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Bearing witness to desistance

Sarah Anderson in this year's Probation Journal best paper discusses the value and effectiveness of probation officers bearing witness to desistance.

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The value of bearing witness

Last week (7 June 2017) the Probation Journal announced the winner of its best paper prize for 2016:

The value of bearing witness to desistance by Sarah E. Anderson.

The paper presents a complex and sosphisticated argument to which I can’t do justice in this short blog post, I hope readers will want to read the paper themselves which sets out a number of challenges to contemporary probation practice.


Of course, this is an academic paper and it’s written in academic language. Here’s the abstract:

This paper aims to contribute to the debate on making probation practice ‘desistancefocused’. It does this through considering the body of knowledge on responding to trauma through ‘bearing witness’ to the person’s story – attending to their values and lived experience – and applying this to probation practice. It addresses why the literature on trauma has relevance to work  with people who have offended.

Then it explores the epistemological, performative, moral and political dimensions of ‘bearing witness’ and the relevance of each of these to desistance. It highlights the potentially critical role of the audience (in this case the probation practitioner) in the co-construction of the desistance narrative. Additionally, the paper argues that insufficient attention has been paid to the moral space in which such narratives are coconstructed.

In a context where the voices of people who have offended are silenced and their experiences of victimisation or structural  violence are written out, I suggest that ‘being present and being with another’ enacts a moral responsibility to support a  transition from object to subject and to recognise and endorse the humanity of those who have committed crimes.

The paper provides a practice example of ‘bearing witness’ to desistance. Finally, it addresses potential challenges in asking probation officers to ‘bear witness’ to desistance.

The realities of probation

Here’s my rather crude summary.

Anderson argues that probation supervision and promoting desistance is essentially a human process which is currently being undermined by the focus on risk assessment and, in England & Wales in particular, managerialism and a focus on processing offenders through their supervision experience as cheaply as possible.

Anderson takes the concept of “bearing witness” which has mainly been developed around extreme trauma such as genocide and the holocaust, and argues that it is relevant to many offenders with experience of personal trauma. “Bearing witness” essentially means undergoing a personal experience and then to testify to that experience to an audience. Anderson suggests that probation officers who emphasise the humanity of the service users they supervise, who acknowledge their hurt and trauma in a process over time and who genuinely seek to see the world from their viewpoint can take part in a powerful process:

Both parties within the process are ‘bearing witness’ to the story of at least one party’s lived experience. The ‘audience’ is critical as bearing witness involves validation of the person’s experience back to them, as well as giving voice to this experience to others where the person themselves is powerless to do so (a further act of bearing witness). In the context of offending, this sits in stark contrast to a societal response to offending which denies this experience, prioritising through punishment a Durkheimian expression of collective outrage at the offence.

Anderson acknowledges the key difficulty of her argument: Is the act of bearing witness compatible with the need of probation officers to supervise the offender? She argues that bearing witness to someone’s lived experience is not the same as condoning their attitudes or actions and that understanding is much more effective than condemnation in promoting desistance.


Anderson’s central argument is that bearing witness can be a powerful approach to promoting and supporting personal change; co-creating and accepting a desistance narrative which can facilitated a shift in perceptions (and self-perceptions) of the offender from object to subject and enables them to forge a new identity unconstrained by being labelled an offender.


While some modern day probation officers may question the relevance of this (somewhat lofty) academic perspective on their pressurised daily jobs, others may recognise that, on their good days, when time allows, the chance to get to know a service user as a person, help liberate them from feelings of being a bad or worthless person and encourage them to set a new direction is absolutely what being a probation officer is supposed to be all about.


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