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Institutions and what desistance “looks like”

Dr. Ruwani Fernando

Desistance studies have increased in the past few decades, to the point where we have extensive knowledge on how and why people stop offending. Social factors impacting desistance are well known (Sampson and Laub, 2003), internal dynamics of change and cognitive transformations have been mapped (Giordano et al, 2002; Maruna, 2001), and the relational aspect of change has been evidenced (Weaver, 2016). We also know about the impact of criminal justice interventions on processes of change (Farrall, 2002; Robinson, 2005; King, 2013).

In terms of the institutional context, we remain limited by our use of recidivism statistics to evaluate the results of the criminal justice system interventions. Perceiving desistance as not only changes in behaviour and identity, but also shifts in people’s sense of belonging to a community (tertiary desistance – McNeill, 2016) allows us to consider in detail what type of life people desist into and thus get a clearer picture of what comes after institutional intervention. The concept of ‘assisted desistance’ helps us to consider the role of people’s involvement with institutions in their life trajectories. Nowadays, research into desistance processes step beyond the why and how, into the intricacies of context and results.

Here, I want to argue for qualitative considerations of institutional interventions, within and beyond the criminal justice system, focusing on how desistance and change look like in people’s lives. I will use findings from my own research to argue for more empirical work to be done, linking criminal justice and other institutions’ involvement with people who want to stop offending, and what type of life they desist ‘into’.

My PhD explored narratives of desistance from crime in England and France. A detailed account of the results is due to be published in Routledge’s International Series on Desistance and Rehabilitation. The aim of my research was not to evaluate the criminal justice, probation, or overall setting of each country, but to compare processes of desistance, accounting for the differing context. My findings point to two different typical pathways out of crime that reflect the institutional perspectives on offending and rehabilitation of each country.

On the one hand, English participants tended to understand the onset of their offending as linked to flaws in their behaviours and personalities, such as being impulsive, short-tempered, or easily influenceable. They explained their journeys of desistance in part through changes in these traits, as well as shifted priorities and desires for their future. While English and French participants were typically from deprived socio-economic background, the former placed increased emphasis on cognitive, behavioural, and relational explanations. This is reflected in the criminal justice philosophies and probation perspectives on what impacts and influences offending, offenders, and rehabilitation. In England (and Wales), “the underlying discourse of approaches to probation over the past decade has been agency, with themes of responsibilisation and individualisation taking primacy as individual offenders were encouraged to reduce their own risk of re-offending” (King, 2013: 146).

On the other hand, certain findings from the French cohort reflect a probation service with roots in social work. Whilst in France, it is also the ‘cognitive-behavioural’ that takes primacy in probation work, traditionally, the focus has been on understanding people’s life stories, the role of their peers, their social environment and family backgrounds as well as the broader economic context in which they evolve in, to shape delivery of supervision (de Larminat, 2011). French participants have tended to frame the onset of their offending with socio-economic explanations. They often underlined the role of external factors, like poverty, childhood abuse and life in high crime areas as important factors in their initial involvement in offending.

Differences in how people perceive their own offending shows the extent to which institutions, namely criminal justice philosophies and probation practice can impact not only how processes of desistance occur, but also what change leads to. What sort of life do people who stop offending end up living? In the English cohort, a strategy used to maintain desistance included shielding themselves from potential temptations of reoffending by physically and socially isolating themselves, restricting their social circle and activities outside of spaces familiar and safe to them. In terms of tertiary desistance, there is limited scope for a sense of belonging or change being acknowledged by many people considering restrictions in people’s social lives. Aspirations and ambitions were limited, and the main concern for them was often to simply maintain a sense of stability in terms of housing and employment.

The French cohort had greater ambitions, notably of further education and entrepreneurship. Openness to taking risks was greater by virtue of the nature of these goals. A strategy for maintaining change in the French cohort was found in the emphasis on conformity in the narratives. Blending in in civil society and taking part in legitimate activities meant spending time away from delinquent peers and greater focus on newfound priorities and preferences.

This is not to suggest that probation in England is less successful or enviable, because there are also evidently issues in France (Herzog-Evans, 2022; 2018). Pains of probation (Hayes, 2015) are present in both countries, albeit in distinct manners (Fernando, 2021). The emphasis put by French participants on the impact of the surveillance and control aspects of probation illustrates that probation supervision entails monitoring adherence to the various measures of the community sentence more so than rehabilitation (de Larminat, 2011).

Rather, these differences reflect the institutions that people interact with, and the societies in which they evolve in. Institutional understandings of offending and rehabilitation, criminal justice philosophies and practice, along with other structural factors like culture and traditions, shape to a certain extent, trajectories of change as well as the ‘end result’ that is the lives of people who have stopped offending. This demonstrates the value of exploring the structural and institutional aspect of processes of desistance, with focus on what people change into, as well as why and how.

Reference list

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

Farrall, S. and McNeill, F. ( 2010) ‘Desistance Research and Criminal Justice Social Work’, in M. Herzog-Evans (ed.) Transnational Criminology Manual. Oisterwijk: Wolf Legal Publishers.

Fernando, R. (2021). Desistance from crime and probation supervision: Comparing experiences of English and French probationers. Probation Journal, 68(2), 224–242

Giordano P.C., Cernkovich S.A., Rudolph, J.L. (2002) Gender, crime, and desistance: toward a theory of cognitive transformation. American Journal of Sociology 107: 990–1064.

Hayes, D. (2015). The impact of supervision on the pains of community penalties in England and Wales: An exploratory study. European Journal of Probation, 7(2), 85–102.

Herzog-Evans, M., Berjot, S., & Keulen de Vos, M. (2022). Exploring the black box of French community supervision. European Journal of Probation, 0(0).

Herzog-Evans M (2018) French probation and prisoner resettlement. Involuntary ‘privatisation’ and corporatism. In: Daems T and Vander Beken T (eds) Privatising Punishment in Europe? New York, NY: Routledge, 104–123.

King, S. (2013). Assisted desistance and experiences of probation supervision. Probation Journal, 60(2), 136–151.

de Larminat, X. (2011) L’exécution des peines en milieu ouvert. Entre diagnostic criminologique et gestion des flux. Questions pénales, 14(2), 1-4

McNeill, F. (2016) ‘Desistance and Criminal Justice in Scotland’ in Croall, H., Mooney, G., & Munro, M. (eds.) Crime, Justice and Society in Scotland. London: Routledge.

Maruna, S. (2001) Making Good: How Ex-convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books.

Robinson, G. (2005) What works in offender management. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 44(3): 307418

Sampson, R.J., Laub, J.H. (2003) Life-course desisters? Trajectories of crime among delinquent boys followed to age 70. Criminology 41(3): 301–340.

Weaver, B. (2016) Offending and Desistance: the Importance of Social Relations. Routledge.


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