Which title would you give a conference that is about desistance and inclusion in the community of offenders? Something like “The essential success factors in probation” may be obvious, but the organisers of the CEP conference held in Glasgow on the 25th and 26th of April 2008 chose for the more modest ‘Resettling Adult Offenders”. More than ninety participants from sixteen countries attended this important conference. “I think that one of the lesson learned is that our service-led way of thinking about reintegration should be challenged; we need to start with how offenders experience change”, suggests Fergus McNeill, Senior Lecturer in the Glasgow School of Social Work and one of the organisers of the conference.
In the conference programme, Fergus McNeill took up the task of do the summing up of the conference. “The general purpose of the conference was to broaden the participants’ horizon on how to overcome problems in the resettlement of offenders. I think that that goal has been achieved. Many of the elements which contribute to successful resettlement were discussed at the conference. Moreover, the conference was an opportunity to engage with delegates from a broad range of countries and develop an appreciation of how in each country the problems of resettlement are being tackled. It was interesting to learn that despite all the different social, cultural and juridical contexts there are common problems that probation services in every country encounter when trying to resettle ex-criminals successfully. And every service is producing slightly different ways of resolving those problems.”
Although many good practice ideas were exchanged, almost every speaker at the conference recognized the limitations of working only to change the offender. Fergus McNeill: “The ‘What Works approach” which has been developed in many jurisdictions is principally about making offenders better at thinking and solving problems themselves. Everybody at the conference recognized the importance of that task and the importance of doing rehabilitative work and programs. In the UK, in the last fifteen years we have been preoccupied with making the programs and systems evidence based. That is good, but when it leads to shoehorning offenders into a set of programs and processes that we have designed not around individuals but around generalizations about needs and risks then things go wrong. Desistance research emphasises individual trajectories of change and suggests that successful resettlement is about individualized support. Therefore we need systems and practices that are more able to personalize the interventions in the process.”
With that conclusion, probation services all around Europe face an enormous intellectual and practical challenge. Fergus McNeill continues: “Its upsets or overturns our service-led way of thinking and compels us to have an offender centered way of thinking about reintegration. So the first question is not ‘what do we do’, but ‘what is the offender experiencing as an individual and what can we build around that to support them’. Such a change has of course serious cost and resource implications. The more we personalize and individualize our approaches, the more space we need to give to practitioners to adapt and develop and make each intervention distinctive. That is very labor-intensive and very time-intensive – and it requires highly skilled staff. Nevertheless, I think the common message at the conference was that this is a necessary part of successful resettlement. Resettlement also needs to look beyond the ex-prisoner to include work with the family, with employers and with communities; without employers and communities being supported to accept returning ex-offenders, the prospects for desistance will be much diminished. That means that there still is a lot of work to do. However, the positive news is that we are moving in the right way. It is going to be an exciting time in criminal justice.”
The report of the conference “Resettling Adult Offenders” is available here.