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.