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Reconciling desistance and “what works”
Probation inspectors commission research on key issues at the heart of probation - reconciling desistance with "what works".

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Yesterday (13 February 2019), the probation inspectorate launched a new series of specially commissioned research papers aimed at exploring the evidence base underpinning probation practice. 

If the first paper is anything to go on, they are certainly going straight to the heart of the matter. Co-authored by Shadd Maruna, one of the leading criminologists responsible for developing desistance theory and Ruth Mann, veteran HMPPS researcher, the paper is titled: “Reconciling desistance and what works”.


In rather unsophisticated terms, desistance describes the process which many people who once committed crimes regularly go through as they develop a law-abiding lifestyle. It often includes developing a different, more positive self image and desistance research suggests, to quote the HMI Probation paper:

people are more likely to desist when they have strong ties to family and community, employment that fulfils them, recognition of their worth from others, feelings of hope and self-efficacy, and a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives

Desistance research tends to focus on the journeys of individuals who rehabilitate themselves – often with the help of probation professionals.

What works?

The What Works approach is rather different and draws on the evidence base of academic research into the effectiveness of different approaches (mainly groupwork programmes) to preventing reoffending. 

What works has not identified any golden bullets, although it has established that some approaches (e.g. boot camps for young offenders) don’t work and can even be counter-productive.

What works is responsible for the Risk Needs Responsivity principles which inform much of modern probation practice and lie behind the accreditation of many offending behaviour programmes.


These two approaches are often, somewhat unfairly, characterised as belonging to different tribes within the criminal justice system. 

Desistance can be seen as kinder, more humane, supported by more academics and those who believe that probation may be of relatively little help (or even actively obstructive) in turning people away from a life of crime. However, its findings are not straightforward to apply to the probation role which must balance protecting the public alongside promoting individual rehabilitation. 

What works can be seen as more rigorous, somewhat more susceptible to being translated into mainstream practice. At the same time, it is often felt to be too algorithmic in its application, failing to fully engage individual service users and downplaying the importance of “agency” as the heart of any individual change.


In truth, this new paper is short and does not seek to analyse in depth or resolve the competing claims of these two approaches. 

It does, however, do an excellent job of describing and defining them; particularly important for desistance which is often poorly understood. The paper concludes that there is much value in both disciplines and no reason why they should be set up in opposition to each other:

Our view, however, is that such methodological paradigm wars are a time-wasting distraction from the shared goal of helping people turn their lives around. Fundamentally … the science of crime reduction is simply too difficult and frankly too weak for partisans on either side to declare a monopoly on useful evidence. Neither the ‘what works’ movement nor ‘desistance’ research is anywhere close to revealing the secret formula guaranteed to reduce crime and never will. Human behaviour is simply too complex to be predictable in ways similar to the laws of physics or chemistry, and we should be thankful for that.
That is not to say that criminal justice agencies should not be guided by social science evidence in the work they do. Far from it. Rather, we need all the science we can get – programme evaluations and narrative desistance studies – to make sense out of the complexity of crime. We need to strive to make both types of work as robust and rigorous as possible, and, crucially, we need to learn to merge the two types of evidence together as therein lies the real promise for evidence-based practice.


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