Narrative perspectives in the field of probation

Narrative perspectives in the field of probation
Narrative perspectives in the field of probation

[Contributo selezionato da Filodiritto tra quelli pubblicati nei Proceedings “Fifth International Conference Multidisciplinary Perspectives in the Quasi-Coercive Treatment of Offenders – SPECTO 2016”]

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[Contribution selected by Filodiritto among those published in the Proceedings “Fifth International Conference Multidisciplinary Perspectives in the Quasi-Coercive Treatment of Offenders – SPECTO 2016”]

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Constantin Todiriță

Alexandru Ioan Cuza University, Iași (ROMANIA)



In the past two years, the number of offenders entering supervision due to a probation order had increased rapidly. After the 1rst February 2014, when the New Penal Code came into force, the development of regulations regarding the activity of assistance as part of the supervision process became possible. But this change took place in a less favourable socio-economically context and was not accompanied by a suitable allocation of human and material resources. In these circumstances the question that naturally rises is how to social rehabilitate the supervised offenders. One possible answer is that the Romanian Probation System needs to re-think the intervention strategies of reducing reoffending. This article brings into focus the narrative research of desistance and discusses the possibility of the narrative intervention working with the offenders’ couple relationship as a path to desistance from crime.


1. Introduction

Traditionally, the beginnings of modern criminology are associated with the interest in determining causes of criminal behaviour which is reflected in the approach of finding answers to the question “Why do people commit crimes?”. Going through the stage of dynamic criminology and the social reaction criminology, post-modern criminology brings to the fore the paradigm of social actors of criminality (those who transgress the law, those who apply the law and those who participate in the social rehabilitation of offenders). As a distinctive feature of pluralist socio-legal field, post-modernism puts forward the proximity of concrete ways of life, aspect observed by Gunther Teubner in 1997 [1], and in this knowledge framework appears the interest for identifying the factors which offer support in abandoning life of crime. This aspect was defined in criminology as desistance from crime which focuses on answering to the question “How and why people stop committing crimes?”.

Without being the only accepted perspective, the definition of specialists Beth Weaver and Fergus McNeill [2] from a specialized dictionary shows that desistance is a set of processes by which people cease and sustain cessation of offending behaviour, with or without intervention by criminal justice agencies. We note that the definition includes distinction between spontaneous and assisted desistance.

Together with the stages of criminology and criminological analysis has evolved from knowledge of large-scale studies to knowledge through small-scale studies, from research to the study of criminal careers of offenders life experiences.

Review of the literature on desistance show that the change in committing crimes and desistance from crime are complex processes that take place over time and in a specific context, not singular events, unique, occurring in a definite time. Compared to the characteristics mentioned processes of change in committing crimes and desistance from crime, researchers have found that it is more useful to study in depth biography of cases of change, but to achieve counts, namely interest is not focused on how many people have reached the stage desistance but as they go on desistance process. There are authors who believe “… that the deep exploration into the life narrative(s) of a single individual can generate at least as much insight into offending as getting to know a little bit about 200 or 2000 human beings in a large-scale survey”.[3] Also, according to Bryman, the principal difference of qualitative research to quantitative methods is in emphasizing the words rather than numbers.[4]


2. Narrative research. Narrative criminology

A brief review of references on literature regarding narrative research leads us to an initial finding that narrative research examines the individual stories of a person by analyzing a person’s life stories and exploring the significance of these individual experiences which the person had learned. A second finding is that it is based on stories told by people, but can be written stories or autobiographies; also documents or images can be analyzed. A third finding is narrative research, which has its limitations given by the subjectivity of the interviewee and / or of the researcher in the absence of clear procedures. It is a qualitative research method which is not interested in the accuracy of the story, but in the experience of the person in his real world.

A good example is of a member of a research team on divorce from 1980 when the research team members received a “long story” answer to the question regarding the reasons of separation, which they interpreted as a digression from the question.

Later, Riessman understood the gap between standard practice of interviewing in social research and the world of human relationships.[5] Subsequently, through narrative analyzes he focused on disturbing life events, on personal experiences that had fundamentally transformed expected biographies, by studying divorce, chronic deases and infertility.

The desistance study or, specifically, desistance narratives study takes the form of a new paradigm of research that the American sociologist Lois Presser calls narrative criminology. Presser show that “It adopts a constitutive approach to the relationship between stories and crime”.[6] The immediate cause of crime is considered as the narrative itself, rather than events and circumstances narrated in the narrative. And further exemplifies: a story of poverty, but not poverty itself, is seen as influencing offending patterns and trajectories. We will understand from this example that the focal point of research is the story of poverty, and her understanding any approach that posits stories as antecedents to crime and other harmful action qualifies as narrative criminology.

1. Narrative therapy

Narrative approach was developed during the 1970s and 1980s by therapists Michael White of Australia and David Epston of New Zealand, as we have seen around the same period of debut narrative research of desistance. The novelty of narrative therapy is that stands in the spotlight metaphor narratives largely replacing the system metaphor (the family understood as a system). The people bring into therapy personal stories and social stories which control the people - the dominant story, a problem-saturated story. In addressing the narrative therapist highlights and encourages dominant retelling this story lives. The narrative metaphor focuses on the life experience of people and meanings that they give their own experiences and pursues broadening the attention of the people „to enable them to consider alternative ways to look at themselves and their problems”[7], building an alternative story. Therapy is a process of story or re-story the lives and experiences of people who aims to build new stories that offer people more options.

Two elements I consider it expedient to retain them here from White and Epston’s contribution in narrative intervention. The first is externalizing the problem meaning that the person is not the problem, the problems being described as “some unwanted invaders who try to dominate people’s lives” [8] which are always personified in various forms: guilt, fear, anger, self-hatred. The second element is rewriting the story, the process of re-authoring, to the extent that people are actors and authors of their own life stories equally they can become authors of a new restoration of their life stories to life favorite lines.


2. Narrative intervention in probation

The interest in exploring the possibility of taking narrative elements into account for probation work started from the attempt to provide an answer to the question of how the probation officers, in their practice, can support desistance.

Based on desistance research results McNeill stated that “offender management services need to think of themselves less as providers of correctional treatment (that belongs to the expert) and more as supporters of desistance (that belongs to the desister)”. [9] This statement is an advocacy for the development of a desistance paradigm in the management of offenders and promoting desistance “also means striving to develop the offender’s strengths – at both an individual and a social network level – in order to build and sustain the momentum for change”. [10] The present concern is focused on how the probation officers can reshape their relations with the offender and with his family for co-production of desistance.

Above we have highlighted a few elements of the narrative approach in systemic family therapy and I take into account whether these elements can be introduced into probation officers practice. At this point there is a doubt regarding the performance as a “therapist” of the probation officer. An assumption that can shed light on this issue we have identified it in the British criminological literature.

Ros Burnett shows that “We are so familiar with motivational interviewing (MI) that it is easy to overlook that this originated in a clinical / psychotherapeutic context”.[11] Also in British criminological literature, Beth Weaver considers that the narrative approaches of White and Epston can help practitioners “to co-produce the kinds of assessments that facilitate an in-depth understanding of what motivates the individuals they work with, the significance of potential opportunities for change and how they might interact with an individual’s personal priorities, values, aspirations and relational concerns such that they might enable or constrain change”.[12]

A brief comparative image the main ideas between the desistance research and narrative therapy are shown below:

Desistance Research

Narrative Therapy

The problem

The narration itself is the direct cause of the offence, more then the events and the context of the narration are.

The persistence narrations:

persistence of offence identity, perceiving the future as depending on circumstances and the lack of strategies and /or many obstacles foreseen for conventional projects to be achieved, Cid and Marti [13]

The persistence narrations confirm the assumption of offender label, maintain resignation and block the motivating force for changing behaviour.

Neither the person nor the family is the issue here. The personal stories (what the person tell herself) and the social stories (cultural prescriptions) control the life of the clients taking the shape of a story saturated with problems. (Nichols and Schwartz 2004)

Solution to problem

New events that occur during the life time, turning points as marital relationships, working places and military service catalyze the emergence of desistance narrations.

The desistance narrations: breaking the penal identity (the dimension of identity, forming pro-social self), the control of fulfilling the conventional plans and strategies for maintaining change (the dimension of self- efficiency) Cid and Marti, idem.

Going through a process of un-tagging (rituals of reintegration) by certificates, diplomas, which confirm the new status of the person and which must be perceived both by the participant and the public.[14]

Therapeutical strategy: the narration of the problem and outsourcing the problem, finding the exceptional moments (partial triumphs over the problem) and recruiting the support (re-writing the story and strengthen the new story through letters, certificates, recruiting supporting witnesses for the new story, communities which to confirm and reinforce the new narrations) (Nichols and Schwartz 2004).

Formed identity

Secondary desistance is based upon assuming the identity of non-offender or of „changed person” identity hypothesis; it is a period of profound and long term behavioural change of the offender.[15]

In therapy a space opens for diverse perspectives and at the same time helps people form a dynamic involvement and a stronger author’s voice in writing their life story – the process of “re-authoring”; as seen by White, the client develops a new understanding of his identity (Nichols and Schwartz 2004).

Fig. 1: Brief comparative image the main ideas between the desistance research and narrative therapy

This brief overview of research of desistance and narrative approach in family therapy is part of the documentation for doctoral research aimed at obtaining information on supporting the desistance in practice Romanian probation officers. An expected result of the research is to improve the interventional repertoire of probation officers with a program for couple relationship (working with offender and his partner). The information we have at the moment such a program there in professional baggage available to probation officers in Norway. Another practical purpose of the research is to be an effective way of communicating research results on work in the couple relationship of the offender to responsible actors for continuous training of the Romanian probation officers.

1. Conclusions

The presented material supports the idea that the intervention of probation officer can strengthen the social ties between the offender and offender’s family by supporting behavioural change of the offender and his desistance narrations. Moreover, the European legal framework on working with family offender encourages this course of action into probation practice [16], working with families of supervised offenders (Rule 29) probation agencies should offer support, advice and information to offenders’ families (Rule 56) and co-operation with offenders and their family in order to prepare offenders for release and reintegration into society (Rule 59).

Overcoming “correctional” intervention phase on probation field and focusing the practice on the intervention strategies oriented towards supporting desistance means providing a framework in which offenders are encouraged to continue their life away from crime, with family, friends, classmates or work colleagues. Thus, the community sanction becomes a fact of life that offers the opportunity for change of the supervised person by transforming the guilt and shame in forgiveness and regaining dignity.



[1] Teubner, G., as cited in Balahur, D. (2002). Socio-juridical Pluralism and settlement of probation: Universal and European legislative standards. In The handbook of the social reintegration and supervision counselor edited byIoan Durnescu. Craiova: Themis, pp.16-17.

[2] Weaver, B. and McNeill, F. (2007) in Dictionary of Probation and Offender Management edited by Rob Canton and David Hancock. Cullompton UK: Willan Publishing, p. 90.

[3] Maruna, S. and Matravers, A. (2007). N = 1: Criminology and the Person. Theoretical Criminology 2007; 11, p. 437.

[4] Bryman, A. (2008). Social Research Methods. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 21.

[5] Riessman, K. (2013). Analysis of Personal Narratives. In Qualitative Research in Social Work. Edited by Anne E. FortuneWilliam J. Reid and Robert L. Miller. Columbia University Press, p. 168.

[6] Presser, L. (2013). Narrative Criminology. Accessed online at, on 17.10.2015.

[7] Nichols, M. P. and Schwartz, R. C. (2004). Family therapy: concepts and methods. 6th Edition. Romanian language edition published by ASOCIAȚIA DE TERAPIE FAMILIALĂ, 2005, p. 374.

[8] Nichols, M. P. and Schwartz, R. C., cit., p. 384.

[9] McNeill, F. (2006). A desistance paradigm for offender management. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 6 (1), p. 46.

[10] McNeill, F., cit., p. 50.

[11] Burnett, R. (2007). The Personal Touch in Ex-Offender Reintegration. Paper presented to the Deakin University Third Annual Conference on The Reintegration Puzzle: Fitting the Pieces Together, held at the Waterview Convention Centre, Sydney, 7-8 May 2007, p. 7.

[12] Weaver,(2014). Co-producing Desistance: Who Works to Support Desistance?, p. 8, accessed online at, on 17.10.2015.

[13] Cid, J. and Martí, J. (2012). Turning points and returning points. Understanding the role of family ties in the process of desistance. European Journal ofCriminology , 9(6): 603-620, 2012, by SAGE Publications Ltd.Criminology, 9 (6): 603-620.

[14] Maruna, S. (2011). Reentry as a rite of passage. Punishment & Society 2011 13(1): 3-28.

[15] Maruna, S., Immarigeon, R. and LeBel, T.P. (2008). Ex-offender reintegration: theory and practice. In After Crime and Punishment, Maruna, S. and Immarigeon, R. (eds.). Cullompton UK: Willan Publishing, p. 19.

[16] Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)1 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the Council of Europe Probation Rules.