Ditching offending labels

Ewen Scott writes.

I write to hopefully start a semantic revolution of sorts within forensic psychology. For whilst the field of offender rehabilitation has undergone considerable revolution of its own, the language used within it seems anachronistic.

To provide a brief history, in the 1970s Robert Martinson declared that ‘nothing works’ to rehabilitate those convicted of criminal offences. However, researchers identified that a range of positive and significant decreases in recidivism were possible as long as practitioners adhered to Risk, Need and Responsivity principles. We then started to gain a better understanding of what desistance looked like and how change happens. The focus was more on strengthening pro-social identities, instilling hope and a sense of autonomy. Tony Ward and colleagues proposed a Good Lives Model, where universal Goods are strived for, and described how, if we helped service users to realise they could reach their goals in a more pro-social way, we might discourage offending behaviour.

What we now have is a biopsychosocial model of change building on the Good Lives Model with Risk, Need and Responsivity principles. Interventions have been designed to offer service users the opportunity to strengthen biological, psychological and social resources for change. Instead of a confessional approach, forcing offenders to take responsibility for their offending, the key focus is on strengthening their ‘New Me’ by learning skills, understanding how their ‘Old Me’ is typically triggered, and ‘trying on’ Behaviour Programmes’. The focus is on the risky, unwanted, Old Me behaviour. These are programmes for people who identify as ‘offenders’. When negative labels are attached to people, they tend to conform to the stereotypical behaviour of the label, so this goes against the aim of moving people away from criminal and antisocial identities. Instead, should we not be seen as more in the business of ‘Strengthening New Me’? Are we not ‘New Me Enablers’?

We readily overuse ‘treatment’ and ‘dosage’, both conflations of risk culture and medical model. This language suggests that criminality is a disease to be cured. Instead, let’s use the terms ‘intervention’ and ‘exposure’. The former is appropriate, evoking ideas of intervening when someone’s ‘Old Me’ is strong to coach and strengthen ‘New Me’. The latter speaks about the degree to which a person has been exposed to their ‘New Me’ identities, which is more in keeping with the biopsychosocial model of change. High-risk men will tend to need more exposure than moderate-risk men. The medical model has been so pervasive it is engrained in our professional identities. Some of us are ‘Treatment Managers’ who hold regular ‘treatment planning’ meetings. When referring service users we consider ‘treatment readiness’ and afterwards of ‘treatment effectiveness’.

But I don’t think that it will be too hard to learn new language, find different ways of describing tasks. Only by doing so will the culture change. I don’t have all the answers, but I do consider myself a ‘Delivery Manager’. I hold Delivery Planning meetings, think about change readiness and a programme’s effectiveness to expose a service user to credible New Me alternatives. Who is joining me?

Ewen Scott
Kaizen Delivery Manager
HMP Gartree, Leicestershire

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