What strategies can help offenders desist from crime?

There are various methods which can turn offenders away from crime. Generally, association with the criminal justice system (CJS) and custody in particular can have a negative effect on desistance, which is the process of moving from offending to successful social integration (Kirkland and McNeill 2015). However, methods such as increasing employment, certain community orders, and simply minimal contact with the CJS can work to turn offenders away from crime. 

Custodial sentences

Firstly, it will be argued that custodial sentences do not usually work to turn offenders away from crime, despite recent government legislation which increases the use of custodial sentences. The Release of Prisoners Order 2020 has meant offenders serving a fixed term sentence for violent or sexual offences cannot be released on licence until two thirds of their sentence is served, rather than just half. This means prison population will increase by 2,000 by 2030.  

These increases in the prison population do not help offenders turn away from crime. Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics show that reoffending rates following custodial sentences are high, particularly for shorter sentences. 58% of prisoners released between 2011-2012 reoffended after serving custodial sentences of less than 12 months, and for those serving sentences over 12 months, the reoffending rate was 34%. In a 2011 presentation, Professor Sherman references Robert Peel’s utilitarian ideology, in that prison should not be used where an offender is not a risk to the public, as it will only create more crime in the long run. Moreover, former Prisons Minister Rory Stewart notes that sentences of six months or less is ‘long enough to damage but not long enough to heal’. He suggests that those on short sentences can risk losing their house, their job, their family and reputation, and then ‘meet a lot of interesting characters’ in prison before release. This can exacerbate reoffending rates and illustrates how custodial sentences should be avoided where possible, as these often lead offenders back towards crime, rather than away from it.

Minimal contact with CJS and employment 

Laub and Sampson (2001) note that desistance is ‘part and parcel’ of the natural history of offending. This suggests that offenders can be turned away from crime as a result of simply maturing; people, over time, will desist. Although, it is possible that some of this desistance is due to successful CJS intervention, the age-crime curve depicts age as a significant criminological constant. On this, it can be seen that for males, a steep increase on this curve occurs between ages 10-19, with a sharp descent in the 20s, and a smaller peak with a more gradual descent from mid-adolescence for females (Smith et al 2002). 

Therefore, with CJS intervention during this period of maturing, it is possible that such involvement has counter-productive effects due to the punitive and stigmatising nature of the CJS. For example McAra and McVie (2013) note that youths in contact with the CJS from an early age become ‘usual suspects’ and end up in a cycle of repeat offending. Laub and Sampson (2001) argue that long periods of incarceration can lead to reduced prospects in later life, meaning people who were previously in the CJS are more likely to lose out on opportunities and resort to crime. 

Moreover, Uggen and Blahnik (2016) argue that employment is key in supporting offenders’ efforts to desist. They found that providing jobs to those leaving prison lowered subsequent arrest rates by 46%. CJS contact can be linked to a lowered likelihood to be employed, as criminal records on a DBS form automatically bar individuals from certain jobs and are found to reduce chances of getting interviews, call-backs and jobs. Laub and Sampson (2001) note that this has a significant effort on youths who are affected by a record for the rest of their lives and had been too young to gain transferable skills prior to the conviction. This again causes a lack of opportunities and subsequently an increase in risk factors for offending. Therefore, it is argued that offenders are more likely to be turned away from crime if they received minimal contact with the CJS and more employment opportunities rather than punishment. 

Community orders

It will finally be argued that certain community orders can be helpful in turning offenders away from crime. Firstly, the Crime and Courts Act 2013 allows courts to require ‘restorative justice’ conferencing as part of a community order. This involves organising a meeting between the victim and offender, so the offender can see the real impact of their crime. Offenders are thus held to account by the survivor and can make amends. The Campbell Collaboration study found that this can reduce reoffending by 14%, whilst such use of face-to-face meetings is also cost-effective; the benefits of averted crimes is 8 times the cost of delivering these meetings. The studies Campbell Collaboration reviewed in the meta-analysis indicated that these conferences resulted in offenders committing significantly less crime than those not that did not participate. This could be due to Braithwaite’s ‘reintegrative shaming’ theory which suggests that restorative justice can turn an offender away from crime by building their conscience and reaffirming their ‘morality’, so the offender feels guilty and desists from crime. 

However, this theory has been criticised by Robinson and Shapland (2008) who suggest that many offenders already feel guilt and the ‘emotional starting point’ is not always at the same stage for every offender. Despite this, it is argued that restorative justice is still significant turning offenders away from crime, although perhaps may be more of a ‘stepping stone’ on the path to desistance, rather than a trigger.  

Furthermore, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 s.177 allows courts to impose other requirements as community orders. Certain requirements have been successful in turning offenders away from crime, such as drug treatment. Holloway, Bennet and Farrington (2005) suggests drug intervention has a positive effect on reducing offending, and MoJ statistics (2014) illustrate that Class A drug use after release is heavily associated with reoffending. 

However, success of such treatment has been hindered by lack of funding and treatment alongside short custodial sentences, which means offenders do not have sufficient time to be properly treated, often relapsing upon release. Harper and Chitty (2005) argue that this type of treatment is most successful in turning offenders away from crime either outside of custody (especially as 47% of males in prison reported that it was easy to access drugs in prison), or during custody but also followed up with treatment post-release. With wider provision of such treatment, offenders will be more likely to turn away from crime in the long term. 

In conclusion, there are some successful ways to turn offenders away from crime. The best way is to have minimal CJS intervention, as people are found to desist over time and association with the CJS tends to have a stigmatising and counter-productive effect. Certain community orders like restorative justice and drug treatment can be beneficial to desistance, but custodial sentences should only be used where offenders are a risk to the public, as custody is significantly linked with reoffending. 

The writer, Simrhan Khetani, is a law graduate from the University of Cambridge and future trainee solicitor at Akin Gump LLP. She has a keen interest in Equity and Trust law and will be pursuing this interest in her work as a solicitor.

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