(This first appeared as a Guest Blog on the No Offence Forum – 5th October 2012)
Desistance is a new concept to me having only stumbled across the idea in the last week or so but it speaks to and answers a great many arguments I have had with both society and the justice system. It’s the first authentic approach I’ve found that offers adult-to-adult contact between offender and community by confronting the failures of responsibility on both sides of the relationship. In doing so, desistance offers the potential for change, transformation and healing. An offender cannot transform themselves out of that label and into desistance without similar changes within society itself. By stepping into the adult responsibilities of fault, the desisting offender calls to the same within the community. These are therapeutic concepts I recognise and am very familiar with. In encountering desistance, I met an old friend.
Whilst society, in general, makes a big song-and-dance about adult responsibilities, this is not actually reflected in a lot of its behaviour. The best theoretical structure to ‘hang’ this on probably comes from Transactional Analysis. TA talks about the different approaches to interpersonal relationships from the perspective of Parent-Adult-Child. Responsibility issues are clarified and become accessible to both sides of the criminal justice relationship, creating attainable measures for both.
For example; the traditional relationship between system and offender can be seen to belong to the ‘Critical Parent to Adapted Child’ dynamic. This is the “You are bad and must do as I tell you or else” message of the system to the individual offender who is expected to comply by adapting themselves, not simply their behaviour, to these highly critical parentally-oriented demands. That it fails ought to come as no surprise to anyone because it reinforces irresponsibility on both sides. In adult-to-adult relationships, we have to recognise that neither is going to be perfect because perfection is unattainable to honest human beings. We are all imperfect. The only difference between me and most of my community and me is that I am fully qualified as imperfect. Presently, as a rehabilitating or desisting offender, if I am taking on the adult responsibilities for my own social redemption, I will inevitably confront those aspects of a critical-parent society that refuses to take responsibility for allowing me to do this. These are the obstructions faced by both the individual offender and the criminal justice system. The beauty of desistance, both as an idea and as practice, is that it enables discussion between the two. We are required to relate to each other in order to find the way through. That desisters clearly exist demonstrates this ‘intelligent framework’ has functioning ‘legs’ capable of producing the outcomes society claims it wants. At the same time, desistance challenges that same society to transform the attitudes that actively prevent such outcomes from occurring.
One of the problems within the criminal justice system are the judgmental and blaming qualities within its structural ‘DNA’. What is certain, from a psychotherapeutic perspective, is that nothing can change whilst judgement and blame remain in overall charge. Introducing an adult-to-adult interpersonal dynamic to this system does not mean responsibility issues relating to the offences themselves are ignored – far from it. These have to remain as central issues because they are the necessary seed from which desistance can grow. Without the offence, there can be no desistance and there can be no change in either offender or the offended society. What makes the transformational difference is that the offence is seen as an aspect of the human being who is also an offender, rather than the whole of their being. A therapeutic relationship looks for what else the offender is capable of. We know they can behave so badly that they attract legal punishment but what else is there about the individual that is healthy and could be supported to the point where this overshadows the offence. This is what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard”.
By utilising ‘unconditional positive regard’, the onus is placed on the offender themselves to build upon what is being identified – to diminish the unwanted and antisocial aspects of their attitudes and behaviour in favour of healthier alternatives. The choice for change becomes the offender’s adult responsibility and those who decline to take up the offer can be confronted with the fact that their refusal then becomes society’s responsibility to manage. It’s not a case of wholesale abandonment of traditional ways but of introducing a choice. Desistance adds to what exists but does not replace it. Society needs to be able to deal effectively with irresponsible criminal behaviour but a healthy society recognises that this is not the only solution. If an offender takes up the personal and social responsibilities inherent within the desistance challenge, society is confronted by the need to provide the necessary support to make it a realistic and achievable possibility. The responsibility becomes a shared project where each party teaches the other about the problems within the collective field by identifying the personal and social factors which result in offending behaviour coupled with a joint effort to resolve them.
For as long as society and the individuals who make up that society are caught up in parent/child attitudes, we are all contributing to the creation of offending behaviour. It is a vicious circle that helps no-one and does a great deal of social harm. Excluding offenders from determining what they need in order to be able to shoulder the responsibilities of becoming a functioning adult is highly controlling, unhealthily parental behaviour. It inevitably fails those who might be capable of desistance were they given the necessary support. From my own perspective, this is as socially irresponsible as any offender’s crime because it actively contributes to recidivism. Equally, failure to address the issues that give rise to criminal behaviour is socially irresponsible and offenders can be forgiven for thinking our political and social leaders are hypocrites because they are required to shoulder the entire blame created by poor decisions over which they had no control. In psychotherapeutic terms, critical parenting is abusive and adding more social controls on to already abusive circumstances can only create more problems than it will ever solve.
When I entered personal therapy for the first time, almost thirty years ago, I began a journey that brought me face-to-face with all those aspects of self that had failed to ‘grow-up’ into adult responsibility. Anyone who has undergone such self-examination will tell you that this is the hardest road anyone can walk. It is excruciatingly painful to discover that reality falls well short of our beliefs about ourselves. If society wants its pound of flesh from those engaged in desistance, I really couldn’t recommend this route more highly. Nevertheless, the advantage to the individual for undertaking such a monumental task is a level of self-worth and self-determination like no other. In examining our self-beliefs, we often find that those aspects we thought valuable are worthless and vice-versa. An individual who has a realistic grasp of their own value and capabilities has a very great deal to offer, regardless of how they got to that point. In fact, I might suggest that those who have direct experience of the worst of themselves and the society they grew up in have far more to offer at the end of such a therapeutic journey than those who have not. We know where the problems are because we’ve lived them and we have a better idea of effective solutions because we’ve tried them.
To become a healthy-enough and functioning adult is probably the greatest challenge as well as the greatest achievement available to any individual, offender or otherwise. Without a framework that recognises this, we create the problems we face now as a society. What we can be certain of is that the old ways of thinking don’t work and everyone, community and offender alike, is paying a very heavy price for this failure. The question we all need to ask is whether we can afford to continue to treat each other this way?
I know what my answer is. Do you?