence-based reviews. It is our view that evaluation research—even the few well-designed research studies currently available for review — can only reveal part of the story about what works and doesn’t work with our global offender population. To understand the problem and offer informed policy and practice recommendations, we need to move beyond a focus on programs and  also consider the individual and community context of both crime commission and desistance from crime.

The Centre’s aim is to become the globally recognised leader in the area of evidence-based corrections and sentencing, and the primary source of information on how to integrate both individual and community level change strategies into effective corrections/sentencing policies and practices. Our goal is to develop an international knowledge exchange and collaborative research network, which will be directed through Griffith University and will engage researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from each global region interested in corrections and sentencing issues. The centre will emphasize the need to study the social ecology of corrections, in recognition of the importance of understanding how both individual-level and community-level factors influence our attitudes and behaviours throughout the life course. However, other theoretically informed assessments of corrections and sentencing reform will also be encouraged, along with research that examines particular corrections and sentencing problems (e.g. over-representation of minorities/ indigenous populations) in their full historical context.

The Centre’s View of Individual and Community Change

The centre will be designed based on a simple premise: you cannot change offenders without also changing the communities where offenders reside. While our institutional and community corrections system has multiple aims– including retribution/punishment, community safety and protection, offender rehabilitation and reintegration, and restorative outcomes–corrections agencies spend considerable time and resources on developing programs to change offenders into non-offenders. To date, these efforts have only had, at best, a marginal impact, in large part because their focus has been on the individual, while ignoring the influence of community context (e.g. community attitudes, values, resources, and structure). Community context can be incorporated into institutional and community corrections policies and practices in a wide range of areas (e.g. restorative sentencing, risk assessment, treatment programming, re-entry planning, culturally responsive interventions, desistance-focused community supervision, location-specific community resource development, and justice reinvestment). Our plan is to conduct high quality research with consortium partners on the impact of these strategies, and to provide opportunities for a global discussion of the implications of this emerging body of research for corrections and sentencing policies and practices.

Description of Centre Activities

The Centre will work collaboratively with local, state, national, and international policymakers on the development of evidence-based corrections programs and sentencing policies and practices that maximize public safety. Of particular importance is the goal of helping policymakers develop and implement successful, evidence-based individual, organizational and community change strategies. Towards this goal, the new Centre will conduct original research in partnership with corrections organizations, beginning initially with the Queensland Department of Corrective Services, and then expanding throughout Australia. We will also develop formal collaborative research partnerships—and comparative research projects– with a global consortium of research centres that focus on corrections and sentencing issues, in order to maximize the quality, outreach, and visibility of the Centre’s global research and evidence-based corrections policy and practice efforts. With the help of our global consortium partners, we plan to develop a series of global knowledge exchange seminars, and produce systematic, evidence-based reviews of the available research on key corrections and sentencing policy issues.

The Griffith University Global Centre for Evidence-based Corrections and Sentencing will begin with the following three initiatives:

1) High Quality Corrections and Sentencing Research Agenda— the Centre will develop research projects focusing on evaluating the impact of current corrections and sentencing strategies( adult/juvenile) in Queensland, throughout Australia, and internationally. We will also develop comparative corrections and sentencing research studies ( qualitative and quantitative) in partnership with our consortium centre partners;

(2) Knowledge Exchange Seminars and Systematic, Evidence -based Policy Reviews — To translate research into practice, the Centre will develop a series of executive session seminars and workshops highlighting corrections and sentencing issues in each global region; in conjunction with the executive seminars, the Centre will publish a series of objective, independent reviews of the available research on key corrections and sentencing policy issues, which will inform policymakers, both in Australia and in the international community;

(3) Global Evidence-based Corrections and Sentencing Network Development: The Centre will develop a global network of researchers, policymakers and practitioners interested in conducting high quality corrections research, and using this research base to improve the performance of the adult and juvenile corrections and sentencing system in their respective jurisdictions; in the process, the Centre—through the Centre’s state of the art website– will become a global clearinghouse for high quality, evidence-based corrections research, and a primary source of information on global corrections performance, and innovative corrections and sentencing policies and practices.

Location and Global Collaboration

The Centre will be located at Griffith University’s Mt. Gravatt campus, and housed administratively within Griffith University’s Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. The Centre will include academic colleagues from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who have research expertise and interests in corrections and sentencing issues, as well as an interdisciplinary mix of researchers interested in these topics from across the university.

The initial response from the global research community has been excellent. A preliminary listing of our global consortium members is included below:

GCECS Consortium Members by Global Region


  1. Spencer De Li, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Macau
  2. Hiroshi Tsutomi, Professor, Faculty of International Relations, University of Shizuoka


  1. Stuart Ross, Director, Melbourne Centre for Criminological Research and Evaluation, University of Melbourne
  2. Adam Tomison, Director, Australian Institute of Criminology
  3. Stuart Kinner, Associate Professor, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne
  4. Jesse Cale, Lecturer, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales
  5. Hilde Tubex, Professor, Future Fellow, the Crime Research Centre, University of Western Australia
  6. Sharan Kraemer, Lecturer, School of Law and Justice, Edith Cowan University
  7. Natalie Gately, Lecturer, School of Law and Justice, Edith Cowan University
  8. Frank Morgan, Director, Crime Research Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Western Australia
  9. Chris Trotter, Professor, Department of Social Work, Monash University
  10. Andrew Day, Professor, School of Psychology, Deakin University
  11. Richard Harding, Emeritus Professor, Crime Research Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Western Australia
  12. Glenn Ross, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Law and Justice, Edith Cowan University ‘
  13. Mark Halsey, Professor, Law School, Flinders University
  14. Garry Coventry, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Arts, Education & Social Sciences, James Cook University

Australian Policy and Practice Participants:

  1. Marlene Morrison,  Former Commissioner, Queensland Corrective Services, Department of Community Safety
  2. Mark Rallings, Deputy Director, Queensland Corrective Services, Department of Community Safety
  3. Mary McKinnon, Director, Statutory and Forensic Services Design Branch, Department of Human Services (Victoria)
  4. Peter Severin, Commissioner, Corrective Services NSW
  5. Julie Harcourt, Director, Strategic Policy and Research, Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian (Qld)
  6. Barry Salmon, Acting Commissioner and Child Guardian, Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian

Griffith University Faculty and Staff:

  1. John Rynne, Senior Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  2. Ross Homel, Professor, Director, Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice & Governance
  3. Paul Mazerolle, Professor, Pro Vice Chancellor
  4. Melissa Bull, Associate Director, Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security
  5. Samantha Jefferies, Senior Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  6. Stephen Smallbone, Professor  and Director, Griffith Youth Forensic Service
  7. William Wood, Research Associate, GCECS Centre, Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  8. Mark Kebbell, Professor, Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security
  9. Christine Bond, Senior Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  10. Myesa Knox-Mahoney, Associate Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  11. 33.       Anna Macklin, Senior Research Fellow, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  12. 34.       Kate Smith, Senior Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  13. 35.       Rebecca Wallis, Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  14. 36.       Danielle Reynald, Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  15. 37.       Shannon Sprigg, Mentors in Violence Prevention, Violence Research and Prevention


  1. Candace Kruttschnitt, Professor, Faculty of Sociology, University of Toronto
  2. Raymond Corrado, Professor, British Columbia Centre for Social Responsibility, Simon Fraser University


  1. Asha Degannes, Acting Director, Eastern Caribbean Centre, University of the US Virgin Isles


  1. Santiago Redondo Illescas, Professor, Criminology and Psychology, University of Barcelona
  2. Kristel Beyens, Professor, Penology, Criminology Department Research Group, Crime and Society, Vrije University Belgium
  3. Paul Nieuwbeerta, Professor, Faculty of Criminal Law and Criminology, University of Leiden
  4. Anja Dirkzwager, Senior Researcher, Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR)
  5. Sonja Snacken, Professor, Faculty of Law and Criminology, Vrije University Brussels
  6. Peter van der Laan, Professor, Faculty of Law, Vrije University, Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR)
  7. Ioan Durnescu, Lecturer, Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, University of Bucharest

Central and South America:

  1. 48.       Carlos J. Vilalta, Professor/Researcher ,Center for Economic Research and Education (CIDE), Mexico City

United Kingdom:

  1. Richard Wortley, Director, Jill Dando Institute for Security & Crime, University of Central London
  2. Alison Liebling, Director, Prison Research Centre & Professor, Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Cambridge
  3. Shadd Maruna, Professor, School of Law, Queens University Belfast
  4. Kevin Wong, Deputy Director, Hallam Centre for Community Justice, Sheffield Hallam University
  5. Michele Burman, Professor, University of Glasgow, Co-Director, SCCJR
  6. Richard Sparks, Professor, University of Edinburgh, Co-Director, SCCJR
  7. Fergus McNeil, Professor, University of Glasgow, Director, CREDOS
  8. Bill Whyte, Professor of Social Work, University of Edinburgh
  9. Cyrus Tata, Professor, Law School, Strathclyde University

United Kingdom Policy and Practice Participants:

  1. Brian Heath, Director, Jersey Probation (Advisory Board)
  2. Alec Spencer, Director of Rehabilitation and Care, Scottish Prison Service (Retired), Independent Consultant (Advisory Board)

United States:

  1. Jim Finckenauer, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, (Advisory Board)
  2. Faye Taxman, Director, Criminology, law and Society Program & ACE (Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence), George Mason University (Advisory Board)
  3. William Bales, Director, Centre for Criminology and Public Policy Research, Florida State University
  4. Tom Blomberg, Dean , School of Criminal Justice, Florida State University
  5. Susan Turner, Director, Center for Evidence-based Corrections & Professor, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, University of California, Irvine
  6. Cassia Spohn, Professor, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University
  7. Pamela Lattimore, Director, Crime, Justice Policy, and Behavior Program,   Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International
  8. Doris MacKenzie, Director and Professor, Justice Center for Research, Department of Sociology and Criminology, Penn State University
  9. Alex Piquero, Professor, Criminology, School of Economic, Political, and Policy Science  (EPPS), University of Texas
  10. Paula Smith, Deputy Director, Corrections Institute, University of Cincinnati
  11. Edward Latessa, Director, Corrections Institute, University of Cincinnati (Advisory Board)
  12. Chet Britt, Dean, College of Criminal Justice, Northeastern University
  13. Michael Osterman, Associate Professor and Director, Evidence-based Institute for Justice Policy Research, Rutgers University
  14. Andres Rengifo, Associate Professor, School of Criminology, Rutgers University
  15. Todd Clear, Dean School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University (Advisory Board)
  16. Andrew Harris, Associate Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
  17. April Pattavina, Associate Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
  18. Arthur J. Lurigio, Professor, Faculty Scholar/Master Researcher, Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Loyola University, Chicago
  19. Aaron Kupchtick, Professor, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware
  20. Frank Cullen, Professor, Center for Criminal Justice Research, University of Cincinnati
  21. Johnna Christian, Associate Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University

United States Policy and Practice Participants

  1. Ron Corbett, Commissioner of Probation, Massachusetts, USA (retired) (Advisory Board)
  2. Carl Wickland, Executive Director, American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) ( Advisory Board)
  3. Carol O’Brien, Assistant Superintendent, Middlesex Sheriff’s Office, Massachusetts (Advisory Board)
  4. Phylis Shultze, Librarian, Don M. Gottfredson Library of Criminal Justice, Rutgers School of Law, Newark

Corrections and Sentencing Research Agenda

The Centre will develop research projects in the area of corrections and sentencing that reflect the Centre’s focus on understanding person-environment interactions, and on designing, implementing, and evaluating intervention/ desistance strategies that emphasize the need for both individual and community change. We will also be looking toward the development and dissemination of global corrections and sentencing performance measures. A third area of research inquiry will focus on collaborative and comparative research projects with consortium members (e.g. justice reinvestment in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia).

The centre will develop research projects evaluating the impact of current corrections and sentencing strategies (adult/juvenile) in  Queensland, throughout Australia, and internationally. To support our global research activities, we plan to initiate a visiting corrections scholars program, where researchers from each region come to the Centre for short and longer term stays, in order to collaborate on Centre-based research and/or present their research to our faculty and students. We will pursue an active policy research agenda in conjunction with our consortium partners.

Corrections and Sentencing Policy Agenda

One of the primary functions of our Centre will be to provide opportunities for corrections and sentencing knowledge exchange that spans typical regional boundaries, linking policymakers, practitioners and researchers from each global region. To support these efforts, the Centre will prepare a series of white papers and rapid evidence assessments (REAs) in key sentencing and corrections policies under government review in Australia, and in other countries across the globe. While our corrections and sentencing policy briefs and REAs will be developed for a global audience, we recognize the need to initially focus on issues currently under discussion and review in Australia (e.g. privatization, boot camps, justice reinvestment, and over-representation of indigenous populations in corrections).

In addition to our policy briefs and REAs, we will also develop workshops on specific evidence-based corrections and sentencing policy and practice initiatives for corrections and sentencing staff/management, government officials, and/or the community.

Corrections and Sentencing Evidence-based Best Practices Agenda

The Centre will provide global corrections conferences and training programs on what works in corrections and sentencing that we anticipate will be attended by policy makers, government officials, and corrections managers from Australia and internationally. We have also developed an online resource clearinghouse for evidence-based research, policy, and practice in sentencing and corrections, providing one-stop shopping for corrections and sentencing online resources, self-assessments, and performance measures. Finally, we plan to utilize webinars, social media, and online workshops to reach a global audience interested in best practices in corrections and sentencing, based on our expanded view of what constitutes evidence in evidence-based reviews.