Desistance theory is a criminological phenomenon which describes how criminal offenders stop their offending behaviour. It is particularly pertinent in terms of conceptualising offender rehabilitation and the career of a criminal, as well as having practical applications for probation workers working with convicted criminals in the community.
According to Oxford Dictionaries, “to desist” is “to stop doing something; cease or abstain”.
Desistance theory strives to explain the process by which offenders come to live life free from criminality. Given the ambiguity of its dictionary definition, some researchers have had trouble in conceptualising what desistance actually is, with the majority of academics now acknowledging desistance as a process as opposed to a specific event.
Research into criminal desistance is primarily descriptive in nature, and provides an overview of variables that are associated with desistance. This is helpful in terms of assisting researchers to create research hypotheses, but does limit the explanatory power of desistance theory when considered as a stand-alone approach.
Aspects of desistance
A number of factors are implicated in the natural (changes over time) and manufactured (changes due to rehabilitation programmes or community strategies) processes of desistance:
Some researchers claim that offenders, particular juveniles, essentially “grow out” of criminality.
Evidence for ageing as a natural aid to desistance comes from research into age-related arrest rates. The age-crime curve was first reported in the mid-1980s, and suggests that the peak age for offending is during the mid-teenage years. This is probably indicative of rebellion against perceived authority figures and increased in levels of peer-influenced behaviour. However, as employment and relationships become more important, engagement in criminal behaviour naturally falls. At worst, this effect is only due to a lack of time or opportunity, but at best, new life priorities remove an individual’s motivation to offend.
Engaging in regular employment helps offenders to focus their attention on something more meaningful than criminality. Similar to how a particularly aggressive individual may turn to sport, maintaining a routine of working and earning money can act as a kind of catharsis, meaning that motivation to engage in crime because of a lack of other activities or financial stress is replaced by the regularity of work. Naturally, employment alone cannot explain desistance from criminal behaviour, with job satisfaction being suggested as a far better indicator as to whether or not an offender will desist.
Another factor related to life stability is marriage. Like finding employment, many researchers in this field cite finding a partner to marry as a key milestone on the journey to desistance. Simply getting married does not guarantee that an individual’s offending patterns will change, with satisfaction again cited as an important factor. Some research even suggests that crime actually increases after marriage.
In addition to these social factors, it is important to note that issues relating to personality should also be examined, as these are possibly going to be equally important in predicting long-term desistance.
Two different types of narrative script are reported in the desistance literature, describing the ways in which offenders think about themselves and their roles in society.
A script containing themes of condemnation is common in offenders who persist with crime, that is, those who continue with their offending behaviour. These individuals often display an external locus of control, and place blame on a lack of education and poor familial relationships in order to justify their continued criminality.
Contrastingly, those who desist from crime display the opposite characteristics. As part of a redemption script, those who desist from crime take responsibility for their behaviour and consciously attempt to move away from crime. These individuals will present with an internal locus of control, and will actively seek rehabilitation, through accredited offending behaviour programmes, and reintegration, by partaking in activities such as voluntary work.
There are a range of factors that affect which narrative script an offender eventually adopts. Internal factors, such as genetics and personality, are routinely cited as key in determining an offender’s outlook on life once they are released from prison back into the community, but it is also suggested that the extent to which an offender has been engaged with accredited rehabilitation programmes can make a significant difference to their propensity for further offending.
It is proposed that the relationship between the offender and their probation officer is pivotal in terms of reducing reoffending. Probation workers should therefore be specially trained in empathy skills in order to enable the offender to feel accepted and not judged by the professionals helping them to reintegrate into society.
It is proposed that ex-offenders in the community are treated as a constant risk. Indeed, it could take several years to ‘prove’ that you have been reformed after committing a criminal offence, but just a single negative behaviour could lead to the same person being condemned as simply a bad person.
This social identity will almost exclusively be adopted in conjunction with a condemnation narrative script, meaning that the offender living in the community feels little hope of desisting from criminality in the long term. This lack of hope is widely cited as a risk factor for recidivism.
Contrastingly, offenders with redemption scripts tend to actively seek out positive social identities, such as ‘good father’, ‘volunteer’, or ‘hard worker’. These individuals are likely to be met with increased support and acceptance from their wider community, which increases the likelihood of long term desistance.
Relevance of desistance theory
A consideration of desistance theory is important in a number of academic and applied professions.
From a theoretical standpoint, desistance theory offers researchers the opportunity to test specific variables connected with the cessation of criminal behaviour. It enables historical criminological approaches, such as Lombrosian biological positivism, to be considered in relation to modern day society, which allows for validation or refutation of classical ways of thinking. This leads to a more accurate picture of criminal behaviour to be painted, and enables criminology, and it’s related fields of psychology, politics and social policy, to collaborate strategically in order to reduce reoffending rates.
Practically, desistance theory helps the criminal justice system (CJS) to identify potential ways of reducing reoffending in the community through the adoption of community-based sentences. This has the potential to reduce the number of people detained within HM Prison Service establishments for short periods.
It is suggested that short-term prison sentences (such as those for less than six months) have the potential to lead to increased criminality and further offending upon release. This is due to a shortage of enough time to complete accredited offending behaviour programmes and the exposure to ‘career criminals’, from whom it is possible to learn the proverbial tricks-of-the-trade in what are often called “schools of crime”.
In addition, desistance theory can aid the development of training programmes for professionals working with ex-offenders in the community. An example of a group of professionals who could benefit from such influence is those working in the Probation Service (see ‘Narrative script’ section, above).
As stated previously, offenders are often seen as a threat to society until they are able to ‘prove’ their reformation. For this reason, it is suggested that the public at large view desistance merely as a long-term relapse prevention measure.
Related to this, there are some cases whereby attempted reintegration from released offenders has been met with outrage by the public. For example, Jason Owen was convicted of playing some part, albeit minimal, in the widely reported death of Baby P (now known to be Peter Connelly) in 2007, and was released from prison in 2011 after serving his sentence for causing or allowing the death of Peter. Following this, The Sun newspaper launched a campaign to find him, suggesting that readers should write in to the newspaper if they had information about his whereabouts. The received such information, and one of their articles seemed to find it amazing that he dared to try to find a job – views that were echoed in the many comments that were left on the newspaper’s website.
This case demonstrates how psychological research can be nullified by so-called ‘news’ reports in the popular media. Tabloid newspapers are particularly responsible for this kind of reporting, and can be seen as a key factor in forming the attitudes of the wider public towards both offenders and the desistance process. This results in ill-informed societal opinions, which actually tend to promote future recidivism, which is then used be newspapers as ‘proof’ of their original correctness.