Promoting community reintegration
Earlier this week (19 April 2022) Clinks published the latest article in its online evidence library that I am lucky enough to curate. The evidence library was created to develop a far-reaching and accessible evidence base covering the most common types of activity undertaken within the criminal justice system.
The latest addition is by Professor Belinda Winder and looks at the often neglected area of working with sex offenders to help them rebuild their lives after prison and ensure they do not commit further crimes.
Belinda Winder has been a prominent researcher in this area for over 15 years. She is also a co-founder of the Safer Living Foundation, a charity set up in 2014 to conduct (and evaluate) initiatives that help to prevent further victims of sexual crime. Her review sets out in detail the 13 key factors that are relevant in creating effective practice to reduce sexual recidivism and promote community integration. Professor Winder shows how these two aims are closely aligned and the review makes an excellent benchmark for those looking to establish, improve or evaluate a service targeted at people who commit sexual offences.
Professor Winder starts her review of the evidence by setting the context. Over 99.8% of people who serve custodial prison sentences for a sexual crime will leave prison and seek to integrate into the community. While sexual recidivism is very low, it is obviously crucial that we understand how to prevent any further sexual offences. Analysis of recidivism data demonstrates that people are more likely to commit a further sexual offence shortly after release from prison, with the probability of reoffending decreasing over time.
Therefore, the need for support is thus highest in the period immediately after release, especially following a long custodial sentence when people emerge to a frightening new world. The review delineates thirteen factors that are relevant in creating effective practice to reduce sexual recidivism and promote community integration – aims which, Professor Winder argues convincingly, are in fact closely aligned.
In my view, the thirteen key factors set out by Professor Winder are an excellent starting point for both practitioners (probation or voluntary sector staff) and organisations looking to establish or modify their service delivery to this group of people. Below I have picked out a couple of key points of learning which I derived from the review.
One of the key points that the review makes is that many of the key factors which we know promote desistance are more complex to achieve for people with sexual convictions. We know the importance of family and friends and social capital but, depending on the type of offence, this can be harder for sex offenders to access. It is obvious that people who are isolated and without social support will struggle to rebuild their lives.
Professor Winder argues that social capital is essential to build networks and achieve goals and hopes, but cautions that care must be given to the difficulties in building positive capital on licence and living with a sexual conviction. She says that consideration must be given to whether ‘traditional’ models of social connections like families, colleagues and friends-of-friends will be achievable and sustainable. At the same time, the review says that care should be taken over assuming that a non-traditional, or a limited social network, is inherently ‘risky’. People with a sexual conviction building social networks need support on release, including from peers; their peers may be able to help them considerably, as they will have first-hand knowledge on handling sensitive issues, such as disclosure, appropriately.
The review is particularly fascinating (to me at least) on the topic of finding an acceptable sense of self. The label ‘sex offender’ takes over people’s identities, in particular because of the high levels of anger, fear and disgust towards people convicted of a sexual offence.
Professor Winder argues that effective practice here means supporting an individual in finding an alternate, pro-social, identity, one that contributes to their social integration. She says that for some, this may be about reconstructing their former lives through a redemption script, or it may be about shaping a new self and ‘knifing off’ the old one. This relates to the concept of secondary desistance, that is a change in the way that an individual with a conviction view themselves. Secondary desistance is about not regarding oneself as an ‘offender’ but finding a more positive identity; it is about moving away from the pejorative label. I’m increasingly convinced about the value of the arts in creating this new identity. It is easy to see how thinking of oneself as a rapper, poet or artist (rather than ex-offender, burglar or thief) is key to building a new identity and a new life.
Readers who want to read the review in full, can download it for free here. You can also see Professor Belinda discuss the review and her broader work with people convicted of sexual offences at this free Clinks webinar.