How would you introduce the topic of desistence, which you have been working on for a long time, to the general public?
The term desistence is used for a state in which a person who has lived a criminal way of life leaves that way of life. Criminologists agree that this is not one particular moment. We cannot say that on March 13, at exactly two o’clock, someone ceased to be a criminal offender. It’s more of a process, just like when we change any other behaviour, such as losing weight or quitting smoking. This is one of the new directions in criminology. It was studied by experts who have studied criminal careers and monitored when people start committing crimes and how they develop them over the course of their lives. At the same time, they noticed that most of the perpetrators would end up with it sooner or later. Research data show that roughly 80 to 90 percent of repeat offenders, who run afoul of the law at a young age, end their criminal careers by the age of 30. Apparently, there is something going on in their lives that leads to them not being offenders for life. The key question is what these factors are. The traditional idea that the main thing that leads to correction is related to punishment or to a specific resocialization program seems to be wrong. The natural processes that take place in the everyday lives of offenders contribute much more strongly to desistence. Our penal policy should therefore look for ways to kick-start and support these processes. This is a slightly different view from those that assumed that crime would be best reduced by looking at the effects of specific punishments or programs. Today’s view of ending crime is much broader, with a number of factors playing a role. Criminal justice and its measures do not have to be the main thing.
What specifically do you do in your research? How and where does it take place?
We are a departmental research centre of the Ministry of Justice. Our research tasks are therefore mainly based on the needs of the Ministry and its subordinate organizations. We prepare research, for example, for the needs of the Probation and Mediation Service or the Prison Service of the Czech Republic. We also try to absorb knowledge and current trends from around the world into our research. For example, we are currently conducting research together with the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Psychology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, in which we continuously monitor a sample of parole-released offenders. We combine quantitative and qualitative methods. We try to find out how the probationary period goes for them, what problems they solve, what risks they encounter, and what the positive aspects that give them the strength not to continue in criminal activities are. We have a large sample of about six hundred offenders. We collect information about them through probation officers. In addition, we meet with fifty clients five times during the research and conduct interviews with them. This is also an important trend in contemporary criminology, which is related to the effort to understand given problems through the eyes of the person who experiences them. Those who are affected are usually able to describe very well what they see as the risk of their relapse and what, in their eyes, is the support for its prevention. Often, we learn more in this way than from extensive studies where we monitor large samples of offenders but remain only on the surface. The whole project ends in December this year. We will present the results in articles and expert papers at conferences and, of course, we will pass them on directly to the Probation and Prison Service.
According to this research, what factors in the Czech Republic most often contribute to prisoner recidivism, i.e., their return to prison?
We can’t measure recidivism rates very well in this particular study; it’s too short a time frame for that. In general, however, it should be pointed out that the use of this criterion is not always entirely fortunate. Not every crime is detected and solved, so we may mistakenly think of someone as being corrected who is actually continuing to commit crime, just not caught and punished. In addition, if we are interested in the process of correction itself, we should not only distinguish the relapsing from the non-relapsing, but we should also be interested in the details. A new entry in the criminal register is often automatically taken as a signal that everything is wrong. However, it may also be important, for example, that the person in question is already committing fewer acts than before or committing less serious acts. In the long term, we have found that among those released from prison, about half commit another crime within two to three years. The figures are not good, but they are comparable to the rest of the world. But I’d much rather talk about what seems to work and what helps. Recidivism statistics may seem scary, but as already mentioned, the vast majority of offenders sooner or later desist. Therefore, we do not have to look at them only as a collection of risks derived from what they have done in the past. Research suggests that the key to remedy more often lies in the positive factors and in their development. Almost every offender has resources in their environment and in themselves to improve their lives. These are the elements that we should focus on. Typically, for example, it turns out that offenders stop criminal activity the moment they find a job that they enjoy and find satisfying. When they start going to work every day, the structure of their time is suddenly different than before. That means there is a good chance they’ll desist. Similarly, it is about the relationships with those closest to them. It is also about the inner feeling a person has that they can change, can be good at something. Research stories show that when perpetrators feel that they have their lives in their own hands and are not just victims of adverse circumstances, and when they feel that there is hope for change, such change can really happen.
Does the incidence of positive factors that promote desistence vary across the country and in different prisons?
Unfortunately, we do not have a large enough sample size to make such comparisons. In any case, desistence is strongly related to the opportunities for it to occur. Motivation alone may not be enough. Specifically, if the offender wants to work, but lives in a region where there is no work, or where the label of a criminal is a big obstacle to it, then it may happen that the desired changes in their life will not occur. But we can also have a region where there is work, but the perpetrator does not have the will to change their life. Across the country, a number of different situations can occur in this way, but it is difficult to draw blanket conclusions. We do not have the necessary data at the moment.
Does the level of desistence differ for different types of punishment?
In the past, we have done a lot of research on the effectiveness of criminal sanctions. We had about four thousand offenders in the sample. We monitored the effectiveness of the sentences two years after they were imposed. The conclusion was unambiguous – there was almost no difference in the effectiveness of the different types of punishments. Whatever punishment we impose on the offender, it does not make much difference in whether or not they continue to commit crimes. So, the essential thing is obviously happening somewhere else. However, to put it bluntly, by imposing a prison sentence, we are largely preventing many of the processes that support the end of a criminal career from taking place. If we want the perpetrator to find a job, find a partner, gain self-confidence, and learn to take care of themselves, we often do enough in prison to prevent this from happening. By imprisonment, we complicate access to work, we tear up family ties, we teach convicts that someone is taking care of them. In the research, clients often mention how someone in prison arranges most things, handles mail for them, etc. What we need much more is for these people to realize that they have everything in their own hands, including their own future. In this respect, alternative punishments have a great advantage in that they take place in the community and can be influenced by a number of factors that have been discussed here. The possibilities that the perpetrator will change are much more open in this regard. It also turns out that the longer the offender is in prison, the more difficult it is to change their behaviour. Stigma in relation to employers and the public is also generally much stronger for people returning from prison than for those with alternative sentences.
In the Work Behind Bars project, we are dedicated to supporting the pilot implementation of case management in working with prisoners with addiction in Czech prisons. How do you think the involvement of various experts and support services, the sharing of experience and information, and the preparation for leaving prison can help reduce the recidivism rate of Czech prisoners?
I deal a lot with the topic of probation and the activities of probation officers. I see a lot in common with the themes of your project. It turns out that the traditional kind of social work that has been known here for over a hundred and fifty years – i.e., a kind of help in the form of accompaniment – is by far the thing that can work best. We take a person with all their current problems, and we try to understand what the problem is from their point of view and connect it with our point of view. Some criminologists recommend that we abandon expressions such as “we are working to correct the offender,” which imply that the offender is passive and we, as experts, tell him what to do to change their life for the better. It is much more appropriate to say that we “work with the offender,” that is, with them as a partner; we try to understand what is bothering them, and we take into account their own view and proposals for possible solutions. That’s exactly what you do in your project. You put together an individual plan of how to proceed, so that the client solves the problems they have and takes advantage of the positive aspects that are offered. From our research data, we can clearly see that the transition period from imprisonment to freedom is by far the most critical for many offenders. Some have families, jobs, places to return to, and social capital. However, many convicts face fundamental problems after their release from prison – where to live, where to work, who to turn to. For them, outside help can be crucial. Both our current research and similar foreign studies suggest that this is an effective approach. It is also important to ensure the quality of the transfer of information about offenders between various institutions and organizations. There are certain loopholes in the system, where the perpetrators hang in a vacuum for a while. When they get out of prison, they get the number of a social worker in their pocket, but not everyone is motivated to call them and establish cooperation. In many places, meeting them is just a formality, when the released people collect a financial contribution.
You have dealt in detail with the area of employment in your research. For many people who have served a prison sentence, it is very complicated to get a job with a criminal record. What do you think should change in this area to contribute to reducing recidivism in the Czech Republic?
I’m not a lawyer, so I wouldn’t like to get directly into proposing changes in legislation. From a purely criminological point of view, we perceive that this is very much a matter of attitudes and prejudices on the part of the majority society. We need everyone to realise that we will not live in a safer world if we put more obstacles in the way of people who are striving to take an active part in society. So, we need to work hard on public opinion. From what I see abroad, I believe that the way is not through general education – the public doesn’t relate much to that – but through specific stories. Crime in the media is all about stories. People aren’t really interested in statistics and crime data, but they’re mostly interested in the story. I believe that if we learn to tell the powerful stories of people who have reformed their lives, showing that change came not through punishment but through the offender getting a job, changing his or her life, it can be a way to change the public’s view of the released. Then, for example, we may achieve a situation in which potential employers do not insist on the submission of criminal records for all job applicants for professions where it is not necessary.
What is the specific situation of people with addiction in terms of their possible relapse? What needs to be ensured in this area?
In our current research, even in such a small sample, it is evident that addiction is a really strong obstacle to desistence. People with addiction are not only overcoming the stigma of a criminal past, but they are also struggling with addiction. The motivation to change their lives is usually evident even in this group, but the strength to stop using addictive substances is often lacking. At the first meetings, these people are full of optimism, but at the next ones, unfortunately, they are often back to addiction. Some people have the idea that if they can keep their job, they will be able to live with an addictive substance because they will have the money for it. But it often doesn’t work. Working with these people and helping them need to be much more intensive.
Have you come across examples in your research of what helped this group of released people?
These were similar moments as with the other released people. A strong factor for change is, for example, a child in the family, who becomes important to a person. They tell themselves that they do not want to be an addict in the eyes of the child. A new chance and opportunity to work is also supportive. People realise that they enjoy their work and risk losing it by using the drug. So, the mechanisms are similar, only the total burden that these people carry with them is much greater.