900 words; 4 minutes to read
Audio summary courtesy of volunteer Averi Brailey.
‘Desistance’ is the concept describing the reduction or cessation of criminal activity. It is, then, of huge interest to the criminal justice community. In the last 20 years, a lot of fascinating research has been done around what it is that supports people in leading a life that does not lead to criminality. Our theories on this issue should guide what we do in the criminal justice system in many respects, around both how to prevent crime and what to do with people who have been convicted of criminal offences.
One of the most widely-used theories around desistance is the RNR theory developed largely by Canadians.
What does desistance mean?
The challenges in studying desistance are several. For example, a small number of people account for a large amount of crime; if these people commit fewer crimes without stopping altogether, does that count as desistance? Over what period of time should we expect desistance to occur?
Competing theories have been proposed because criminologists don’t all agree on the factors that are most important in leading to crime. Most importantly, some tend to see crime as mainly rooted in individual character and dispositions like psychopathy or addiction, or in poor individual choices. Others see crime as being created largely by social circumstances like poverty that in turn put people in a position where crime may seem one of their only choices. Given that crimes, including the thorny question of what actions get treated as criminal, vary greatly, as do the people who commit them, it seems unlikely that there will be one theory or one set of factors that can account for all or even most of it.
Individual or social?
Fox describes several main theories of desistance. These include ‘life-course explanations, (i.e., that people age out of criminal behavior or move into a different phase of adult life), to the removal of external reentry barriers (i.e., employment or housing), to social-psychological factors, such as the creation of non-criminal narratives about the self, or optimism for the future.’
She goes on to write that ‘Since around the 1970s–80s, psychological approaches have been dominant in correctional programming, specifically cognition and attitudes. Focusing on “fixing” offenders assumes an individual pathology without respect for the social, contextual, and structural barriers that exist upon release (and in pathways to prison) and exist outside of psychology, personality, or cognition. Since the 2000s, research and intervention have begun to incorporate more sociological logics, including attention to removing barriers and supporting those released from prison.’
‘In other words, desistance is a social process rather than a strictly individual one; the models that describe desistance as emanating from a cognitive or narrative change view the change happening in a social context. External factors prompt social-psychological processes in conjunction with others as well. There are barriers to change, or facts that make change harder or easier, but justice-involved individuals can and do change.’
Desistance as a social process
Many of these social factors have been studied. Aging is a strong correlate of desistance; in virtually all circumstances people are less involved in crime as they get older. Important life events such as marriage of having a child are also predictive of less criminal behaviour. So are factors such as adequate housing, decent employment and a reasonable income, although all of the latter are much more difficult for someone who has a criminal record. Another body of work, most prominently advanced by Shad Maruna, draws attention to the narratives people construct about their own identities, which are in turn affected by both personal factors and social context.
Many desistance authors speak of “turning points” or “hooks” that enable or provide the opportunity for a break from crime (Giordano et al., 2002). According to Giordano et al. (2002), there are four kinds of cognitive processed involved in desistance, including being “open” to change. Certain moments can prime one to being open to change. In this model, the internal cognitive processes are the key to desistance. And yet they may only occur if an external hook manifests.
A central question in any discussion of desistance, then, should be on the relative emphasis (since these are by no means mutually exclusive) on changing the individual vs changing the individual’s situation. And of course these intersect and overlap and influence each other. That focus shapes what our organizations do. If the emphasis is on ‘rehabilitation’ there tends to be a focus changing on individual skills or attitudes. On the other hand, models based on the idea of desistance pay more attention to social factors such as helping people find reasonable employment or rebuild relationships with family.
More understanding needed
However, Fox notes, there is not a lot of data to support any of these theoretical positions. ‘Given that most criminologists who embrace a phenomenological perspective on criminal actions would agree that crime is situational, then predicting who and how one might get to a state of desistance is not easy to characterize or operationalize. Clearly, though, social context matters greatly and is comprised of many things.’
Fox concludes that ‘Interventions that have the greatest success tend to be the ones that emphasize the strengths of the individual or help to enhance the more pro-social aspects of their selves.’ Do our current criminal justice policies focus on those? Or are they more concerned with punishment and responding to public anger?’