“I’ve Never Been Arrested At A 12-step Meeting”: How Structural And Functional Mechanisms Of 12 Step Programmes Might Support Criminal Desistance

Published 14/03/2023
Type Article
Author(s) Sarah Nixon
Corresponding Authors


This article aims to highlight how the structural and functional mechanisms of 12 step programmes (12SPs) might support criminal desistance. Drawing upon a small sample (n=7) from a wider PhD study (n=38) on peer work and desistance in prisoners, probationers and former probationers in England, narratives were reanalysed thematically to explore the desistance potential of 12SPs. The author has personal experience of 12SPs and has also worked within criminal justice (Prison Service). Themes identified suggest that 12SPs can be a ‘hook for change’ and allow for ‘changing of playground’. Tools offered through 12SPs can help structure and shape daily routines, develop discipline and manageability of self, and the collective responsibility of 12 step groups can develop social, human and recovery capital which might potentially support desistance supporting roles like employment and parenting. Not all 12 step members are involved with the criminal justice system, so this article presents a small sample of participants with extensive criminal careers. 12 step sponsorship (peer support) can allow for development of generativity, altruism and empathy where self becomes an ‘expert by experience’ thus transmitting experience, strength and hope to others. Redemptive narratives and moral agency were also evident. The aim of this article is therefore to help criminal justice practitioners to understand (from an ‘insider perspective’) the transformative potential that 12SPs might offer in supporting criminal desistance.