A major purpose of the criminal justice system is to reduce the number of crimes committed. The Criminal Code sections on sentencing (s 718) lists several reasons for giving criminal sentences, including denunciation and deterrence, both of which are presumed to make it less likely that people will commit crimes, as well as the goal of rehabilitation. However it is only recently that researchers have begun to study the question of when and why people who have committed crimes stop doing so. This field is called ‘desistance research’.
The 2018 ‘Annual Review of Criminology’ contains a chapter by two US researchers called “Desisting From Offending in the Twenty-First Century”. The chapter summarizes the state of knowledge in this area as well as discussing challenges to conducting good research and directions for the future. It lists more than 150 references to other research, so the authors have tried to be comprehensive in their work.
What is desistance?
One interesting question raised is what should count as desistance. The common understanding would be that desistance means no more criminal behaviour; research on recidivism and re-offending currently counts re-arrest no matter what the situation as a failure. The authors ask whether this is entirely reasonable. Given that a small number of people commit many crimes, and account for a large share of all crime, would there not be some cases in which people committing fewer and less serious crimes less often should be considered an indicator of success rather than failure? The same point has been made by some in relation to addiction; isn’t it a success if an addict uses much less, even if the result is not total abstinence?
Aging is key
By far the strongest factor related to desisting from crime is aging. People almost always commit fewer crimes as they get older, with rates going steadily down after the teens and twenties. The authors write that “eventual desistance from crime is the norm, even among those characterized as high-rate, chronic offenders… In short, desistance is pervasive.” This appears to be true for males and females, and for all minority groups. This finding raises the question, however, of whether it makes any sense to keep people in jail for decades.
What leads people to desist other than age?
Desistance from crime is associated with individual and social factors. Either or both can play a powerful role in shaping behavior. For example, desisting from crime is associated with people changing their idea or sense of the kind of person they are and how such a person behaves. If people are able to create a new story of their lives, this can lead to large changes in behaviour – for example from hell-raiser to parent and spouse, or from victim to survivor, or from addict to ‘recovering’. Related events such as marriage or having children are often associated with reduced criminality presumably because they help reinforce this new sense of identity. This process can happen consciously or not, and it can be quite uneven.
Will is not enough
Despite the conventional wisdom, just wanting to do better doesn’t appear to be enough. The authors cite research showing that people’s desire to change themselves doesn’t in itself distinguish those who are successful from those who aren’t. A number of other factors also matter. “In fact, at times it appears that external structural forces may be required for, and perhaps precede, subjective change.”
The expectations of others usually have powerful effects on people’s behaviour, so being around people who support a non-criminal life helps desistance. It’s hard to change your own sense of self if everyone else still treats you as the person you no longer want to be. The same is true of larger social forces such as poverty and unemployment. It’s much easier to stop committing crimes if you have an income, a place to live, a sense of belonging and people who care about you. The stigma of having a criminal record can itself make it much harder to go ‘crime-free’. In fact, the authors conclude that recent research implies that contact with the criminal justice system, ironically, may have “a causal role… in perpetuating criminal careers” rather than in helping to end them.
Events and accidents
Life events can also play an important role, positive or negative. Birth of a child can be very positive whereas losing a job or a relationship or an accident or ill health can be highly negative. These things can be beyond the control of any individual, yet still have powerful effects on behaviour.
All of the above suggests that desistance, even with all the will in the world, is a process rather than an event. A person may move back and forth between different identities, or different forces pushing him or her in opposite directions. Things can go well, and then not so well – or vice versa. Desistance would seem to require more supports than are presently available for most people, so that their desire to be better can be put into practice and sustained. “Collectively, desistance research calls for a paradigmatic shift in criminal justice practices and how we ‘do justice’.”
Readers are encouraged to read the original article or the many works cited in it.