The latest figures show that the proven reoffending rate for adult ‘offenders’ released from custody between April 2013 and March 2014 was 45.8%, with those who served sentences of less than 12 months having reoffended at a rate of 59.8% (Ministry of Justice, 2016). These kinds of statistics mean that increased attention has been directed towards understanding the reasons why people stop offending – largely in the hope that this evidence will support the design of reoffending-reducing reforms (see, e.g., the Discovering Desistance project). Another recent Ministry of Justice report brings together much of this research in its compilation of a list of ‘desistance factors’ in response to the question: What helps individuals desist from crime? (‘Transforming Rehabilitation’, 2014)
Two of these factors are of particular interest, given my purposes here: (i) ‘having something to give to others’ and (ii) ‘being believed in’ (see below for a brief account of each, respectively; and see Table 2.2 for the full list).
“Offenders who find ways to contribute to society, their
community or their families appear to be more successful at giving up crime. If these achievements are formally recognised, the effect may be even stronger…
[D]esistance can be supported by interactions with others who communicate a belief that they can and will change […] and that they have something to offer society or other people.”
As a community, we have an interest in seeing reoffending rates go down for a whole host of reasons. Given the two desistance factors above, acting on this interest would mean finding ways of supporting and recognizing the social contribution potential of people who have committed crimes, and effectively communicating this support and recognition to them through our interpersonal and social attitudes and practices. If we do not do this (or, if we do the opposite of this), then our community’s behaviour and attitudes towards this group of people may be forming part of the reason why these rates are so high in the first place. This is important not only for practical (i.e., reoffending-reduction) reasons, but also for moral reasons.
In her work on social rights, philosopher Kimberley Brownlee argues that we wrong each other as social beings when we deny each other minimally adequate means, opportunities, and recognition to contribute socially – a phenomenon that she calls “social contribution injustice”. It is quite easy to see this at work in the case of our community’s behaviour and attitudes towards people who have committed criminal offences, both while they are serving their sentences in prison and upon their release: e.g., the significant compromising of people’s social resources while they are in prison, the essentialising language and labels used in everyday parlance (‘criminals’, ‘offenders’, ‘murderers’, ‘psychopaths’, etc.), the role that one’s criminal record plays in accessing numerous opportunities (employment, volunteering, non-stigmatized social relations, etc.). These attitudes and practices close down desistance-supporting means and opportunities, thereby blocking both people’s means and motivation to contribute socially.
The reduction of reoffending, therefore, requires much broader societal changes concerning the ways we think about and practice punishment than is often admitted (e.g., in the media). And part of this requires that we actively address the injustice that we commit as a community towards those who have committed criminal offences, by recognizing that the social context – and, given our focus here, the importance of people being able to act and be recognized as socially valuable contributors – has a significant role to play in desistance.
“…the process of desistance is one that is produced through an interplay between individual choices, and a range of wider social forces, institutional and societal practices which are beyond the control of the individual.” (Farrall and Bowling 1999: 261)
The Norwegian government has recently taken a step towards embracing this more desistance-focused view by creating a legally enforceable ‘reintegration guarantee’. This requires that state, voluntary, and private agencies do everything that they can to make sure that everyone released from prison will have housing, employment, income, education, health care and addiction treatment. This is a significant step towards addressing the social injustices experienced by those in the community who have already served their sentences.
We know that many of the pathways to desistance are through repaired relationships – within families, within communities, and within the state – not just through the ‘correction’ of the individual. These relationships are two-way processes; and it is time that we take seriously our responsibility as a national community to recognize our role in this process and to take steps to rectify social contribution injustice. This will not be easy or quick, since much of this kind of injustice stems from society’s attitudes and/or the practices that attach to or follow from these attitudes. But, as we have seen with other groups in society – for instance, those with disabilities – these things can change for the better and, within a relatively short period of time, we question how and why they were ever different.