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What works?

28 September, 2009

It is well established that prison does not work. Offenders do not seem to respond well to being locked up, treated less than human and fed rubbish. So why and how do some offenders break the cycle? Rob Robertson, a criminologist at QUT, is interviewing offenders who have been in prison for a year or more and have had no further convictions for five years after release, and asking that question.

A QUT criminologist is studying former offenders to shed further light on the process of “going straight” with the aim of cutting the growing prison population by helping more people to stop reoffending.

PhD researcher Rob Robertson, from Queensland University of Technology’s School of Justice, is seeking participants for a study that will involve in-depth interviews with men and women who have had no convictions in the past five years after release from one or more years in prison.

Mr Robertson said the fact that around 60 per cent of people in prison at any one time had been there before had prompted him to study why only a third of people managed to break the offending cycle and become “desisters”.

“The recidivism figure of two thirds has remained unchanged for 200 years indicating that prisons generally do not rehabilitate people,” Mr Robertson said.

“This is not surprising considering that most states spend around 1 per cent of their correctional budget on providing reintegration services for offenders to find housing and jobs on release.

“In spite of these problems some people do manage to turn their backs on a life of crime and we need to know how they do it.”

“We could save a lot of money by building fewer expensive jails and spending money on support services for people when they come out of prison.”

Mr Robertson said his research would concentrate on property and assault offenders and would be among the first to look at this question from the point of view of the desisters.

“Part of my research entails giving the desisters the tools to analyse their own motivations for deciding to live a “legal life”,” he said. “We will go through their life history and analyse factors leading to taking up crime and what led them to give it up.”

“This is not just an “expert” analysis of someone else’s story. I want the desisters themselves to explain their own understanding of their life paths – their paths into and out of criminality.”

Mr Robertson said circumstantial and personal reasons could trigger “going straight”.

“For some people it might be just a case of them getting a job that provides them with enough money so they don’t need to steal. For others it is a personal event that is the catalyst for desisting from crime.”

“Research points to a key event such as marrying or having a child or getting a job as a turning point for many. These turning points seem to revolve around meaningful relationships that are supportive.”

Mr Robertson said he expected to find significant mentors and supporters involved in the lives of people during the process of giving up crime.

“I expect the change process might be slow and faltering. People probably have to be allowed several attempts at “going straight”, and they probably need significant personal support on their journey.”

“Even with a sincere desire to reform, people don’t necessarily change miraculously.”

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