Seeing and believing: Observing desistance-focused practice and enduring values in the National Probation Service

AuthorSam Ainslie
Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Seeing and believing:
Observing desistance-
focused practice and
enduring values in
the National Probation
Sam Ainslie
Sheffield Hallam University, UK
This article focuses on the feasibility of using a desistance-focused approach in the
National Probation Service (NPS) in the post-Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) context.
Findings are drawn from an exploratory study undertaken in one NPS Division, which
used triangulation of three data collection methods: observations of one-to-one super-
vision sessions,documentary analysis and practitioner focus groups. Findings showthat
practitioners use elements of a desistance-focused approach, although not exclusively.
Values based upon belief in the capacity to change and the need to offer support
endure, despitemass organisational upheaval.The article concludes by suggesting that
this ‘enduring habitus’ of probation could be an enabler for a desistance-focused
approach but instrumentalism in policy and practice is a significant barrier.
desistance-focused practice, probation values, probation supervision, instrumentalism
This article is based on findings from a small research study undertaken in 2018
which sought to explore the impact of theoretical and empirical findings emerging
Corresponding Author:
Sam Ainslie, Law and Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University, HoC Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield S10
2BP, UK.
The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice
Probation Journal
2021, Vol. 68(2) 146–165
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/02645505211005031
from desistance research upon probation practice in England and Wales; specifi-
cally, one-to-one supervision of service-users in the National Probation Service
Practice approaches in the late 1990s and early 2000s became dominated
by rehabilitative interventions delivered prescriptively, with the structural causes of
crime frequently reframed as personal shortcomings or deficits that the service-user
had responsibility for overcoming (McNeill, 2006). Alternatively, a desistance-
focused approach was envisaged to allow ‘practice to become prospective and
contextualised’ in such a way to recognise the social conditions that can impact on
change efforts (McNeill, 2003: 156). McNeill later developed this further, pro-
moting a ‘desistance paradigm’ for probation practice that forefronts processes of
change (instead of interventions) and positions the practitioner
as ‘an advocate
providing a conduit to social capital as well as a ‘treatment’ provider building
human capital’ (McNeill, 2006: 57).
In a commissioned academic review as part of the National Offender Manage-
ment Service (NOMS) Offender Engagement Programme (2010–2013), McNeill
and Weaver (2010) highlighted that it was possible to operationalise desistance
research and identified principles relevant to probation practice. They argued that
probation practice needs to be shaped by eight general desistance principles that
1. Being realistic (in recognition that it takes time for offenders to change and
therefore lapses are to be expected);
2. Favouring informal approaches to limit the damage of labelling;
3. Using prisons sparingly (as they have a detrimental impact on desistance
4. Demonstrating hope and motivation to build positive relationships;
5. Respecting individuality and avoiding taking a ‘one-size fits all’ approach;
6. Recognising the significance of social contexts;
7. Taking care to avoid using language that confirms negative perception;
8. Promoting redemption and recognising efforts to give up offending.
These principles were developed further by McNeill et al. (2013) into 10 pro-
positions for practice following a Desistance Knowledge Exchange Project. These
propositions included meaningful service-user involvement in design, delivery and
assessment of provision, moving away from risk/fear driven practices, practitioners
connecting more with communities and improvements in how success is recognised
and rewarded.
Additionally, studies of service-user perspectives have revealed the potential
impact of probation supervision on desistance efforts (Barry, 2013; Farrall et al.,
2014; Healy, 2010; King, 2014; O’Sullivan et al., 2018; Rex, 1999) and the pains
that can be associated with desistance (Hayes, 2018; Nugent and Schinkel, 2016).
Desistance scholars have argued therefore, that criminal justice policy needs to use
such research, to reinvigorate practice (Farrall, 2016), and to act as a resource that
helps practitioners understand thecomplex desistance processes theyare responsible
for supporting (McNeill, 2016). Drawing upon the desistance literature it is possible
Ainslie 147

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