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‘Discovering Desistance’ Exchange Seminar

21st May 2012

Queen’s University Belfast hosted a knowledge exchange seminar on ‘Discovering Desistance’ on the 14th May 2012. This event was part one of a two-day seminar facilitated by Professor Fergus McNeill (University of Glasgow), Professor Shadd Maruna (Queen’s University Belfast) and Claire Lightowler (The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services, Glasgow). The workshop was attended by various stakeholders including reformed offenders, academics, practitioners and policymakers in the criminal justice system. 

The seminar commenced with the viewing of a new documentary entitled ‘The Road from Crime’ funded by the Economic, Social and Research Council (ESRC). The contents of the film focused on the lives of reformed offenders and illustrated their various pathways away from crime. While it was acknowledged that only an individual can stop offending, the stories narrated in the documentary highlighted a number of factors that support desistance from crime. For many, the creation of a new identity was significant, for example, the conversion to Christianity was important in facilitating change for one ex-offender. The role of peers, in particular, individuals previously involved in criminal activity who managed to transform their lives, were looked upon by other offenders as inspirations. As a result of the presence of positive peer role models, there was a ‘contagion’ effect where other individuals also managed to desist from crime.

The film also drew attention to the labelling an individual experiences as a result of imprisonment. In one case, an ex-offender repeatedly receives no opportunity of employment due to his disclosure of a conviction. This story illustrated the necessity for the response of society towards offenders to change. The question was asked: why should offenders care about a society that fails to care for them?

The seminar outlined the obligation of the State to ensure that punishment ends, paradoxically, one ex-offender in the documentary claimed that often the sentence only begins upon re-entry into the community.

The second part of the seminar was described as the ‘discovery phase’ where group discussions explored the ‘best of what is’, as well as identifying factors that have supported individuals to stop offending. The concept of ‘appreciative inquiry’ was applied to understand what has been working effectively and what can be improved upon to assist individuals desist from crime. Values of persistence, trust and belief were noted as instrumental in helping individuals to change. The engagement of dialogue between various stakeholders was also described as a significant tool in facilitating change.

The third section of the workshop focused on propositions to support the desistance process. This was referred to as the ‘dream’ phase with the objective of constructing a ‘possible future.’ A number of proposals resulted from the group discussion in order to facilitate an individual’s chance to desist from crime, including:

  • The development of positive role models, in particular, using ex-offenders as mentors.  
  • The need for employment opportunities (including within the public sector) for ex-offenders. An incentivised scheme was proposed to encourage employers to hire ex-offenders.
  • The importance of ‘lifting the labels’/the removal of the label ‘offender.’
  • The application of the concept ‘Justice Reinvestment’ i.e. the need to take money out of the justice system and invest this money into community resources.
  • The development of restorative approaches which should allow for greater involvement of the victim in the process.
  • A dedicated 24-hour helpline due to the limited contact availability of social workers and probation officers.
  • The establishment of drop-in centres. 
  • Mandatory teaching on the subject of desistance for all criminal justice and social worker professionals.  
  • The need for service providers to make decisions based on their expertise, despite the negative media attention their choices sometimes might attract.
  • The introduction of the presumption against sentencing.
  • The elimination of sentences for those who commit petty crimes.
  • The introduction of prison counsels where prisoners’ voices are consulted with, and heard in prisons.
  • The reduction of time periods to expunge offenders.

This seminar was also held in other locations including Glasgow, London and Sheffield. The workshops have created numerous provocative propositions for criminal justice reform.  These propositions will be developed in the next phase. 

Part two of the exchange seminar will focus on the ‘design’ phase. The ‘design’ phase will examine what practices and services should look like if they are devised to support desistance more effectively. Finally, the ‘destiny’ phase will look at how these propositions can be implemented. This seminar will take place in Queen’s University Belfast on Monday the 25th June 2012. For more information visit the ‘Discovering Desistance’ blog: http://blogs.iriss.org.uk/discoveringdesistance 

Michelle Martyn is Research & Policy Officer with IPRT.

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