Desistance from crime: Implications for research, policy, and practice
As research on crime over the life course evolves, a concept being used more and more is the idea of “desistance” from crime. Desistance refers to the cessation of criminal behavior and eventual ending of a criminal career. Typically, the process of desistance coincides with aging, maturity, and other factors that influence normative development. However, it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, largely because it has been defined in different ways over time.
From 1970-1999, desistance used to be considered simply the opposite of recidivism. It was defined as binary event, i.e. the complete termination of criminal behavior. Newer definitions (from 2000-present) define desistance as a process that evolves in different stages throughout the life course rather than a discrete event. Instead of focusing on risk factors as a way to predict recidivism, desistance focuses more on factors that motivate someone to leave that path. A November 2021 publication by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) details some of the research on desistance and outlines implications and recommendations for policy and practice.
Measuring desistance can be complicated and is often examined using trajectory models or multi-level models. Additionally, desistance measures depend on the source of data being used. Official records of recidivism are arguably more consistent and accessible, but they might conflate measurement of actual criminal behavior with policy choices about responses to criminal behavior. Self-report measures can sometimes be preferable for this reason, though they may be harder to obtain accurately and consistently. Per the NIJ report, researchers should ideally use both types of data if possible.
The report also recommends that follow-up periods should be as long as possible, ideally at least nine years, to capture the entire process of desistance. Unfortunately, a large portion of the literature relies on shorter follow-up times. Based on the current research though, certain factors that are presumed to be related to desistance are those related to criminality, such as antisocial attitudes, self-control, or even risk assessment scores.
When it comes to thinking about desistance, a key point is that people may not necessarily stop crime all together but they might significantly slow down in terms of frequency of seriousness of offending. To fully capture this process, the authors recommend that researchers and practitioners consider multiple measures of desistance:
1) de-celeration, or a slowdown in the frequency of criminal offending that can be measured (e.g., comparing arrest rates or number of arrests before an after incarceration);
2) de-escalation, or a reduction in the seriousness of offending (e.g., changes in the seriousness of crime types); and
3) reaching a ceiling, or a complete cessation in criminal offending (this is essentially the inverse of recidivism for some follow-up period of time).
Biosocial Factors and Desistance
Scientific advancements in the natural and biomedical sciences have demonstrated that genetic and biological factors influence nearly all human behaviors that have the potential to interfere with a normative developmental path. Biosocial factors include things like brain development, neuropsychological functioning, and stress system responses.
When we view desistance as a developmental process throughout one’s life, there is a logical connection to the biosocial perspective. For example, individuals with stress system dysfunction may be more impulsive or they may have more difficulty interacting with others. Numerous studies have demonstrated that individuals who persistently and violently offend tend to have dysfunctional or abnormal neuropsychological and stress system responses. These deficiencies may be attributed to genetics, prenatal environment, adverse experiences, or risky lifestyles, to name a few. For example, adverse experiences such as traumatic brain injury or living in poverty can disrupt normal brain development that can impact normative behavior and limit the typical desistance process often seen from adolescence into adulthood.
From this lens, aging out of crime may be considered part of a normal process for some people, but also is likely influenced by biological changes that occur from adolescence into adulthood. It is generally agreed that tendencies toward criminal behavior peak in late adolescence, a period marked by significant psychological, biological, and social changes. Offending behavior is one of many possible responses to life circumstances such as exposure to stressful situations or a general lack of resources.
Incarceration and Desistance
When it comes to studying the impact of incarceration, there are two main types of comparisons that researchers make. First, researchers can compare people serving custodial sentences (such as a prison or jail sentence) with people serving noncustodial sentences (such as community service or supervision). Second, researchers can compare longer sentences or more punitive conditions of confinement (e.g., higher security level, solitary confinement) with less punitive conditions.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of work directly studying how imprisonment shapes the desistance process for chronic offenders. This is an important oversight, because chronic offenders are the most relevant when it comes to desistance from crime — both for society (because they commit a large number of crimes) and for themselves (because their criminal activity often dovetails with other antisocial behaviors that impede their well-being). The research also rarely measures shifts in criminal activity and provides little insight into how conditions of confinement moderate the effects of incarceration on desistance.
The authors claim that practitioners could better prepare inmates for release by ensuring that correctional programming is provided early on and consistently during one’s incarceration sentence. At a high level, interventions can be divided into those that focus on internal change (e.g. therapy, motivational interviewing, medication-assisted treatment) and those that focus on external change (e.g., prison visitation, employment, education).
In theory, if individuals can make constructive use of their time in prison, they will be better able to return to society and desist from crime after release. Unfortunately though, the current evidence on desistance-focused correctional intervention options is still very mixed and correlational, with little causal evidence for many of these interventions.
Desistance-Focused Criminal Justice Practice
The measuring of desistance is not without issue. First, in contrast to recidivism, it is unfamiliar to most policymakers. Among researchers, there is little consensus on how to define or operationalize desistance. In addition, there is not a lot of strong evidence between many of the suggested links between predictors of desistance (e.g., employment, sobriety) and criminal behavior itself. For these reasons, traditional recidivism measures are still very important for drawing conclusions about both the desistance process and the effectiveness of different policies or programs.
In terms of conceptualizing and operationalizing desistance, there are a few problems. First, it is difficult to know exactly what counts as desistance (e.g., technical supervision violations vs. new crimes). Second, one must decide which data source to use to measure criminal behavior (official records vs. self-report measures). Third, one has to consider the follow-up period being used for measuring desistance.
One example of how to measure desistance comes from “redemption research.” This theory focuses on what kind of benchmarks someone needs to reach in order for their risk of re-offending to be sufficiently low to meet a threshold of “redemption.” The research on this topic suggests that benchmarks may appear as early as five to seven years post-release, suggesting that we may not need to follow people for 20 years if they have already met certain benchmarks.
Risk assessments look at who is likely to desist in the future, or in other words, they predict who is at sufficiently low risk for future reoffending. This approach doesn’t require a long follow-up period in order to give some estimate or probability that someone has desisted.
International Perspectives on Desistance
When drawing upon international perspectives, people find informal rather than formal interventions most valuable. While the research is still limited, the key processes associated with desistance appear to be related to things like marriage or partnership (including parenthood), employment (or another legitimate role in society, such as learning or homemaking), aging, and securing safe housing in a nice neighborhood. In some aspects, these informal factors might be more helpful because people may already be engaged with certain relationships like parenthood or marriage.
International perspectives also suggest that the forging of new relationships with other groups in a wider social community context could also be helping in promoting desistance. Thus, it’s recommended that the criminal justice system work with all sorts of other organizations that are focused on other areas of life and culture.
Applications to Criminal Justice Policy and Practice
Many state and local jurisdictions have developed promising initiatives and interventions that draw on principles of the desistance paradigm, but few have been rigorously evaluated. Partnerships between policymakers, practitioners, and academics are crucial to conducting more systematic assessments of these programs. We also need to better understand whether the level of responsiveness to any given intervention varies across demographic groups (specifically age and gender), criminal history characteristics, and histories of trauma.
At present, the most promising desistance-promoting policies and practices rely on ongoing partnerships between the various agents of the criminal justice system and community resources, including law enforcement, prosecution, corrections, and community organizations. Interagency collaborations are really important to promote desistance from crime, no single criminal justice agency can promote desistance on its own.
Criminal justice systems need to more readily embrace the idea that people who want to desist have strengths that can be harnessed, while admitting that there are weaknesses that need to be avoided. Researchers and practitioners should consider both weaknesses and strengths when determining what factors might have the greatest impact on future offending trajectories. Similarly, interventions should focus on both diminishing risk factors and improving protective factors, and success could be measured on a continuum based on improvements in protective factors.
Regarding biosocial factors, practitioners could also probably improve the efficacy of risk assessments by incorporating factors related to neuropsychological functioning. Similarly, rehabilitative efforts both in prison and in the community might be more effective if they focus more on improving deficits in one’s stress response.
The criminal justice system needs to help people develop the skills they need for newly formed social identities, such as skills related to employment, stress management, or interpersonal effectiveness. In theory, if individuals can make constructive use of their time in prison, they will be better able to return to society and desist from crime after release. Unfortunately though, the current evidence on desistance-focused correctional intervention options is still very mixed and correlational, with little causal evidence for many of these interventions. Researcher-practitioner partnerships need to refine these types of programs (e.g., potentially by including biosocial factors), and continue to rigorously evaluate them.
Researchers should also consider using survey data to better understand experiences of incarcerated (or formerly incarcerated) people. Surveys could ask about details regarding the conditions of confinement, life conditions, and the re-integration process for these individuals. With this information, researchers could recommend ways to modify conditions of confinement in ways that enhance well-being, reduce risk of recidivism, and promote more opportunities for desistance.
Future research should use more rigorous methods to examine predictors of desistance, as most existing research on this is correlational and relatively weak. It is tempting to focus on these non-criminal-justice outcomes as ways to measure progress or marginal success (e.g., changes in substance abuse, communication skills, etc.) because they are easier to affect in some cases, while recidivism rates are more long-term.
From a practical standpoint, practitioners and policymakers often do not have time to wait for long follow-up periods to confirm criminal behavioral change. In these cases, applying models like “redemption research” or risk assessment may prove useful for predicting who is likely to desist.
-Current definitions of desistance view it as a process rather than a discrete event.
-Desistance is not just the inverse of recidivism: people may not necessarily stop crime all together but they might significantly slow down or become less violent over time.
-Incorporating measures such as “de-celeration” or “de-escalation” may help comprehensively measure desistance.
-Biosocial factors (e.g. brain development, neuropsychological functioning, and stress system responses) should be incorporated into current research on desistance. From a practitioner standpoint, they could be used to guide risk assessments and recommended treatment/sanction for an individual.
-If individuals can make constructive use of their time in prison, they will be more likely to desist from crime after release. Unfortunately though, the current evidence on desistance-focused correctional intervention options is still very mixed and inconclusive.
-There is not a lot of strong evidence between many of the suggested links between predictors of desistance (e.g., employment, sobriety) and criminal behavior itself. Thus, traditional recidivism measures are still very important for drawing conclusions about the desistance process.
-While the research remains limited, key factors that appear to be associated with desistance include things like marriage or partnership (including parenthood), employment, aging, and safe housing, and others. Forging of new relationships with other groups in a wider social community context could also be helping in promoting desistance.
-Multi-agency collaborations are preferable because they introduce people to wider positive social networks and they focus more on building an individual’s strengths and protective factors while also recognizing that certain behaviors are to be avoided.