IPJ Vol 19 - An Exploration of the Relationship Between Probation Supervision and Desistance: A Systematic Narrative Review

Published date:

By Peter Beck and Emma McGinnis

Desistance theory is premised on the concept that ‘people can change’ (Maruna, 2017, p. 6). Current desistance discourses evidence a shift in emphasis from the individual narrative to a refocusing that includes the social and structural determinants of the lived experience (Barr and Montgomery, 2016), arguably allowing a more meaningful understanding of personal agency in context. Whilst desistance research explores a range of diverse factors, including Probation Officers’ and individuals’ perspectives on its impact in achieving better outcomes, desistance as a theoretical approach is contested. Critics argue that a lack of consensus in its conceptualisation and operationalising in practice, along with an over-individualistic focus and broad appropriation across disparate contexts and environments, potentially diminishes its appeal in managerialist contexts (Weaver, 2019).
This paper presents findings from a systematic narrative review of the literature regarding probation supervision and desistance. A thematic analysis and narrative synthesis identified four key themes. Firstly, probation supervision offers an opportunity to create a new identity, distanced from an offending past, but this is a complex process that first emerges from an individual’s belief in their redeemability. Secondly, supportive relationships are more conducive to fostering desistance than authoritative, surveillance-based approaches; however, some studies identified that when managing risk, aspects of an authoritative approach are necessary. Thirdly, probation services’ response to risk influences perspectives of desistance amongst supervisees, with several studies acknowledging the deleterious impacts and associated stigma of criminal justice system involvement. Finally, although included studies appear to indicate the effectiveness of supervision in reducing offending, evidence on what approaches work best, or factors contributing to the quality of experience, is limited. The probation practitioner’s approach to the supervisory relationship may play a pivotal role in the desistance narratives of those involved in the criminal justice system.
Keywords: Supervision, desistance, probation, rehabilitation, sentences, risk management, protect, crime.