26th June 2007

Press release

New Research into Giving Up Crime published Today  FULL REPORT DOWNLOAD

A new review of research published today by the umbrella group, the Scottish Consortium on Crime and Criminal Justice, sets out what is known about how offenders give up crime. The review, carried out by Fergus McNeill and Beth Weaver of the universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow sets out eight key principles that could become the basis of a new approach in Scotland. The study is based on a wide range of the best available evidence from the UK and overseas about how and why offenders eventually give up crime.

The study explores the implications for criminal justice policy in Scotland of what is called ‘desistance research’  – that is, research about what makes people give up a life of crime. All the political parties in Scotland agree that policies should be in place to get people off the path of crime and into a law-abiding life. But the question is not often asked ‘What is the best way to do this? What does research tell us?’

The study published today explores the research and explains how the justice system needs to be organised if it is to achieve this aim.

Launching the report, Fergus McNeill said: 

“We need to develop a set of criminal justice policies and practices that are capable of rising to the challenges posed by these principles.  They suggest that all of us would be safer and feel safer in a society that believes that offenders can become ex-offenders and worked seriously at enabling them to do so rather than in a society where offenders are cast as a threat that can only ever be imperfectly contained, constrained or and controlled.    

“With the establishment of the new Community Justice Authorities, Scotland is well placed to look again at how it deals with convicted offenders and to put in place methods that have the hope of reducing crime and making society safer.”


Note to editors

 The study lists eight key principles:


1.            Be realistic: Criminal careers can’t be switched off like a tap; it takes time to change entrenched behaviours and the problems that underlie them. So lapses and relapses should be expected and effectively managed.


2.            Favour informal approaches: Intervening too much, too soon and in the wrong ways runs the serious risk of establishing criminal reputations and identities rather than diminishing them. Criminalising and penalising children and young people should be avoided as much as possible by favouring more effective informal measures.


3.            Use prisons sparingly: Stopping crime is much easier where people maintain strong and positive social ties, where they can see beyond their label as an ‘offender’ and where they can reduce or avoid contacts with other ‘offenders’, rather than being forced to live alongside them. Prison makes all of these things much more difficult.


4.            Build positive relationships: Like everyone else, offenders are most influenced to change (and not to change) by those closest to them and those whose advice they respect and whose support they value. Approaches to ‘offender management’ that fail to recognise the significance of personal and professional relationships are unlikely to work.  


5.            Respect individuality: Since the process of giving up crime is different for each person, criminal justice responses need to be properly individualised. One-size-fits-all approaches run the risk of fitting no-one.


6.            Recognise the significance of social contexts: Trying only to ‘fix’ offenders can’t and won’t fix reoffending. Giving up crime requires new networks of support and opportunity in local communities and a new attitude towards the reintegration of ex-offenders.


7.            Mind our language: If the language that we use in public debates about crime and punishment influences both individuals and communities to give up on offenders, if it confirms and cements the negative perceptions of people who have offended as risky, dangerous, feckless, hopeless or helpless, then it makes it harder for those people to give up crime. 


8.            Promote ‘redemption’: Criminal justice policy and practice has to recognise and reward efforts to give up crime, so as to encourage and confirm positive change. For ex-offenders, there has to be an ending to their punishment and some means of signalling their redemption and re-inclusion within their communities and wider society.




Authors: FERGUS MCNEILL and BETH WEAVER (Glasgow School of Social Work/Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde).

Introduction: This briefing paper explores the implications for criminal justice policy in Scotland of desistance research – that is, research about the endings of criminal careers. Given the political consensus about the central importance of reducing reoffending, we pay particular heed to questions around how and why reoffenders come to cease and refrain from offending. To the extent that any policy maker or practitioner (or indeed any society) sees reducing reoffending as a priority, she or he ought to be particularly interested in desistance research because this research explores and explains the very process that the justice system exists to sponsor and to support. In outlining the eight principles listed above, we have already provided our conclusion. What follows therefore is a review of just some of the studies from Scotland, the UK and further afield that provide the evidence base for these important principles.

Desistance is not easily defined but essentially it means ceasing and refraining from offending (for a more technical discussion see appendix one). Recently, some scholars have made an important distinction between primary desistance (which means any lull or crime-free gap in the course of a criminal career) and secondary desistance (which is defined as the movement from the behaviour of non-offending to the assumption of a role or identity of a non-offender or ‘changed person’2). Given our focus on reoffenders, who might be expected to have developed a ‘criminal identity’, secondary desistance is a particularly important concept for this paper to which we will return in due course. However, we begin by reviewing some key ‘facts’ about desistance, before exploring explanations of desistance and what we know about how it can be best supported in practice.