Question 2

How and Why Do People Stop Offending?

by Lila Kazemian
City University of New York (USA)

The value and importance of studying desistance, particularly for post-onset intervention efforts, have been stressed abundantly in the literature. Predictors of desistance can be classified according to four main perspectives: biological, sociological, cognitive, and psychosocial.

Biological predictors of desistance
In addition to the direct effects of aging on desistance and biological changes that lead to reduced offending as individuals get older, recent studies have examined the role of genetic factors in the desistance process. Research found significant genetic influences on both marriage and desistance from crime. Their results showed that marriage remained a significant predictor of desistance even after controlling for genetic influences, but the effect was greatly attenuated.

Social predictors of desistance
A large body of research on desistance has drawn attention to the importance of social bonds in the process of desistance, particularly marriage and employment. Desistance from crime is said to be a gradual process resulting from an accumulation of social bonds. For instance, marriage and job stability are said to exert a more substantial impact on desistance if they occur jointly. In addition to the direct effect of increased social control, marriage and employment also promote desistance by altering the individual’s routine activities and by limiting access to criminal opportunities. Similarly, some authors have argued that marriage and employment promote desistance through increased interactions with the spouse and/or pro-social co-workers, and less time with potentially ‘deviant’ friends.

The famous analysis of juvenile delinquents in the 1950’s (the Glueck men) suggested that the military was an important turning point in the process of desistance, but analyses with more contemporary samples found otherwise. More research with contemporary samples of individuals having completed military service is needed.

Given the various legal restrictions imposed on individuals with a prior criminal record, social policies (as well as informal reactions within the family or community) that promote labelling and stigmatisation also pose important impediments to desistance efforts.

Cognitive predictors of desistance
In the literature, there has been a comprehensive discussion of cognitive factors involved in the desistance process in their theory of cognitive transformation, which is defined as cognitive shifts that promote the process of desistance. Four processes of cognitive transformations are described. First, the offender must be open to change. Second, through a process of self-selection, the individual exposes him/herself to pro-social experiences that will further promote desistance (e.g., employment, etc.). Third, the individual adheres to a new pro-social and noncriminal identity. Finally, there is a shift in the perception of the criminal lifestyle, i.e. the negative consequences of offending become obvious.

Several authors have highlighted the importance of identity transformation in the process of desistance arguing that to desist from crime, ex-offenders need to develop a cogent, credible and positive identity for themselves, and to somehow separate their past self from their current self.

Other cognitive factors identified in the desistance literature include techniques of neutralization and attribution of blame, optimism about the likelihood of desistance, as well as resolve and determination. While substance use is a behavioral indicator, it does exert an impact on cognitive processes and has been found to be an important barrier to successful desistance.

Psychosocial predictors of desistance
One of the most interesting dimensions of the desistance process refers to the way individual predispositions and life events converge to promote this process. Many researchers agree that desistance is likely to occur as a result of the combined influence of social and cognitive factors. Other findings suggested that subjective states exert direct and indirect effects on recidivism through their impact upon social circumstances. Individuals with a positive mindset and supportive social networks are better equipped to face problems, resist temptations and avoid setbacks, provided that the obstacles are not excessive. Desistance is thus regarded as being influenced by a system of interactions between various internal and external factors.

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