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Going straight, or not, after a prison sentence

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Going straight, or not, after a prison sentence: complicated theories and individual realities

A quest for better understanding of human behaviour often leads to knotted and dusty answers, especially when drawing on academic skills and literature. Recently and not for the first time, I’ve been thinking about the word ‘dynamics’ in relation to ‘desistance’ from crime or going straight, what it really means and whether it is a concept which helps our understanding of pathways out of crime. Some twenty years ago I was the lead researcher on a study at Oxford, commissioned by the Home Office, called ‘The Dynamics of Recidivism’.

That was its given title. It could just as easily have been called ‘The Dynamics of Desistance’ because it involved learning about the interaction of social and psychological factors which contributed to whether or not individuals reoffend in the period following their release from prison.

Inside a prisonThe main underlying question was: how and why do some ex-prisoners steer clear of further crime while others relapse into offending, even though all had similar offending histories; they all had previous convictions and were in prison for acquisitive crime (or property offending). As the study’s title perhaps foretold, the findings were not clear cut. Within two years from their release, six in ten admitted that they had committed further offences; but there were no simple, singular factors to distinguish those who stayed out of trouble and those who did not. 

That study relied mostly on offenders’ own accounts given in up to three long qualitative interviews. The first interview took place in prison, close to their release date and when they were looking ‘over the wall’ towards their future. At that point, most of the cohort (130 male property offenders) wanted to ‘go straight’ but a lot expressed doubts about whether they could succeed. For readers who prefer percentages: over 80% reported that they wanted to go straight but only 25% thought they would definitely be able to go straight. Virtually half of the sample thought there would be an even chance or above-evens chance of them reoffending within a year of release.

I managed to track and reinterview 109 of them, and about half of them again on a third occasion, during the following two years. On re-meeting, they were impressed by the memories we shared of what they were experiencing last time, and touched by my recall of the details they had imparted in the previous interview. Suitably engaged, they became as keen as me to explore continuities and departures in the route their life was taking and to understand why things had worked out as they had and to explain their present directions, wishes and intentions. 

Far bigger and more sophisticated studies along similar lines overtook the efforts of this small tracking study; but it did briefly make a splash – quite frighteningly at the time – when, the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard cited it several times to support his pronouncement that ‘prison works’!

Yes, most of the cohort had told me, in at least one of the interviews, that a determination to avoid further imprisonment was among their reasons for desisting from offending, and it was the most frequently mentioned disincentive when I asked them to conjecture about tempting opportunities to make money illegally. My colleagues and I were quick to shunt away the relevance of this finding for ‘rational choice’ arguments favouring greater use of imprisonment: that is, the argument that increased use of imprisonment is justified because former prisoners first think about the costs and benefits of reoffending, and would be more likely to desist if they perceive the costs of going to prison if caught as outweighing any gains. This is weak ground on which to build a successful resettlement policy for ex-prisoners. For one thing: how people think in immediate situations under pressure is very different from the reasoning they might apply in a reflective interview or while immobilised in prison. 

Also, that was to pick out only one strand of the findings, ignoring the others. There were enough variations in the dynamics of reoffending or desistance for several characterisations to be drawn up – that is, a typology of several 'ideal types', none of them the exact replication of real people, but each capturing similar patterns that applied to a section of the cohort. These included ‘Survivors’, ‘Earners’ and ‘Hedonists’ to distinguish different situations and mindsets motivating further offending; and ‘Avoiders’, ‘Non-starters’ and ‘Converts’ to distinguish the situations and motivations for desistance. 

Low Moss prison, ScotlandImprisonment as a deterrent against persistence applied to only one of those ideal type characterisations: the ‘Avoiders’. In real life, of course, these different motivations and rationalisations can come into play at different times or simultaneously in the same individual’s experiences, and in the interviews the avoidance rationalisations overlapped with each of the persistence motivations. However, even with those qualifications, any generalisation about the deterrent potential of imprisonment was a point that I and my colleagues sought to downplay. Indeed I felt some pressure to ‘bury bad news’ and the prospect of publishing the report was shelved. 

A decade or so later, Shadd Maruna, Tom LeBel, Shawn Bushway and I analysed the subsequent reconviction and reimprisonment data for the cohort in relation to the original qualitative data.

An alarming percentage had continued offending and served further prison sentences; but a few had ‘come through’ without further blemish on the official records. Whittling it all down (with clever statistical wizardry – thanks Tom and Shawn!) we proposed that, if anything, hope works. That was too nearly another slick answer, another slogan. Shadd and I batted around some alternative terminology. I think I suggested ‘self-efficacy’ or some inelegant labels like ‘optimistic expectation’, ‘confident intention’. Then Shadd introduced me to C.R. Snyder’s hope theory – a realistic kind of hope which combines expectation and intention (I can and will do this) and perceived opportunity (I see ways to achieve this) – and things clicked into place. 

‘Prison works’. ‘Hope works’. Such slogans are memorable and capture the imagination, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could all agree we’ve hit on ‘the answer’ with something neat like that, instead of all these wishy-washy conclusions about interactive dimensions and trajectories to desistance. We should be careful though not to either accept or dismiss single factors on the grounds of their compatibility with our own ideology and value position. 

When I commenced the 1992 study, it was not long after a previous career in the probation service, and talk of ‘dynamics’ sounded right to me because I knew a lot about the difficult, often prolonged, journey my ‘clients’ (yes, I know, but that’s what we used to call them) were making in ‘going straight’. I would have been less comfortable with a single theme study on the role of, for example, drugs, or employment, in crime and rehabilitation. I liked that it wasn’t advancing a hypothesised key factor but kept all options open, and that it effectively allowed that desistance is complicated. 

At the beginning though I admit to being a bit bemused about what I was meant to be looking for: the concept of ‘dynamics’ is so rich in meaning. It is evocative of movement, change and forces. It has its origin in the Greek word dynamikos, meaning ‘powerful’, and in its singular, adjectival sense, ‘dynamic’ people and events gets things done. There can be a dynamic for something to happen or change: a motivator, a push, perhaps a sudden source of socio-psychological energy; or perhaps a more gradual intertwining of events, situations actions and reactions that leads to a particular outcome. Mostly though, I understood my task to be a search for that ‘dynamic interplay’ of all those factors that might influence a person to behave in a certain way and that might impact on the outcomes. With all those potential strands, it was going to be different for each person, for each further offence and each triumph of desistance, but there would be patterns to draw out and recurring factors that would stand out. 

The dynamics of recidivism has a good academic ring about it, and ‘dynamic interplay’ connotes factor analysis and multi-dimensional scaling and regression, while the notion of dynamics embraces the complexity of causation, of relapse, of shifting change. The opposite of static and with its implications of movement and continuous activity or progress, it dissuades us from looking for finite positions and simple explanations. Desistance really is complicated, so the analysis of it must be too.

On the other hand, jargon often becomes its own explanation and a stopgap for real understanding. It tells you everything but it tells you nothing; begs the question and defers the answer. You can accurately reflect that there are multiple interacting factors that influenced why this person stopped offending completely and that individual desisted for two weeks but then relapsed. But saying that there is a dynamic interplay is itself a kind of simplification; it is reductionist. No-one can really argue with it but what does it tell us, and what do we do with it to improve policy, to change lives? It’s a long way from a pointed explanation that could become the centre of a new rehabilitation policy. It could justify any policy or no policy. 

Norwich prisonI still wonder about the individuals I got to know at that time and how long it might have taken them to become ‘secondary desisters’ (stop offending and stay stopped) or whether they went back round the relapse loop. For all my years of practical and then academic inquiries into rehabilitation and desistance I haven’t yet discovered an equation of ingredients that will lead reliably to one or other of those outcomes. 

I’m pretty sure though that there are some dynamic variables that are more powerful in the mix, and I’m left with a lingering unease that despite best intentions to report the data faithfully and with integrity, I didn’t manage to tell the general story as straightforwardly as I might have done, did not show the ways in which prison might indeed contribute to changes in behaviour and did not clearly enough explain in what senses and in what ways hope is a critical factor. A combination of political constraints and my striving for empirical truth made it tempting to leave things suitably vague. 

Single factor causal theories can be over-simplistic and, as such, dangerous or annoying, and they add to the hostilities between opposing positions on criminal justice policy. We should be wary of supporting pet theories with equivocal research findings. Equally though, we truth seekers should not shy away from acknowledging the powerful role of some factors for some people. Prison doesn’t work but it can be a deterrent that enters an ex-offender’s mind at a relevant point in time. The evidence of my study and its ten-year follow up study indicate that hope, in Snyder’s sense, was more significant; but that too combines elements that need to be unpicked in order to understand the relative importance of factors.   

By all means let us continue the quest to discover which factors are more important than others and to understand the circumstances in which they come into play. There is a role in this for multifactorial statistical or correlational analysis to check out the frequency and order in which our hunches apply, and a role for qualitative interviews to put flesh onto statistical dry bones. There will always though be limits to the usefulness of research findings and academic theory. Ultimately, it is the uniquely located dynamic flow of the personal and the structural in each individual’s journey that matters. When it comes to living one’s life, and when it comes to helping people change their lives, it is knowing the individual and their unique circumstances that best make sense of outcomes. 

Ros Burnett is a Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology, University of OxfordA shorter version of the article was first published under the title ‘It’s Complicated’ at:

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