Beyond Youth Custody recently (30 March 2017) published an end-of-term report reflecting on the lessons learnt from a wide range of (16) projects with young people funded over the last 5 years by the Big Lottery Fund and known as Youth in Focus.
The report, Lessons from Youth in Focus, finds that effective resettlement is a process that supports a shift in a young person’s personal narrative, which starts with an acceptance of offending behaviour and moves towards an eventual point where offending has ceased and the young person has a more future-oriented and positive sense of self. Evidence has identified the key characteristics that enable this process – that it should have engagement and participation as a primary focus, and that it should be individually-tailored, continuous and coordinated.
The process of change
BYC argues that the evidence base is clear:
For resettlement to be effective and sustainable, we need to look beyond criminal justice’s short-term aim of preventing reoffending.
The report advocates a longer-term understanding of resettlement as a process that promotes desistance, wellbeing and social inclusion. It emphasises that this process may involve episodes of relapse as well as progress. The report makes a series of recommendations for those working with young people around engagement and participation as well as how to co-ordinate and ongoing, individualised resettlement programme. I recommend practitioners read the report in full, but in this post, I focus on what BYC has learnt about the process of change.
BYC starts by setting out its understanding of desistance:
Desistance is the process of abstaining from crime amongst those who previously had engaged in a sustained pattern of offending. The process of desistance is increasingly understood as being produced by an interplay between age and maturation, life transitions and social bonds, and personal and social identity.
Age and maturation are a key part of the process; many people grow out of crime and workers can assist them in this process of making changes and then reflecting back at a different version of themselves. This ability to change the way a young person thinks about themself, classically no longer describing themself as an offender (burglar, car thief, gangster etc.) appears to be a critical milestone on the desistance journey.
While some individuals identify key turning points which led them to re-examine their life and its trajectory and make a conscious decision to change, for others the process was not so easily defined.
Imagined future selves
An important desistance component can be the ability to imagine a different future self. Interestingly, BYC found that these future selves can be positive or negative:
On the one hand, future selves can be highly negative and undesirable, such as winding up dead from an overdose or being a ‘lifer’. Such imagined outcomes can provide the participant with the motivation to move away from offending behaviour or lifestyles.
On the other hand, imagined future selves can also be highly positive and provide a participant with perceptions of possible realities that they might wish to move toward.
Hope and support
BYC identify that one of the key roles that workers can play is to maintain an individual’s motivation to change while they are taking control over their lives – described as developing “agency”. The report contains a particularly striking quote from one young person:
The guys at the project made me not give up at times where I thought there was no point in trying because it wasn’t working out… you know when there’s a bunch of people just as stubborn as you are when somebody rejects you… they are like an extra part of my spine really.
There is, to my mind a particularly helpful, point in the report which reminds workers not to focus solely on behaviour and to recognise that many young people involved in crime are also often at grave risk themselves — this applies to many young gang members. The report argues that by solely examining behaviour, a whole range of other issues which are obstacles to change may not be actively tackled. It’s hard for any human being to change if they do not have secure accommodation, sufficient money and a positive way of spending their time.
This is a very valuable report which I’ve only scratched the surface of in this post. The report also highlights the damage that can be done to young people by the experience of imprisonment and concludes with a number of key findings about the processes of growing out of crime:
- Like resettlement itself, desistance is a process rather than an event.
- The timescales for desistance processes may outstrip the timescales usually involved in the delivery of resettlement work.
- Desistance trajectories are highly individual in nature, reflecting very wide variations in the ways that personal characteristics and history, individual strengths and weaknesses, and opportunities and forms of support can combine and change for an individual over time.
- Desistance trajectories can be both linear and ‘zigzag’ in nature.
- Those who desist from offending often describe that change in terms of taking up a new identity, but others describe it in terms of continuity or maturation.
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