This film has been produced as part of a project to share knowledge and improve understanding about why people desist from offending. For details about the wider project and for an opportunity to comment on the film visit the Discovering Desistance Blog. We have also produced an evidence summary to complement the film, called How and why people stop offending.
The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and George Mason University. The project lead is Fergus McNeill (Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Glasgow) and other members of the project team are Stephen Farrall (University of Sheffield), Claire Lightowler (Iriss) and Shadd Maruna (Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Queen's University Belfast).
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The exit at the prison gate often appears to be a revolving door with nearly 60% of released prisoners re-offending within two years of their release. Prisons and probation departments have, almost literally, tried everything in efforts to rehabilitate offenders over the past century, but the results have been uniformly bleak leading many to conclude that "nothing works." In the past ten years, however, a group of criminologists have hit upon what should have been an obvious source of inspiration for prisoner rehabilitation: the other 40 per cent!
In this timely and compelling documentary, Allan Weaver, a Scottish ex-offender turned probation officer (author of the book So You Think You Know Me?) asks a simple question: What can we learn from those former prisoners who have successfully "desisted" from criminal behaviour or "gone straight?"
Starting where it all began for him on the streets of his hometown and in Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow, Allan sets off to understand how individuals like himself get caught up in cycles of crime and punishment, and how they break out of these patterns and move on to new lives. This journey takes him across the UK, meeting an array of ex-prisoners and ex-prisoner activist groups, probation leaders, and criminological experts from London to Washington, DC.
He discovers that much of what the criminal justice process does actually leads to more re-offending through the labelling and stigmatisation of ex-offenders. Indeed, few ex-prisoners say they were "rehabilitated" by the criminal justice system, but many blame their experiences with the justice system for keeping them trapped in cycles of crime and punishment.
Allan learns that real change more typically involves processes of self-discovery and mutual support. Allan discovers that 'desistance' from criminality is an internal change process although it is almost never done without support from the outside. Ex-prisoners speak in detail about the remarkable people who believed in them when others had lost hope, and about realising that they too had something to offer others, including, for many, their children. Desistance for them is about realising one is more than just the sum of one's crimes and re-discovering one's humanity, potential, and true self.
The big question - especially pressing for Allan as a probation officer - is whether we can bottle and package these often intangible dynamics into our criminal justice interventions? Can criminal justice processes be improved by a better understanding of how the change processes in desistance from crime really work? How would the criminal justice system be different if it were run by people like Allan who had been through the process themselves?
To answer this, Allan finds a fascinating world of ex-prisoner-led mutual aid and activist groups championing a new model of criminal justice practice. Like Allan, many of the ex-prisoners find meaning and purpose in their lives by helping others to avoid the mistakes they made. They might also have the answer for tackling the enduring problem of criminal recidivism.