Conversation between two individuals

Uncovering key factors that can help break the cycle of reoffending

By Abigail Rose 25 June 2021 4 minute read

Between 2018 and 2019, our Beyond Bars programme made the case for funding charities that work in the criminal justice system. We are now building on this work, creating a systems map that will better guide funders through the criminal justice space by highlighting ways for them to better target their resources. This map will be a public tool that can also be used by campaigning and advocacy organisations to support their asks to government and to funders.

Systems mapping helps visualise how social issues exist within a system of interconnected factors. We are currently working on a draft of this map, based on a literature review and a series of interviews with people who have been in contact with the criminal justice system, conducted by us and Revolving Doors Agency.

Here, we have summarised our findings from the interviews, which explored key factors that drive the cycle of reoffending.

Whole-person approaches

The people we spoke to emphasised the importance of different services and frontline staff taking a whole-person, strengths-based approach during interactions with them. These approaches involve taking a holistic view of an individual’s needs (for example, housing and mental health needs) as well as focusing on their individual assets and skills, and building on these in a collaborative way. Although we heard examples of staff in the criminal justice system working in this way (for example, in prisons or in the probation service) there were many examples of staff using judgemental and stigmatising language and failing to understand people, their struggles, and the root causes that drive their reoffending.

So from the minute you walk through the door, if you are being labelled as a junkie or this or that … nobody every asks ‘why is this person taking heroin?’ … they just deal with what you present, they don’t look any deeper than that really.

The people we spoke to highlighted how they and others in contact with the criminal justice system often have multiple unmet needs driving their reoffending, including poverty, substance use, homelessness, a lack of access to a secure income, and domestic violence. Many felt that staff working across the system (for example, in courts, prisons, the probation service, and policymaking) do not see these issues as the root causes of crime and reoffending, and as such rarely provide the tailored and holistic support that is needed.

Let’s say for argument’s sake they’ve also got a drug addiction, benefits are not going to pay for their drug addiction, therefore they are going to turn to crime, so once again, cause and effect.

Support services in prisons

Where support does exist, it is often inadequate or inaccessible. We heard that mental health provision in prisons is difficult to access due to long waiting lists, and is therefore particularly inaccessible for those on short sentences.

I actually self-referred to the mental health team that are within the prison, and I actually got an appointment for the week after I was released.

People who served short sentences highlighted how these sentences can worsen existing problems and continue to drive the cycle of crime and crisis.

A lot of women go into prison and they don’t get a chance to have sort of counselling or substance misuse help, or any help with contact with the children and stuff, so it wrecks their lives and then they are out again. Just with more rubbish than they had to start off with. It then becomes a vicious circle.

The lack of specific support for people with children can also be disruptive for the rehabilitation process. For example, we heard that there are not always opportunities to meet with children pre-release, making the readjustment process post-release difficult, as families need time to rebuild relationships and routines.

We heard that people are often released into environments where drugs and alcohol are easily available (for example, in probation hostels), even against people’s specific wishes and requests. We also heard examples of people being released without any support to help them find accommodation, which led to some committing crimes purposefully in order to get back into prison.

There was a girl that I was in with and she … was in and out six times for the whole time that I was there, because every time she got released, she didn’t have anywhere to go … she said, ‘here I’ve got friends, I’ve got three meals a day, you know it’s warm, I’ve got a bed, so why would I not?’.

Education and training opportunities within prisons can also be of poor quality and be poorly coordinated, making it difficult for people in prison to secure employment, education or training opportunities on release. There was also a sense that education opportunities are limited in scope (for example, not offering courses higher than a Level Two qualification), limiting ambitions and opportunities that are critical to supporting rehabilitation.

However, some people shared positive experiences of accessing support services, particularly those provided by third sector organisations. One participant shared their positive experience of interacting with The Clink Charity while in prison, who provide holistic support on many different issues.

The support worker would fit in about an hour a week to kind of sit with you and the reason what they were there for was to go through anything that you really needed help with, like looking for a job for example, which is obviously what I did, housing … benefits, money, debts … she also helped me with anxiety tools and stuff like that … and once you are out of prison, you actually get that support for an extra two years after, so she was still there after release.

Similarly, Anawim was recognised positively for its gender-specific support offering for women.

It’s easier to talk about to another woman and I think when you are in a safe space, well it’s just that you feel safer isn’t it. It’s a hell of a lot easier to open up and tell the truth which is a big thing … it’s about being able to talk honestly without saying sort of what you think someone wants to hear and not leaving out bits that you think could affect the support that they can give you.

Relationships and power dynamics

Positive, trusting, and respectful relationships were identified as being critical to successful rehabilitation. However, many described how their relationships with prison and probation staff had negative influences on their rehabilitation process. Negative experiences included overt racism from staff, as well as intimidating or bullying behaviour. Others felt that some staff were focused more on punishment rather than encouraging positive behaviour. We heard that relationships with probation officers in particular were often negatively impacted by the constant threat of recall back to prison, which acts as a barrier to honest communication and support. Recall can occur if someone breaks the rules laid out in their ‘sentence plan’. We heard that people may struggle to meet these rules due to the circumstances into which they are released (for example, being released homeless or released into an unstable environment). Many felt unwilling to discuss issues openly with their probation officers, fearing the response would be immediate recall as opposed to signposting them to appropriate support.

You can’t have conversations about the real things that are affecting you with probation, because they just recall you, especially if you are high risk.

We also heard about positive relationships with staff who went above and beyond the minimum requirements expected of them. Examples included proactively signposting people to relevant support services and organisations; brokering education and volunteering opportunities; providing flexibility around appointments based on people’s personal schedules; and generally seeking to build trusting, supportive relationships, with mutual respect at their core. Giving people agency to make their own decisions is important in redressing power imbalances in relationships with staff. We also heard that people with lived experience, often acting as peer mentors, can redress power imbalances and help people access the right support.

He was my mentor … he just boosted my confidence and just showed me there are good people out there, and people will work with you and like, I’ve had many a probation officer so he was like one of a kind.

We are currently working on mapping all of these factors that influence rehabilitation and reoffending rates, to help guide funders through the criminal justice space. If you are interested in this work and would like to find out more or get involved, please email me at

Factors that influence rehabilitation and reoffending rates exist within an interconnected system. Learn more about those factors and how mapping them out could help funders better target their resources: Click To Tweet