Young Offenders: Crime, Prison and Struggles for Desistance.
This book is ambitious, bold and deeply insightful. It is also often a troubling read. Halsey and Duggan present data from longitudinal research in which fourteen young men were followed from their mid-teens into early adulthood, not an easy transition as they struggled with problematic involvements in crime and with the criminal justice system. These are narratives of individual lives placed in their social and family contexts, none of which provided safe, nurturing environments and opportunities for growth. And they are narratives that point to the difficulties of moving out of crime into 'conventional' adulthood when the building blocks are simply not accessible, even though in their different ways and at different times, all these young men aspired to put their 'offender-hood' behind them and to live trouble-free lives.
That is the deep irony revealed in the biographies of these men. So much of the intervention in their young lives--from education, social care and criminal justice agencies --had been at best irrelevant, and at worst had compounded their difficulties and had frustrated efforts to change. All fourteen had prolific patterns of offending and incarceration from adolescence onwards. Interestingly, an appendix provides charts for each individual illustrating days spent in the community and in custody both as juveniles and as adults, which is a sobering sight. Naturally, each life course is unique and some had fared better than others moving into adulthood. The structure of the book, having set the scene and outlined the fieldwork, presents twelve stories, starting with those closest to desistance (Billy, Charlie and David) who are roughly 'on track' through to the 'catastrophic turn' seen in the lives of Sam, James and Chris. In between, other lives are characterised by 'recurring breakdown (Joel, Paul, Reggie and Ben) or 'major derailment' (Lee and Matt).
Methodological purists might balk at the involved relationships evident here but, as the authors note, it would have been difficult not to respond at an emotional level when confronted with the pains, hopes and fears of these young men over the ten years. And at certain points, they responded at a practical level too, giving food parcels at moments of crisis, relaying messages to family members and so on. Such demonstrations of empathy and support--often strikingly absent from these young men's experiences of official agencies--encouraged a rich and deep sharing of stories. They are also indicative of one of the main themes of the book, which is that desistance during the transition to adulthood is not a purely personal process, but is affected by the complex interplay of personal factors with social context and structural position. Again and again, the power of generativity, of giving back, is brought to the fore, most often in relation to partners and children, but crucially involving caring for self and for the future as well as caring for others. While these young men increasingly desired opportunities for generativity in periods of stability, they were difficult to hold on to when their lives became tough and circumstances worked against them.
Within the terms of Terrie Moffitt's (1993) typology of adolescent-limited and life-course persistent offenders, all but Billy, Charlie and David would be classified as life-course persistent. However, the authors contend that this binary distinction fails to reflect the complexity of lives and make sense of individual trajectories. All the young men at some stage showed and acted upon motivation to change. Certainly all recognised the futility of continuing to offend, although entering adulthood with few sources of social and cultural capital, the attractions of short-term criminal capital inevitably remained. What is also striking from the young men's stories is how the actions and reactions of criminal justice agencies created points of tension, with disproportionate restrictions or intrusions for example, causing them to lose heart and slip back into a fatalistic 'fuck it mentality'. Home detention and parole conditions were particular sites of difficulty, in numerous instances precipitating breach and fresh sanctions. The criminogenic potential of criminal justice practices and the master status of offender comes over powerfully in the depiction of the struggles that they faced, with examples of being 'given a break' by sympathetic judges or other professionals very much the exception.
The authors present selectively from their extensive data and offer telling analyses of the biographical twists and turns of these twelve young lives. The details are given in rough chronological order, but developing comments and themes requires some backwards and forwards movement along the sequence of life events. Importantly for building authenticity and biographical coherence, participants were asked to nominate a small number of NSOs or nominated significant others, and the partners, parents and other family members they identified were then able to contribute their perspectives and insights. The resulting twelve narratives are compelling, not least because Halsey and Deegan strike such a balance between attending to the feelings, drives and actions of their participants on the one hand, whilst on the other offering a critique of social practices and institutions grounded in detail from the narratives. The final chapters round off the discussions by drawing together the major difficulties revealed by the young men's narratives. The authors avoid a prescriptive approach to improvements but do suggest areas for attention, principally in helpful early support to prevent the accumulation of damaging experiences and negative labelling so vividly exemplified in their participants' narratives.
Certainly this is an important study within the desistance field which has tended to focus on desistance processes in adults rather than in those transitioning to adulthood. As a systematic longitudinal study it offers a wealth of data, with possibly only the tip of the iceberg presented in this book. Even so, it is powerful and will provide food for thought to a varied readership across practice, policy-making and educational contexts. It deserves to be widely read and to have lasting impact.
Anne Robinson, Principal Lecturer, Sheffield Hallam University References
Moffitt, T. (1993) 'Adolescent-Limited and Life-Course Persistent Anti-Social Behaviour: A Developmental Taxonomy', Psychological Review, 100(4): 674-701.
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|Publication:||British Journal of Community Justice|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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