Prison and probation services have traditionally focused on personal rehabilitation, but this focus cannot resolve problems that are social rather than individual. A new rehabilitation model includes three additional aspects beyond personal rehabilitation – expanding to relations in the wider society.

In 1991, there were 45,000 people locked up in England and Wales. Twenty years later this had soared to 85,000 – and despite some reduction more recently, the prison population remains at historically high levels, hovering at 92,500 for the UK as a whole. Prisons are full up, to the extent that Prisons minister Rory Stewart last year suggested we should have a "massive reduction" in the number of people sent to prison for 12 months or less.

Reducing re-offending is one obvious way of cutting down on the prison population. Fergus McNeill, Professor of Criminology and Social Work and part of the research team at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, explores the mechanisms that support or hinder ex-offenders in their rehabilitation back into society. But what are the societal drivers for putting people into prison in the first place?

"Broadly speaking there are two main kinds of responses. We can take a 'retribution-based' approach, denouncing the wrongs people have done or, at the same time, trying to deter them and others from further similar acts. Alternatively, we might prefer a 'reparation-based' emphasis, where the person is invited to repair the harm done by making some contribution to the wellbeing of the victim or the community," says Professor McNeill.

In either case, rehabilitation is key – ultimately aiming to reintegrate the person into the community as a fully restored citizen. However, what rehabilitation actually entails (i.e., how it is defined) is still highly contested.

Professor McNeill has developed a model including four different aspects of rehabilitation that together can support 'desistance' (the process of ending offending) – going beyond rehabilitation for the individual and expanding to relations in the wider society. "These four forms of rehabilitation are inter-dependent, and influenced by social structures and cultural conditions," he points out.

The different aspects of rehabilitation – personal, judicial, moral/political, and social (figure)

  • Personal rehabilitation is focused on developing any aspect of the individual that will equip him or her for the journey to reintegration. This might mean the development of new or existing skills; the strengthening of motivation; the clarification of related beliefs and values; or support for positive shifts in personal identity.
  • Judicial rehabilitation is a process of formal, legal 'de-labelling' where the status of the citizen is reinstated. This is a duty that the punishing state owes to those citizens who have settled their debts; it signifies and secures the end of punishment.
  • Moral and political rehabilitation is more informal and focuses on the negotiation between citizen, civil society and state – a civic and civil conversation that looks back towards the offence, that explores harm, repair and renegotiation of reciprocities, and that looks forward to reintegration.
  • Social rehabilitation concerns the individual's social position and their social identity. It is about their connections and resources, their social capital; the help and welcome that they require along the path from other citizens.

While prison and probation services traditionally have focused on personal rehabilitation, the other three aspects of rehabilitation are also crucial parts of the picture and must be considered as well, argues Professor McNeill. Personal change cannot itself resolve problems that are social.

“If offending breaks relationships and tears at the social fabric, then both the tear and the repair must be relational – between the people directly involved; and between citizen, civil society and state,” he adds. “Criminal justice policymakers and practitioners can't duck these wider issues; it makes no sense to work on only 'one side of the tear'. If we want to build a safer and fairer society, we need to look beyond personal rehabilitation and include the other three forms.”