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A New Book by Scopium's expert Dr. Ruwani Fernando

Comparing Pathways of Desistance: An International Perspective

Dr. Ruwani Fernando

Ruwani tells us about her interesting new book on desistance in an interview she did with Dr. Dana Segev. You can find both the audio interview and the transcript below. Most importantly, here is the link to the book:

Ruwani's book looks at how people stop offending (desist from crime) in France and England. The book presents a comparative study of desistance from crime by analysing and comparing the narratives of English and French desisters. In so doing, it uncovers how national and structural differences may lead to varying individual pathways out of crime.

Comparing Pathways of Desistance draws on the themes of family, education, onset of offending, employment, offending, experiences and perspectives of the criminal justice system, stories of desistance, support networks, and projections into the future. In addition, this book also explores topics that are less commonly looked at in desistance studies such as ambitions of entrepreneurship and leisure activities. It examines the ways in which people make sense of their experiences of offending and desisting, identifies differences and similarities between English and French desisters, and reflects on how these differences and similarities inform us on the influences of national contexts on individual pathways of desistance.

Comparing Pathways of Desistance with Ruwani Fernando


DS: Today I’m interviewing Ruwani, she is one of our Scopium experts, specialising in Criminology, specifically in the field of desistance from crime, which is how career criminals stop committing crimes. She works at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, and she just published a very interesting book called Comparing Pathways of Desistance: An International Perspective. It was published in the Routledge International Series on Desistance and Rehabilitation. Hello Ruwani, great to have you here.

RF: Hi, thanks for having me!

DS: So tell me about your book that just came out, what is it about?

RF: Yes, so the book is about desistance, so how and why people stop offending, and looking at what shapes and makes people’s lives, people who want to make a change, away from offending. It’s also a comparison of this phenomenon, in France and England. So there is an international component to this study, where the English and French contexts are contrasted and examined in relation to each other. So the book is about this cross-national study into the lives of people engaged in pathways away from offending, that’s what the book is about.

DS: That’s really interesting and a very ambitious topic to write about, especially comparison between two countries. So how did you gather all that information, did you undertake fieldwork?

RF: I did yes, so for this comparative study I got in contact with probation services in each country, so in England and France. And through them I was able to find the people that I interviewed, so I conducted about 40 interviews overall, with people who were supervised on probation in England and France. These people were probation supervisee who had at least a previous prior conviction, who expressed a desire to desist, so they had told their probation supervisor that they wanted to stop offending and change their lifestyles. So these interviews were conducted, they were about a wide variety of topics including their background, childhood, education, experience at school, their initial involvement with offending, experience through the criminal justice system, punishment. There were also discussions on things that were less tangible, the emotional component of desistance which we know from research is actually very important. We talked a lot around this emotional aspect of stopping offending, that includes a lot of fears, so fears of imprisonment or going back to prison for those that had experienced that before, that was something that came back a few times, fear of losing what they had already accomplished through their lives, through their families for example. We also talked about desires, so what people wanted out of their lives, what they wanted for their futures, their kids in some instances. There was this whole emotional and existential aspect of desistance that we were able to explore through these interviews. That’s how I gathered information on desistance, by conducting these interviews which explored a wide variety of subjects that gave us insight into the complex processes by which people stop offending.

DS: It sounds like you really delved into the people’s experience, what did you hope to find?

RF: I was looking for an exploration, the aims of the study were exploratory and comparative. I wanted to understand desistance from a fresh angle and create knowledge on desistance in the French context. This is because there isn’t much research conducted on desistance or qualitative approaches to rehabilitation in France, so on the one hand I wanted to really explore this under-researched area in this specific context and I also wanted to compare a well-researched context, that is England, with a lesser known one which is France. The comparative exercise allowed me to take a different angle and to consider what we already know on desistance in the English context but from a different, comparative angle. I also wanted to understand individual stories and journeys of desistance, with consideration to national contexts. So trying to figure out country specific elements of typical pathways out of offending. What are national specificities? What are elements in the national context that lead to specific individual typical pathways? Those were the key aims: exploring the French context, comparing that to one that we know quite a lot about already and looking at more societal national and cultural elements and interpreting the individual patterns found in the interviews with consideration to these national specificities.

DS: So what are the different pathways? Is there anything interesting that you can share with us today?

RF: Yes of course, the key findings can be divided into two categories, that are kind of distinct but relate with each other. The two categories are distinct pathways of desistance, so pathways, journeys out of offending. And the second one is narratives of change, the ways in which people formulated and constructed their own stories out of offending.

On the one hand, the differences that I found in the pathways of desistance were in terms of conformity for the French cohort who were very much focusing on developing a sense of belonging to their communities or further establishing a sense of belonging to their communities, leading very active lives and having relatively high amounts of ambition that they were planning for themselves or already working on. In contrast, for the English cohort I found something that was very different in terms of the sociability aspect of how it looks like to be desisting. So the English cohort were more focused on self-preservation, maintaining a certain lifestyle, comfort, security, isolating themselves from the outside world and potential temptations of reoffending and having generally more passive l lifestyles compared to the French cohort. What this looks like in practice is a life that is more sociable with a larger social network in France, with more social activities, more even just movements outside, going out of the house, carrying out cultural activities, sports, things like tat and general social contact but for the English very much confining yourself to your house, home, work and immediate family but actively cutting yourself off from any new relationships that were considered as potential push towards reoffending let’s say. This was found as well in the analysis of the analysis of the European Social Survey (ESS) data which confirms these findings in terms of this importance given to conformity, tradition and social relationships in France compared to England as well where they give less importance to these notions. So that’s the finding on what it looks like to have stopped offending and the different pathways that people took to get to that stage.

The second one is about narratives and the ways in which people tell their stories, and it reflects the findings on the pathways. I formulate this in terms of looking inwards vs looking outwards. So the English cohort was very much looking inwards in terms of making sense of their journeys in and out of offending. This was very much explained by behavioural understandings and personality traits. A lot of them recalled their stories of starting to offend by spending time with the wrong crowds, being influenceable, pushed by other people into offending. With the same reasoning, desistance and the ways in which they stopped offending was by working on their behaviours and on their personality traits which they associated with their offending. They considered themselves as having grown up, matured, becoming less influenceable, becoming aware of what they wanted to do rather than what others wanted them to do. Whereas in the French cohort, the narratives of offending and of desistance were more related to their outside world, their environment, offending was more related to their lack of legitimate opportunities, status or short-term gratification, short term financial gains. We can see the difference in the directions people look at, inwards vs outwards, in terms of explaining their stories of offending and desistance. The French cohort also gave a lot of importance to situating themselves within their communities, desistance was often considered as a way to better fit in within their communities, a way to reject this label of offender that didn’t sit well with them and in continuation of this desire to better fit into their communities, desistance was more considered as a change in social circumstances and settling into a more conventional lifestyle, blending into civil society and with non-offending peers. There is very much that idea of conformity in the French cohort and giving importance to your social relationships.

This is also reflected in the criminal justice perspectives in the French context, for example probation has its roots in social work. But in England the perspective that probation takes is more in terms of individualisation, considering the individual is made responsible for their own rehabilitation, which we can see in the discourse around behaviours and understanding offending and desistance through behaviours. So those are the two main findings that come out of this study, the distinction in pathways out of offending between the French cohort that is more active and giving weight to conformity where the English cohort is closing themselves, self-preservation and isolation, and the way in which these stories are told, looking out to the social environment for the French cohort and looking in to behaviours for the English cohort.

DS: That’s absolutely fascinating. It’s really interesting that the British population, the English were leaning towards isolation and isolating themselves towards a life out of crime and this is something I found in my research, I wonder whether there were anything that you saw in the culture that was conducing to isolation. One of the things you mentioned is how the approach in the UK is more agency, individualised based, it’s more your responsibility to change your life, everybody should take care of their own behaviour, compared to France where you say there is a more social approach and a more social view, do you think this is the structural social political reason why in France they are more leaning towards giving ex-offenders opportunities to change their lives and in England they were isolating more and more and separating from society?

RF: Yes, I think that’s one interpretation and explanation of these differences. I think there are two things to put forward here. One is that France has a very big state and a more generous welfare system, which may also mean that people are more capable of leading active lives whilst working towards changing their lifestyles and stopping offending. Meaning that there might be more of a culture of making sure that everyone has their basic needs met (ideally). So that’s one of the structural interpretation that we can bring into the differences that we observe here. And another one is that a large part of the French cohort had backgrounds that came from north Africa and had that culture as well, so a lot of them had for example large families, some of them became responsible to look after them so their siblings, their cousins even, so extended families. So in these cultures there might be great importance given to looking after each other, making sure that your family’s and extended family’s needs are met and more generally again this is found in the ESS looking at attitudes and values in different European countries, in France we do generally give more importance to social relationships and benevolence, looking after each other. So that’s also structural cultural broader, wider level explanations for these differences and how we consider the individual as located within their communities and largely influenced by their social circumstances, and on the other hand more left to fend for themselves and individually made responsible for the direction that their own life takes.

DS: Absolutely, I think you touch on a very key issue when you mention about the families, you can see in research into crime that cultural attitudes and values around families can change the types of crime, perhaps even the age of crime and coming out of crime as well. So cultures like in India where you have more enmeshed families that are bigger, closer together, you can see how the pathways into crime and out of crime suddenly shift a little bit. There is a big argument to be made here, there are different topics you can focus on whether it’s the type of crime or coming out of crime, but I think you really touched on a key issue. I think you have a lot of valuable insight, and it sounds like a very rich source of data and it’s very interesting talking to you about this topic. Tell me where people can find out more about the book, and you and your research.

RF: The book can be found on the Routledge site and it’s published like you said in the International Series on Desistance and Rehabilitation. People can get in touch with me through my Scopium page, I’m happy for anyone to get in touch.

In terms of what I want to do next is actually derived from one of my findings of this research, it’s what I mentioned earlier about ambitions in the French cohort, I’m quite interested about the professional pathways of people in desistance. So when we talk about desistance it’s how and why people stop offending, and I want to look at what people desist into, what type of lives people desist into and specifically about the professional aspect of it, and even more specifically I would like to look at instances where people with convictions go on to start their own business, engage in entrepreneurial activities. A large part of the French cohort were interested in or already taken steps to start their own business, whether it’s a restaurant or a bakery – very French to be food focused, but a career where they are their own boss. I think there is a good amount of research into the relationship between crime and employment, these skills that people get in offending activities that are transferable into the professional sphere, but specifically in terms of criminal convictions and entrepreneurship I think there is a gap there that I would like to explore.

DS: Thank you so much Ruwani, it’s been very interesting talking about this topic with you.


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