Changing the way people with convictions are viewed by the law

The UK should introduce measures that allow all people with convictions to be potentially regarded as legally ‘rehabilitated’, and therefore not have to disclose their record to employers, according to a report that’s been recently published.

Christopher Stacey, Director of Unlock (a charity for people with convictions), has put forward the proposal as part of a series of recommendations he’s made as a result of research carried out with the support of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship.

As part of the research, Christopher visited France, Spain and Sweden, where he looked at how the countries deal with criminal records, particularly in disclosing them for employment purposes. In Rehabilitation & Desistance vs Disclosure, Christopher reports on two main areas for each countries – who has access to criminal records and how they’re used, and what systems the country has in place to protect or expunge records to minimise the collateral consequences of a criminal record.

“There was much greater faith and confidence that people rehabilitate, and so there’s little need for them to have to disclose their record. This results in more progressive ‘expungement’ policies which allow people with convictions to be protected from the potential prejudice and stigma that they might otherwise face. The majority of employers in these countries didn’t use criminal record checks, recognising the shortfalls of them as a recruitment tool,”says Christopher.

In his report, Christopher outlines a number of recommendations for the UK, including:

  • Employers should only consider asking for details of criminal record when they ‘can forsee hiring’ an individual, and not asking on application forms.
  • A general prohibition against criminal record checks for recruitment. Exceptions would be granted on a case-by-case basis, where it was deemed (a) lawful and (b) necessary.
  • Individuals being able to obtain a copy of what they might have to reveal to a future employer.
  • Research needed into the effectiveness of criminal record checks and what value they provide to employers that use them.
  • Exploring the use of ‘occupational disqualifications’ as a means of regulating who can work in certain roles, allowing for more restricted access to criminal records in other roles and more expansive ‘cancelling’ systems.
  • Establishing an ‘ultimate’ form of rehabilitation which applies to all types of disclosures.

Christopher plans to feed these recommendations into his work with Unlock, challenging employment discrimination at a policy level with employers and Government.

Download the report here: Rehabilitation-Desistance-vs-Disclosure-Christopher-Stacey-WCMT-report-final

For more information on this work, click here

Making Good by Giving Back

Last year Helen Collins travelled across Canada and America to learn about projects and approaches that aim to promote integration and desistance from crime. This was a research project supported by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and Prison Reform Trust. Hugely influenced by the work of Professor Shadd Maruna, one of Helen’s main interests was the role of identity in the process of desistance and how approaches or interventions can help people involved in the criminal justice sytem shift a negative sense of self into a more positive sense of self that helps people to look forward. Lots of learning was taken from this experience but one of the main themes and something which Helen is keen to develop in the provision of rehabilitative services are opportunities for people to give back. You can access the report here:  Collins-Final Churchill Report

Pathways to re/integration

I’ve spent the last two days at a fascinating conference at Queen’s University Belfast (organised by Mark Farmer, Anne-Marie McAlinden and Shadd Maruna) on desistance from sexual offending. More of that later perhaps, but one key issue that seems to be recurring in any contemporary discussion of desistance is the question Allan Weaver poses in The Road from Crime: ‘What are we asking people to desist into?’ I’ve been struggling with that question ever since Allan raised it. Here’s an excerpt from and then a link to a new article (co-authored with Steve Kirkwood) that tries to edge towards an answer…


The development of scholarship related to particular categories of people who are subject to different forms of social control often results in subfields that become or remain isolated from each other, reinforced by artificial boundaries between professional bodies and academic disciplines. This means that advances in knowledge may not always cross from one subfield to another. As a specific example, practice and theory relating to the integration of asylum seekers and the reintegration or rehabilitation of ‘ex-offenders’ have largely developed in isolation from one another. However, in both contexts, similar processes and goals apply, and in both contexts these processes and goals relate to people who are marginalised through formal legal and informal social processes. For these reasons, we suspect there is much to gain through critically comparing these two fields. In this paper we do this by exploring the resonance of McNeill’s (2012) model of ‘Four forms of ‘offender’ rehabilitation’ with the experiences of asylum seekers and the resonance of Ager and Strang’s (2004) model of ‘Indicators of integration’, originally developed for use with refugees and asylum seekers, with the experiences of ex-offenders. Our intention is that such a cross-field comparison will help advance theory and understanding relating to both subfields and in doing so, work towards the development of a broader framework in which knowledge regarding integration and citizenship can be pooled in order to progress theory and practice in social work and related disciplines.

This article contributes to the growing body of research and theory on the intersections between criminal justice and immigration policies and practices (e.g., Aas, 2011; Bosworth & Guild, 2008; Malloch & Stanley, 2005; Pickering & Weber, 2014). Much of this research has been concerned with the criminalisation of migrants and much of it therefore brings critical criminological notions to the understanding of attempts to control migration, focusing on aspects of border control, policing and detention. The present article takes a somewhat different approach by bringing concepts from migration studies to the examination of criminological issues and by specifically engaging with issues of rehabilitation and reintegration…



We hope that this article has demonstrated the usefulness of comparing research, theory and practice across sub-fields that share similar goals and processes in relation to re/integration. While this discussion has focused specifically on the integration of asylum seekers and ‘ex-offenders’, similar comparisons might be instructive in relation to other sub-fields and groups in society, such as: those recovering from substance problems or mental health issues; people experiencing homelessness; victims of crime; people with disabilities; etc. Such work might help to develop common frameworks that allow for better synthesis of research, theory and practice across sub-fields in order to benefit understanding and service delivery. In this regard, the common thread is an interest in achieving integration or enjoying ‘citizenship’, broadly conceived, across segments of society that otherwise experience disadvantage and isolation. Hopefully this contribution emphasises the importance of looking beyond disciplinary boundaries to explore issues that have commonalities for people with quite diverse backgrounds.

We recognise that there are complex and enduring problems with the concepts of integration and citizenship. Perhaps in taking this discussion forward, for example, we would need to more clearly articulate the differences between liberal and republican versions of citizenship (Braithwaite and Pettit, 1992); the latter placing greater stress on the importance of positive liberties and social as well as political rights. Equally, we might need to engage with contemporary debates about the prospects for and desirable forms of social solidarity in late-modern, complex societies. Following Hudson (2008), we would argue for a cosmopolitan vision of justice – one that recognises the centrality of obligations of hospitality within ‘societies of strangers’; obligations rooted in the insistence upon respecting our common humanity irrespective of our origins and identities – and, in the case of ‘offenders’ even irrespective of the harms we may have caused in the past.

While it is not our intention to impose a single or simplistic goal that must be applied to all areas of social services, and certainly not for all individuals, we see merit in compelling public services (including asylum and criminal justice services) to engage with the central question of what social goods (and what kind of society) they exist to promote, rather than being justified, defined and measured in terms of their contribution to minimising harms. We suspect that the latter way of framing services militates towards segmentation between services, rather than their integration, and that it tends to dehumanise their recipients as bearers of risks or needs, rather than as citizens who may need some support to enjoy their rights and fulfil their obligations.”

If this excerpt has whetted your appetite, you can read the full final draft version of the article here: Kirkwood and McNeill (final). Or you can access the published version here:


Space, reentry and alienation

On Monday, I was an invited participant at a forum organised by the Chaplaincy of the Scottish Prison Service, entitled ‘Creating Space for Change’. I was a member of a panel with three senior clerics and the Chief Executive of the SPS. You can find the papers here: Creating Space for Change, but my paper is reproduced below:

Space-related metaphors are ten-a-penny in criminal justice. For me, the one that immediately springs to mind relates not to the ‘places and spaces’ that might concern the architects or urban planners of community safety, but rather to ‘outer-space’. Some years ago, as the USA began to confront the social consequences of its ill-fated experiment with mass incarceration, the term ‘prisoner reentry’ emerged. I’m not sure who first coined the phrase, but it is most associated with Prof Jeremy Travis of John Jay College in New York. Prof Travis has recently acted as Chair of a high-powered National Academies of Sciences report on ‘The Growth of Incarceration in the USA: Its Causes and Consequences’ (see: It is a sobering read. Travis’s work on re-entry has done a great deal to challenge America’s political establishment and its civil society institutions to think seriously about how a nation can handle millions of people returning from prisons year after year – and about whether it really makes sense to send them away in the first place.

What is most striking about the term ‘re-entry’ is its astronautical association. It is the same term used for space-craft returning to the Earth’s atmosphere. To survive re-entry, such craft need skilful piloting and navigation, all sorts of technologically innovative design and engineering… and a soft landing place. Trajectory, speed and final destination need to be controlled, and the craft has to be able to handle exceptional pressures that cause less robust objects to explode. To avoid that sort of calamity, billions of dollars (and other currencies) have been spent on these craft and on their pilots.

In these respects, the metaphor is perhaps helpful; it shows the importance and costs of investing in a safe return. But, of course, it is also a problematic metaphor, at least insofar as it might imply that people in prison or returning from prison are not really ‘of this world’. By contrast, when sociologists discuss processes of ‘alienation’, they they are usually describing the disillusion, disaffection or disintegration of people within society but who feel removed from it as a result of the ways in which our world is ordered – often unfairly. That sort of ‘alienation’ might well be a common experience of people who find their way into prison; it might even be a cause of or influence upon their offending. But punishment – at least in many of its forms – is also itself alienating. Imprisonment is a kind of deliberately inflicted disintegration; a form of banishment that creates its own problems of safe return. And, as Jeremy Travis and others have long pointed out, these are problems as much for the excluding society as for the individuals and families directly involved. Whether we like it or not, the expelling society is also the receiving society.

To speak of an ‘alien-nation’ might invoke a still more worrying kind of ‘othering’ of people who go to prison; one that contrives to construct them as an alien species. The sci-fi language makes this sound like a modern development, but again as sociologists (and anthropologists) remind us, human beings have been sorting themselves into and out of social groups for millennia, and in myriad ways. In the context of a faith communities’ initiative like this one, it might be a bit provocative to single out one religious forms of ‘othering’, but I wonder if one of the less attractive legacies of Calvinism – one that Scotland and the USA might share to some degree — is the sort of ‘deep othering’ implicit in notions of the Elect and the Damned? Indeed, some sociologists of punishment have begun to explore the extent to which different cultural heritages (linked to different theologies) might help us explain markedly different approaches to punishment in near-neighbour countries.

Whatever progress this sort of analysis produces in terms of how we might understand ‘othering’, the more urgent question has to be ‘How do we resist it?’. That question might be answered on a number of levels – from the political to the personal – but it seems to me that story-telling must be a key part of it. Although as a criminologist and a social scientist I want the sorts of evidence that my colleagues and I produce to guide us towards a more progressive, less alienating and smaller penal system, the evidence itself points me towards the importance of other kinds of narratives. Change can’t be produced merely by academic appeals to our heads when punishment is very much a matter of the heart – and of the gut.

I can think of two obvious emotionally-engaged ways to refuse or resist the creation of the alienating gap between the self and the other; between ‘them’ and ‘us’. One is to reject or even just unsettle the distinction between the ‘respectable’ self and the criminal other. There is a brilliant US website called ‘We Are All Criminals’ ( that does this simply by asking ‘respectable’ people, in confidence, to relate crimes that they have committed but for which they have never faced sanction. If that strategy unsettles assumptions about non-offending ‘selves’, then the second, related approach is to support and share narratives that unsettle ‘our’ assumptions about the offending ‘other’. In the Scottish context, both ‘Positive Prisons, Positive Futures…’ ( and Vox Liminis ( have both been doing an excellent and important job in this second task. In somewhat different ways, these organisations (and others) create and construct people with convictions as the contributing, creative, committed citizens we should all aspire to be.

We all face choices between making and sharing stories that divide us and create enemies (alien, foreign or domestic), or making and sharing stories that unite us and create friends. I’m not suggesting that there is nothing to fear, although it is worth noting that we often misplace our fears; most of us are most hurt by those closest and most similar to us, rather than by those most distant and most different. I am suggesting that, ironically, ‘othering’ is self-defeating and we need to be vigilant about it and against it. If we can learn to resist the ‘othering’ impulse, maybe that will help us create the space for change that we all need, if we are to flourish as individuals, as communities and as a nation.

Reforming Attitudes to People who have been in Prison: The Importance of Emotions

We begin 2015 with a guest post from Alejandro Rubio Arnal, who recently graduated with an MSc in Criminology & Criminal Justice. His research project explored the impact of viewing and discussing ‘The Road from Crime’ on attitudes to former prisoners. The results were fascinating…

As a consequence of the boom in incarceration that began in the late 1970s, more people than ever are being released from prison. This, added to high recidivism rates, has meant that since the beginning of the 21st century interest in the re-entry of former prisoners has increased amongst policymakers, academics and (to some extent) amongst the general public in many jurisdictions. Desistance research has highlighted the importance of social reaction in enabling or frustrating the process. Nevertheless, relatively little is known about what shapes attitudes towards former prisoners and even less is known about the process by which these attitudes change. The aim of this post is to present the main results of my research project for the MSc of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Glasgow (Rubio Arnal 2014), the purpose of which was to begin to address the gap in our knowledge about how to change attitudes towards crime related matters.
My study was an attempt to try to explore the importance of emotive (as opposed to cognitive) messages in changing attitudes towards crime related issues; it complements the only study of changing attitudes towards former prisoners that has used multivariate analysis (Hirschfield and Piquero, 2010.) Nonetheless my research had limitations that affected its validity, reliability and generalizability due to factors such as the sample size, the research techniques that were used, the researcher and time constraints (see Rubio Arnal 2014).

The research was conducted with the purpose of answering two questions: 1) How did the film ‘The Road From Crime’ (2012) (which contains emotive as well as cognitive messages) affect religious people’s attitudes towards former prisoners? 2) Why and how did those attitudes changed? To answer these questions, both quantitative and qualitative techniques were used. Two sessions were conducted in two different churches in two different Glasgow neighbourhoods. 10 participants assisted to the session in Church A whereas in the session in Church B there were 11. A purposive, snowball self-selective sampling strategy was used. Respondents initially completed a questionnaire that measured attitudes towards former prisoners (Negative Attitudes Towards Former Prisoners scale: NATP-scale) and other variables that could be considered potential predictors of those attitudes. After watching the documentary participants were asked to re-read all of the questions of the same questionnaire, and if they wanted to they could change their answers. Afterwards a focus group was conducted.

In order to better analyse the results, quantitative and qualitative data were integrated. The analysis of both focus group transcripts and questionnaire answers showed that the session as a whole altered the attitudes of participants towards former prisoners, or at least it reinforced more positive attitudes.

With regards to the questionnaires, there were two ways of measuring if participants changed attitudes towards former prisoners: (1) the NATP scale (a scale composed by 5 items), and (2) two questions that directly asked participants if they thought their attitudes towards former prisoners had changed as a result of the session. When looking at the NATP scale, 47% of the participants changed their views towards former prisoners after the session: 90% of them after viewing the film (and before the focus group discussion). When looking at the other two questions, 86% of the participants thought that the session as a whole changed their views toward former prisoners and 57% of all the participants thought that the documentary changed their attitudes towards former prisoners, while 80% of the participants in the focus groups thought they were useful too.

By examining quantitative and qualitative data, the changes in attitudes seem best explained with reference to empathy as an emotional response: a variable that has rarely been examined in criminological research. Two thirds of the participants who changed their attitudes felt more empathy towards former prisoners after watching the documentary. Of the other three participants, one had already scored the maximum (for empathy) before watching the film. During the focus groups, participants of Church A, who originally held more positive attitudes towards former prisoners than those of Church B, also expressed themselves in a more compassionate way. My results match with those obtained by Batson and colleagues (1997): that inducing empathy towards a person convicted of murder improved attitudes towards him and others with similar convictions.

Maruna and King (2009) have argued that, in order to decrease punitiveness, providing examples of success to increase belief in redeemability might be helpful. The results of my research support this idea: both belief in redeemability and punitiveness changed: more than the 50% of the participants believed more in redeemability after watching the documentary, and eight out of 21 of the participants became less punitive too. All the participants whose belief in redeemability increased also changed in their wider attitudes towards former prisoners. Apart from this, the session also made participants realize: (1) that former prisoners had to face greater problems than they had expected, and( 2) that social reaction was more important than they thought in the process of desistance and in the rehabilitation of offenders.

Therefore my research, albeit on a small scale, has confirmed the importance of emotive or affective messages in changing attitudes towards former prisoners, and in particular, the importance of empathy as an emotional response in the process of reshaping attitudes towards former prisoners.

If you would like to contact Alejandro, feel free to email him at:


Batson, C. D., Polycarpou, M. P., Harmon-Jones, E., Imhoff, H. J., Mitchener, E. C., Bednar, L. L. & Highberger, L. (1997). Empathy and attitudes: Can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group improve feelings toward the group?. Journal of personality and social psychology. 72(1):105- 118.

Hirschfield, P. J., & Piquero, A. R. (2010). Normalization and legitimation: Modeling stigmatizing attitudes toward ex-offenders. Criminology. 48(1): 27-55.

Maruna, S. & King, A. (2009). Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal?: ‘Redeemability’and the Psychology of Punitive Public Attitudes. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. 15:7–24.

Rubio Arnal, A. (2014). Changing Attitudes: a Research on Attitudes of Religious Groups Towards Former Prisoners Reentry. (Available online at [Accessed 03/01/2015].

Reforming narratives: Is there life after punishment?

Recently, I was invited to give a public lecture for the Sutherland Trust, a Scottish charity that exists to promote and debate psychodynamic ideas and their usefulness in health,  social care and education.

My title was the one above — and I had a little help in the lecture from my friends in Vox Liminis — another Scottish charity, recently created to bring creative practices to the criminal justice system. In the lecture, Louis Abbot (of the excellent band Admiral Fallow) performed two hauntingly beautiful songs which served to illustrate aspects of the talk. The first song, ‘Breathe life’, was written by Louis with a person in prison, and the second, ‘What if my best isn’t good enough?’, was written by another excellent musician — Andrew Howie — with a person quite recently released from prison.

That second song was one of five commissioned by Vox to explore a fictionalised crime, punishment and reintegration scenario, and was used to great effect in a recent public event to stimulate a sort of deliberative dialogue about those issues. Those five songs and a little information about that process can be found at this link: Distant Voices. There is even a CD you can buy for a small donation: The perfect Christmas gift!

The Sutherland Trust lecture can be listened to on IRISS FM here: Reforming Narratives

The accompanying slides can be downloaded here: McNeill (Sutherland Pics) 281014

Let me know what you think…


DocFest 2014

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

The DocFest2014 session is here:

Details about the new film can be found here:


Two short films about mentoring and desistance

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


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

With best wishes,


Finding desistance based practices in Canada?

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

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