Desistance

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Criminology & Criminal Justice
© 2006 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks & New Delhi) and the British Society of Criminology. www.sagepublications.com ISSN 1748–8958; Vol: 6(1): 39–62 DOI: 10.1177/1748895806060666

A desistance paradigm for offender management
FERGUS McNEILL

Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, UK

Abstract
In an influential article published in the British Journal of Social Work in 1979, Anthony Bottoms and Bill McWilliams proposed the adoption of a ‘non-treatment paradigm’ for probation practice. Their argument rested on a careful and considered analysis not only of empirical evidence about the ineffectiveness of rehabilitative treatment but also of theoretical, moral and philosophical questions about such interventions. By 1994, emerging evidence about the potential effectiveness of some intervention programmes was sufficient to lead Peter Raynor and Maurice Vanstone to suggest significant revisions to the ‘non-treatment paradigm’. In this article, it is argued that a different but equally relevant form of empirical evidence—that derived from desistance studies—suggests a need to re-evaluate these earlier paradigms for probation practice. This reevaluation is also required by the way that such studies enable us to understand and theorize both desistance itself and the role that penal professionals might play in supporting it. Ultimately, these empirical and theoretical insights drive us back to the complex interfaces between technical and moral questions that preoccupied Bottoms and McWilliams and that should feature more prominently in contemporary debates about the futures of ‘offender management’ and of our penal systems.

Key Words
desistance • effectiveness • ethics • offender management • nontreatment paradigm • probation

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Criminology & Criminal Justice 6(1)

Introduction
Critical analysts of the history of ideas in the probation service have charted the various reconstructions of probation practice that have accompanied changes in penal theories, policies and sensibilities. Most famously, McWilliams (1983, 1985, 1986, 1987) described the transformations of probation from a missionary endeavour that aimed to save souls, to a professionalized endeavour that aimed to ‘cure’ offending through rehabilitative treatment, to a pragmatic endeavour that aimed to provide alternatives to custody and practical help for offenders (see also Vanstone, 2004). More recent commentators have suggested later transformations of probation practice related first to its recasting, in England and Wales, as ‘punishment in the community’ and then to its increasing focus on risk management and public protection (Robinson and McNeill, 2004). In each of these eras of probation history, practitioners, academics and other commentators have sought to articulate new paradigms for probation practice. Though much of the debate about the merits of these paradigms has focused on empirical questions about the efficacy of different approaches to the treatment and management of offenders, probation paradigms also reflect, implicitly or explicitly, developments both in the philosophy and in the sociology of punishment. The origins of this article are similar in that the initial impetus for the development of a desistance paradigm for ‘offender management’1 emerged from reviews of desistance research (McNeill, 2003) and, more specifically, from the findings of some particularly important recent studies (Burnett, 1992; Rex, 1999; Maruna, 2001; Farrall, 2002). However, closer examination of some aspects of the desistance research also suggests a normative case for a new paradigm; indeed, some of the empirical evidence seems to make a necessity out of certain ‘practice virtues’. That these virtues are arguably in decline as a result of the fore-fronting of risk and public protection in contemporary criminal justice serves to make the development of the case for a desistance paradigm both timely and necessary....
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