Friday, February 10, 2023

Desistance, Recovery and Justice Capital: Putting it all Together.

By Hazel Kemshall, Kieran McCartan, & Joy Doal 

On the afternoon of the 16th November we presented a session for the Academy of Social Justice on our new HMI Probation research insight paper called “Desistance, recovery, and justice capital: Putting it all together”. After the presentation there where several conversations and discussions, most of which were responded to at the time, but not all were. This blog is a response to some of those additional or detailed comments and questions that we did not have time to discuss fully on the day in question. The blog is broken down into four main themes, each of which will be answered in turn;

  1. Role of the probation officer including PQUIP training.
  2. Community engagement in understanding and responding to crime.
  3. Improving the focus on prevention.
  4. Responding to diversity and exclusion.


Role of the probation officer

The role of Probation officers and their responsibilities align with a focus on desistance, recovery, and justice capital.  His Majesties Prison and Probation Service
(HMPPS) emphasise “Preventing victims by changing lives”, and works to enhance access to pro-social capital, increasing skills, and enabling more positive decision making are all shown as contributors to desistance over the long term (Kemshall 2021, and Kemshall et al, 2021).  What kind of activities work well? The following practices are supported by research:         


  • Modelling and encouraging reciprocity, that is, mutual exchange rather than merely appropriating things. Social norms and the smooth running of society is rooted in reciprocity so it is important service users can implement it (Best, Musgrove and Hall, 2018; Kemshall, 2021; Weaver, 2015).


  • Identifying and accessing routes to building trust between the service user and others, and between the service user and the key groups that can afford opportunities to change (Christakis and Fowler, 2009).
  • Providing dignity and value to the service user combined with appropriate boundaries on conduct and behaviour (Bush et al., 2016; Rex and Hosking, 2016).


  • Fairness and justice in applying legitimate sanctions and the appropriate use of ‘supportive authority’ (Bush et al., 2016; Maruna, 2012).


  • Hearing the service user ‘voice’ and offering individualised service delivery based on a comprehensive and holistic assessment (McNeill, 2006).


  • Partnership with the service user where possible, realistically recognising the barriers to joint working, and accepting that, at times, particularly in the early stages of supervision, the practitioner may have to be the ‘senior partner’. The practitioner should be an ‘enabler’ not a ‘rescuer’ (Kemshall, 2022b; Rex and Hosking, 2016).


  • Creation of positive networks of opportunity and routes to change (Christakis and Fowler, 2009; Kemshall, 2021; McKnight and Block, 2010).


  • The importance of recognising trauma and adverse experiences in the lives of service users; taking a trauma-informed approach recognises the importance of the life course in people’s pathways into and out of criminogenic behaviour practice (McCartan, 2020).


  • Recognition of the impact of stigma, marginalisation, structural disadvantage, and intersectionality on service users (Alliance for Women and Girls at Risk, 2017; Barlow and Weare, 2019; Byrne and Trew, 2008; Farrall, 2019). It is important to see the individual in the socio-ecological environment that they exist in, and to understand that the different levels of this environment all contribute to preventing reoffending, successful risk management, and desistance. 

( See Kemshall & McCartan, 2022 for information and full references)


Community Engagement

Statutory agencies like Probation and more broadly HMPPS may struggle with community engagement, not least because of their statutory role and dependence on government funding.  However, there are good examples of community engagement and community wide initiatives, often by the third sector, that have demonstrated effectiveness in this area.  Some not only raise public awareness but also innovate new approaches to crime reduction.  Most use Public Health methodologies to crime reduction, and most notable in the UK are:



The Cure Violence (2022) public health initiative on a criminal justice issue has now spread to over 20 countries worldwide. The initiative takes a health-based approach to prevent and respond to violence, as well as violent crime, working at individual, interpersonal, community, and societal levels. The approach importantly contextualises the causes and responses to violence and then works to change individual and social norms around it. In recent years, Cure violence has developed to the point where it sees violence as a global epidemic that requires a structured population-level response. In addition, interventions at the societal level, particularly through social and criminal justice policies, have more recently focused on developmental factors and the reduction of adverse life events (Public Health England, 2019; Public Health Wales, 2015; Scottish Government, 2018); and interventions targeted at life-course events and mitigating crime trajectories (McCartan, 2020). 


Although we all, professionals and members of the public, recognise the need for greater messaging and a stronger community engagement strategy regarding the prevention of and response to criminogenic behaviour, especially sexual and violent offending, what strategies work best in communicating with the society at a broader level;

  • Clear messages with a focus on success.
  • Examples of what has worked and why.
  • Do not fuel prejudice and “crime anxiety”, rather
  • Tell the public what positive steps they can take.
  • Emphasise partnership working to reduce crime.
  • Build trust by being as transparent as you can be, and focusing on crime solutions.
  • Work with local leaders, “opinion formers” and those trusted locally- general campaigns especially via the media are less successful and are prone to being “hijacked”.

(See Kemshall, and Moulden, 2016 for information and full references)


Improving the focus on prevention

One of the main challenges in reducing crime, especially first-time offending, is the lack of a systematic approach to crime prevention strategies. Quite often crime prevention strategies are piecemeal and bespoke with different regions and cities in the UK taking different approaches, often spearheaded at a local level by innovative and well-intentioned individuals. Which poses a challenge to a national, or country level, as there is often not a clear evidence base or consistent approach, which means that when HMPSS OR Ministry of Justice look to engage with the preventative intentions they cannot do so from a well-informed position. The reality of preventive approaches is that they are “practice informed” rather than “evidence based” which means that you are taking a calculated gamble on an innovation which you think will work. This is a challenge at the best of times, but especially in the current economic climate. Therefore, what do we do? The solution seems to be emerging through work that is linking public health and criminal justice together in new, innovative approaches to preventing criminogenic behaviour (i.e., the Together for Childhood project spearhead headed by the NSPCC which looks to create a city wide placed based approach to the prevention of child abuse). The development of closer ties between public health and the prevention of criminogenic behaviour means that we can reconceptualise offending behaviour, re-establish it in a developmental frame and think about it across the socio-ecological approach (i.e., individual, interpersonal, community and societal) which means that prevention of first time offending (primary and secondary prevention) is as relevant as prevention of repeat offending (tertiary and quaternary prevention), thereby opening the door to a reasoned debate about the potential for a systematic and sustainable approach to prevention. We have seen this in the development of new policies like the Council of Europe’s Recent Recommendations on “the assessment, treatment and management of people accessed or convicted of a sexual offence”.

(see McCartan, 2021, 2022; McCartan & Kemshall, 2021 for information and full references)


Responding to diversity and exclusion

Practice focused on the delivery of positive, ethical, and person-centred assessment and interventions that are trauma-informed, compassionate, and cognisant of the contextual issues surrounding the person, including issues of multiple disadvantage, are the most likely to respond effectively to diversity and exclusion.  Anawim provided an excellent example of this, with attention to culturally relevant interventions and activities (often including food), person centred assessments, skill building, and practices aimed at enabling service users to become fully functioning and well-embedded citizens. Anawim and women’s centres more broadly, by working alongside Police or Probation can address women’s intersectional needs holistically and as staff tend to represent the communities the women are from, can relate better. As they are not in the enforcement role they can build more genuine relationships which can also (funding allowing) continue those relationships after court Orders are completed. The social relationships and peer support gained by interacting in the centres and attending groupwork and courses also extend outside of the confines of the Orders.


This blog has been a response to questions and issues raised in regard to our HMI Probation insights paper and resulting talk, it looks to expand upon what we have said and clarify some main theses. The important thing to remember is that desistence is being promoted as part of the recovery capital being delivered by HMPPS through their good, effective, and engaged practice (justice capital) but that we are often not good at recognising it and highlighting it. Justice capital is essential to good, effective engagement which results in desistance but in order to achieve it as a system wide level we need to highlight it in training, recognise it in practice and discuss it in public.


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