CJA Conference: new Government should support desistance from crime

15 Apr 2015

On the 10th March, the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) hosted a conference focusing on how the incoming government can use research to reduce crime and bring down England and Wales’ prison population. PET’s Morwenna Bennallick reports back:

“The conference, ‘An Agenda for the New Government’, brought together respected academics, practitioners and parliamentarians to develop key messages to take forward for the next government. With a central focus on supporting desistance, the day was a fitting platform to launch their new report ‘Prospects for a Desistance Agenda’.

The report presents research which investigated policymakers’ attitudes and highlights the opportunities and hurdles facing a desistance approach to criminal justice. Finding that some policymakers may not have a full understanding of desistance and therefore may fear putting this agenda into practice, this conference served as a step to overcome this. The prominence and importance of the event was enhanced by a visit from the Princess Royal, Princess Anne who presented awards to a number of outstanding criminal justice projects and organisations.

So what is desistance? Professor Fergus McNeil defines it as a process: “The long-term abstinence from criminal behaviour among those for whom offending had become a pattern of behaviour” [1]

The day started with a presentation from Dr. Tapia Lappi-Seppala from the University of Helsinki who gave a fascinating review of international trends of imprisonment. For example, despite having similar crime trends, the prison population in England and Wales has steeply increased whilst Finland has had the mirror image steep decrease. Explaining this can be complicated but Dr Lappi-Seppala pointed to some sentencing practices that support lower prison populations: combining community sentences with supportive measures, implementing suspended sentences and early release systems and the use of restorative justice are just a few.

Prof. Sir Anthony Bottoms brought us the key messages from many years of desistance research. When using this evidence base to inform policies, he reminded us that ‘desistance is what offenders do largely of their own initiative. It is not a programme.’

It becomes the task of the incoming government to recognise the depth and breadth of research that supports the understanding of desistance and support programmes that allow this change to take place, said Sir Anthony.

Nick Hardwick answered the questions, ‘what sort of prisons do we have, do we want and can we afford’? Speaking from his position as Chief Inspector of Prisons, he spoke of many unemployed prisoners who spend just 1-2 hours per day out of their cells. We also heard from outgoing chair Sir Alan Beith MP who reported on the work of Parliament’s Justice Committee and made the call for justice reinvestment programme in a time of austerity. Stating it is ‘easier to make changes when there’s no money’ he called for more alternatives to prison to be made available to sentencers. The committee’s report Prisons: planning and policies, published last month, expands on this.

Finishing the day with Penelope Gibbs from Transform Justice, we were reminded of the other key player in criminal justice policymaking; ‘public opinion’, or at any rate policy makers’ perception of it. She showed evidence that many people strongly adhere to an implicit model in which offenders operate as rational agents balancing the rewards and risks of crime so that harsher sentences reduce crime by tipping that trade-off (a contention comprehensively undermined by Dr Lappi-Seppala’s presentation at the very start of the day). But people simultaneously hold views that acknowledge the irrational drivers of crime in turbulent upbringings, substance addictions and social factors.

Penelope Gibbs argued that the communication of big questions around sentencing need ‘reframing’- to shift peoples’ responses to crime and the reasons people break the law.

By building on the positive frames of reference and belief systems that people already hold, the conversation can shift from support for punitive approaches to a more holistic debate.

Building on an individuals’ strengths, developing sound community sentencing options, ensuring people in prison are involved in meaningful activities; these are just some of the ways that desistance can become embedded in our system.”

Presentations from the day are available here and the Prospects for a Desistance Agenda report is available here.


[1] Maruna, S. McNeill, F. Farrall, S. and Lightowler, C. (2012) Desistance Research and Probation Practice: Knowledge Exchange and Co-producing Evidence-Based Practice Models. Irish Probation Journal. Volume 9,