From desistance narratives to narratives of rehabilitation: Risk-talk in groupwork for addressing sexual offending

Published date01 April 2024
AuthorEve Mullins,Steve Kirkwood
Date01 April 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Criminology & Criminal Justice
2024, Vol. 24(2) 430 –448
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/17488958221108830
From desistance narratives to
narratives of rehabilitation:
Risk-talk in groupwork for
addressing sexual offending
Eve Mullins and Steve Kirkwood
The University of Edinburgh, UK
Risk has become a dominant focus in criminal justice practice. While this can improve the
effectiveness of practices for reducing offending, it can also stigmatise and create barriers for
those attempting to desist from crime. To explore this apparent dilemma, we applied conversation
analysis and discursive psychology to examine risk-talk in 12 video-recorded sessions of a
groupwork programme for addressing sexual offending. We found both practitioners and clients
oriented to notions of risk in their talk. They drew on risk-talk as a resource to construct
narratives that support desistance, emphasising awareness of risks, having control, and gaining
hope and agency over the future. However, risk-talk was resisted when it challenged the client’s
self-presentation. Building on previous empirical and theoretical work on desistance and criminal
justice practice, we found it is possible for people to incorporate aspects of risk into their
personal narratives in order to weave a narrative of rehabilitation.
Criminal justice social work/probation, desistance, rehabilitation, risk, sexual offending
Since the end of the 20th century, there has been an increasing preoccupation across soci-
ety with risk and public protection (Robinson, 2016). This preoccupation has influenced
the design and delivery of interventions to address offending behaviour, particularly in
Corresponding author:
Eve Mullins, School of Social and Political Science, The University of Edinburgh, 15a George Square,
Edinburgh EH8 9LD, UK.
1108830CRJ0010.1177/17488958221108830Criminology & Criminal JusticeMullins and Kirkwood
Mullins and Kirkwood 431
Anglophone countries, where assessing, managing and targeting risk is paramount
(Kemshall, 2003; McNeill, 2009; Robinson, 2016). The influence of the risk paradigm in
criminal justice social work1 (CJSW) is criticised for perpetuating a predominant focus on
the risks around offending which frustrates or even subverts the process of desistance
from offending, a key aim of CJSW intervention (McNeill, 2016a; Scottish Government,
2010). The emphasis on risk management and public protection is seen as replacing the
traditional rehabilitative ideal of probation (Kemshall, 2003). However, as Robinson
(2016) notes, rather than being contradictory, the agenda of risk and the agenda of reha-
bilitation developed together, influencing each other. Risk-driven practices, under the
Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model, are thought to have even improved the ability of
criminal justice services to reduce re-offending and promote rehabilitation (Bonta and
Andrews, 2016; Andrews et al., 1990; Raynor and Miles, 2007).
In this article, we will explore the role of talk about risk, or risk-talk, in a groupwork
programme addressing sexual offending. We highlight that both practitioners and clients
treat talking about risk as integral to CJSW, exploring how risk-talk can contribute to cli-
ents constructing a self-narrative supportive of change or rehabilitation, in harmony with
desistance narratives. We further argue the role of risk-talk in criminal justice interven-
tions as promoting desistance through constructing narratives of rehabilitation has been
previously obscured in criminological research on desistance due to the predominant use
of research interviews. Through detailed examination of how risk is applied in practice, in
this article, we address a key theoretical and practical dilemma: how can a focus on risk
in criminal justice interventions both aid rehabilitation and hinder desistance?
Risk, desistance and CJSW
Assessing and managing the risks posed by people who have offended is central in
CJSW (HM and Prison Probation Service, 2021; Scottish Government, 2010), heavily
influenced by the RNR model (Bonta and Andrews, 2016). Risk in this context refers to
risk of re-offending and risk of harm. In the RNR model, eight central risk factors pro-
posed to be predictive of offending have been empirically identified (e.g. employment,
substance use), alongside other factors which are considered important for effective
intervention (e.g. housing, mental health). These factors are foundational to structured
criminogenic risk assessment tools used internationally to aid assessment of and inter-
vention with people who have offended. For example, those used in Scotland include,
in relation to general offending, Level of Service/Case Management Inventory (LS/
CMI) (Andrews et al., 2004), and, in relation to sexual re-offending, Stable & Acute
(SA07) (Hanson et al., 2007). These tools measure static factors, that is, fixed ones such
as age, and dynamic factors, that is, criminogenic needs, ones deemed changeable, for
example, employment. Importantly, these tools are used to assess how much risk of re-
offending a person poses and in turn, ideally, determine the level of intervention. They
also inform the focus of intervention by identifying the criminogenic needs to target.
Some studies found interventions based on this model are effective in reducing recidi-
vism, a key indicator of desistance (e.g. Bonta and Andrews, 2016; Andrews et al.,
1990). Recently, Prins and Reich (2021) questioned the positionality of this research,
suggesting that proponents of the RNR model have overreached in their claims about
the ability of criminogenic risk assessments to accurately predict risk of re-offending,

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