The value of 'bearing witness' to desistance

Sarah Anderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


This paper aims to contribute to the debate on making probation practice ‘desistance-focused’. It does this through considering the body of knowledge on responding to trauma through ‘bearing witness’ to the person’s story – attending to their values and lived experience – and applying this to probation practice. It addresses why the literature on trauma has relevance to work with people who have offended. Then it explores the epistemological, performative, moral and political dimensions of ‘bearing witness’ and the relevance of each of these to desistance. It highlights the potentially critical role of the audience (in this case the probation practitioner) in the co-construction of the desistance narrative. Additionally, the paper argues that insufficient attention has been paid to the moral space in which such narratives are co-constructed. In a context where the voices of people who have offended are silenced and their experiences of victimisation or structural violence are written out, I suggest that ‘being present and being with another’ (Naef, 2006: 146) enacts a moral responsibility to support a transition from object to subject and to recognise and endorse the humanity of those who have committed crimes. The paper provides a practice example of ‘bearing witness’ to desistance. Finally, it addresses potential
challenges in asking probation officers to ‘bear witness’ to desistance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)408–424
Number of pages17
JournalProbation Journal
Issue number4
Early online date31 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • desistance
  • trauma
  • narratives
  • recovery
  • bearing witness
  • disadvantage
  • exclusion/social exclusion
  • probation
  • psychological trauma
  • testimony
  • victimization


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