Desistance From Crime: Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice
Most scholars would agree that desistance from crime – the process of ceasing engagement in criminal activities – is normative. However, there is variability in the literature regarding the definition and measurement of desistance, the signals of desistance, the age at which desistance begins, and the underlying mechanisms that lead to desistance. Even with considerable advances in the theoretical understanding of desistance from crime, there remain critical gaps between research and the application of that research to practice. Understanding this important process has the potential to impact how the criminal justice system operates and how key system stakeholders carry out their work to promote desistance and reduce reoffending.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is committed to addressing these gaps. Through recent investments in desistance research, NIJ commissioned a series of six papers from innovative and thoughtful scholars whose work provides a renewed focus on desistance for criminal justice scholars and system stakeholders.
During this webinar, the authors will present and discuss key themes from each of their papers, which cover the following topics: defining and measuring desistance, biosocial factors and their influence on desistance, the effects of incarceration on the desistance process for individuals who chronically engage in criminal activity, applying desistance concepts to correctional programing and policy, applying international perspectives of the desistance process to the U.S. context, and pathways to desistance for juveniles and adults.
DARYL FOX: Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to today’s webinar, Desistance From Crime: Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice, hosted by the National Institute of Justice. At this time it’s my distinct pleasure to introduce Amy Solomon, Acting Assistant Attorney General within the Office of Justice Programs, for some welcoming remarks.
AMY SOLOMON: Thank you. Thank you so much and good afternoon everyone. It’s a pleasure to welcome everyone to this webinar hosted by our National Institute of Justice. I’m looking forward to the conversation and I’m thrilled with the outstanding collection of papers that we’ll be discussing today. Let me first thank my colleague, Jennifer Scherer, the Acting Director of NIJ, and her terrific team. Want to single out Marie Garcia, Ben Adams, and Michael Applegarth, and thank them for their stewardship of this important project. This volume is a significant achievement in the field of criminal justice research and their guidance has been invaluable. Let me also express my gratitude to the authors of these thoughtful and illuminating papers. Having spent much of my career working closely with criminologists and social science researchers, I know that there are few things that as exciting as leading the march of ideas. It is not always a smooth path. All the rigor of your research and the depth of your thinking, you’ll certainly be challenged, but your contributions here are immense and you’re advancing progress at a critical moment in our field. So this volume resonates deeply with me.
I dedicated much of my professional life to the issue of reentry. I was a VISTA volunteer just out of college when I had the opportunity to work alongside people who are just out of prison. And they were working on community service projects, we were working together to revitalize neighborhoods and they were speaking to at-risk youth. And it was just incredible to see what was possible for them when they were contributing to their communities. And it also helped them write a new story for their lives during that time. Later, one of my first research projects involved a group of people who had been incarcerated, and who had made a successful transition back to their communities. And it struck me then, that we had a much better handle on why people fail than why they succeed.
And as I’ve worked on reentry efforts in both nonprofit and government sectors over the years, I’ve come to meet and to learn from scores of brilliant people with justice system contact in their past, who have turned their lives around, and are now contributing to their communities and our nation in profound and brilliant ways. They are lawyers and advocates, philanthropists, and nonprofit leaders, they’re academics, service providers, government officials, and violence interrupters. They have so much to contribute and they set an example to others about what is possible. And so it bothers me that we know a great deal more about risk factors, about what contributes to criminal behavior, and far less about what motivates a person to leave that path. Why does it happen? When does it happen? And what steps can we take as policymakers, as legislators, as practitioners, to create more off-ramps, and support more turning points, more on-ramps to productive and successful lives in the community. So these are not easy questions to answer. But that’s why I’m so enthusiastic about this desistance volume. In this report, we have I think the genesis of a strategy. At the very least, we now have kernels and insights that will help build our knowledge base and shape our policies. So I’m grateful to all of you for being part of this conversation. And I can’t wait to see where the discussion leads. Thank you.
JENNIFER SCHERER: Thank you, Amy, for joining us today and for your thoughtful remarks. NIJ appreciates your support and leadership. On behalf of NIJ I’d like to welcome each of you to today’s webinar. I appreciate you taking the time out of your schedules to hear how we can apply desistance principles to research, policy, and practice. NIJ is grateful to the authors who contributed to this volume and their willingness to participate in today’s webinar. Their dedication and expertise have made this volume possible. The mission of NIJ is to inform the decision-making of the criminal justice community with data and evidence to help reduce and advance justice. To meet this mission, we engage stakeholders to understand key issues and challenges facing the field, guide research to address these challenges, and disseminate the information to those who can benefit from its application.
The volume we’re speaking about today aims to help bridge the gap between research and practice; increase understanding of the conceptualization, measurement, and application of desistance in the criminal justice system, both here in the U.S. and internationally; and finally provide guidance on how to increase the use of desistance-focused approaches at key decision points in the criminal justice system. Through an improved understanding of desistance and where an individual is in the process, key stakeholders can apply that information to assess individuals’ progress towards decreasing criminal behavior, as well as to take a strength-based perspective focused on building on individuals’ assets to promote positive change. This application of desistance principles could potentially lead to improved outcomes, better support for individuals with system involvement, and a more effective use of resources to provide safety to the community.
This volume further represents an important step in the application of desistance principles to the criminal justice system by improving knowledge and understanding of desistance and providing actionable recommendations for research, policy, and practice. NIJ will continue to support and produce rigorous science on desistance from crime. We’re excited to work with you to apply this knowledge base to more effectively respond to crime and justice challenges. I want to again thank the authors for their work on this issue and each of you for joining us today. Now, I’d like to turn things over to Ben Adams, a Senior Advisor in the Office of the Director here at NIJ. Thank you.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Thank you so much, Jennifer. And thank you, Amy, for joining us this afternoon and for your leadership and support in producing this volume. I also want to again thank my NIJ colleagues, Dr. Maria Garcia, editor of the volume, and Michael Applegarth, contributing editor, for all their work to make this happen. This afternoon, we’re going to start and hear from each of our six authors who drafted chapters for NIJ’s volume on desistance from crime, and then we’ll also respond to questions from the audience. We’re going to jump right into the presentations, but as a reminder, you can enter questions in the Q&A box at any point throughout the webinar, and we’ll address as many questions as time allows at the conclusion of the author presentations. Please indicate the author to whom your question is directed or if it is for the entire group when you enter those questions. The first presentation this afternoon is by Dr. Michael Rocque. Mike is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. His chapter reviews definitions of desistance used in the literature, offers an updated theoretically grounded definition as a foundation for future work, and provides recommendations for policymakers, practitioners, and scholars who are seeking to examine and promote desistance from crime. Mike?
MICHAEL ROCQUE: Thank you so much, Benjamin. It’s a pleasure to be here. And I am coming to you from Bates College, which is in Lewiston, Maine. Normally, in November, it would be quite chilly. But the thermometer says 65, which is quite a pleasant surprise. I’m happy to be here. I’m really grateful to see so many people joining us to--for this really important conversation about how we can move a really largely theoretical concept into the criminal justice and criminal justice policy and practice domain. The purpose of this work and this report, the one that I’m going to be talking about, is really to start us off by thinking about what exactly is desistance. It’s a term that has gained traction. And it’s pretty common in the scholarly literature. But it’s still one that if you talk to your family around the Thanksgiving table, you probably will get some blank stares, right? Desistance is not really common in that sense. And so it does remain something that is relatively new. And because of that it is not really well defined. And it’s been defined in multiple different ways. And that has implications for how useful it can be for criminal justice policy and practice.
So first of all, you know, what do we mean by desistance just in general? And desistance, I think it makes sense to start thinking about historical research. The historical research has long, for hundreds of years actually, recognized that there has been a relationship between age and crime. In other words, as people get older crime increases through adolescence, maybe into the--into early adulthood, and then it declines. This figure on the right of your screen is--was drawn by Quetelet, whose work in the early 1800s showed that there was a very strong relationship between propensity to crime, he said, and age. And he talked a little bit about that, but he wasn’t really sure about why that might be the case. Into the 1900s research again, in terms of longitudinal work, was pretty rare. But the work that was done especially, you know, pointing to Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck at Harvard, they noticed that there again was this relationship where even people who are heavily involved in criminal behavior eventually stopped. And they called it Maturational Reform. But again, the Gluecks were very clear that we didn’t really know much about this. We don’t know why it happens, or really, when it happens, and not much was done in terms of age, and crime, and this maturation, or what we have come to call desistance until relatively recently, late in the 20th century.
The term desistance I find to be really interesting and fascinating. You know, when did that term start to be used in terms of understanding this decline in crime over the life course. And really, the way in which it is used today began with Wolfgang and the birth cohort studies. But there were some scholars using it in the 1940s. For example, I’m talking about Thorsten Sellin, talked about desistance from crime, and another researcher in the 1940s used that term. But really, it doesn’t gain traction until the 1960s, 1970s, and really into the 1980s, when we start to use this term to mean something specific. So when we get to trying to understand what is desistance, you know, and we’re thinking about definitions, there are really two different types of definitions that we use in the research and one is conceptual, or what does it actually mean? What do we mean when we say the word desistance? And that obviously will inform how we measure it, and how we--how we try to figure out when it happens, and what predicts when it happens.
And I think a good starting point, and this will be a theme throughout these talks today, is to think about it in terms of recidivism. Is desistance the flip or, you know, the other side of the coin for recidivism? Recidivism is when you re-commit a crime. But I think it’s really important to point out that early definitions of recidivism and definitions that we use today basically require some sort of contact with the criminal justice system. So you’ve been arrested or you’ve been in prison, and you commit another crime, and then that’s recidivism. Whereas desistance is really, you know, slowing down and not committing another crime, regardless of whether you have engaged in the criminal justice system. And so when it comes to conceptual definitions, really what I’m--what I’m determining early definitions 1970 to 1999, they really sort of relied on recidivism-like definitions. So binary, right? Did you--within three years, did you commit a new crime or not? So were you a recidivator or a desistor? And then, and this also is important to think about in terms of a debate with respect to the age-crime curve. Was it an--is it--on the aggregate level is desistance, you know, merely the termination. And so people who are engaging in crime, engage in the same amount of crime, and then they eventually stop. Or is it a slow progression, a movement out of crime. So early on, the idea really was that it was just the ending of a criminal career.
And then more recent definitions, though, they start to use this term “process.” And this really begins with the work of Samson and Laub, and Shawn Bushway, and others, who argue that there is a process that is unfolding over the life course that’s either supporting termination, or it is the reduction in offending. And so when we get to operational definitions, so how we measure it, right? And how we actually study desistance, the early and current distinction here really mirrors the ways in which desistance was conceptualized. So the early ways of measuring desistance was basically to consider someone a desistor within a certain number of years, they had not committed a new crime. Obviously, that is going to be very sensitive to the length of the follow-up. But then when we get to this more nuanced understanding of what desistance is, and if it’s a process, suddenly becomes a little bit more tricky to measure. And so maybe we need longitudinal data, and we need to understand the pattern of crime over time. And so again, we have trajectory analyses. And this is an example of that from the work of Elaine Doherty, and John Laub, and Rob Sampson.
When we’re putting it all together, though, and trying to figure out what exactly desistance is, I think it’s important to think about where we’ve come, where we are, and our advances in thinking about this term desistance. And while reduction in crime, I think, is an indication that desistance is occurring, I think crime can still happen while someone is in the process of desistance. So in this report, which is available, I offer this as a definition: “The process by which criminality or individual risk for antisocial conduct declines over the life course.” And so importantly, criminality is what’s--where the action is here. So not necessarily just crime, but the propensity to crime is what’s happening, is what is declining with desistance.
Terms of what this means and what the research means for criminal justice practitioners, it’s really important to think about the type of data with which one is working. And also the type of data that are available. So oftentimes, official measures, right, governmental collected--government-collected, reports, arrests, and convictions, things like that are all that are available. This is going to be limited in terms of understanding desistance, particularly as I have defined it, right? It’s going to be more difficult to understand if criminality is declining, if we only have access to arrest records, which is why survey data is very important, if we can get access to that, to inform our decisions.
We also want to know, are we looking at a group of individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system or a general sample? You know, desistance might look different for both of those groups. The--in terms of the follow-up and timeframe, if desistance is a process, then there could be fits and stops, and it might not be smooth, right? You know, the age-crime curves that I showed here, look like it’s--this is kind of like a ski slope, right? It’s just a gradual decline, but it may go up and down. So the longer, the better, in terms of trying to really truly understand if desistance is happening. Terms of measures and modeling, again, we want longitudinal data. We want data where we can--we can sort of model the process. We don’t want a binary yes, no, it either has happened or not. That’s really termination, right? And where desistance is a process that supports termination or the end of the criminal career.
And then finally, I think most importantly, and maybe most difficult to wrap our heads around if we’re criminal justice policymakers and practitioners is that in order to measure desistance, I’m arguing that we do not need to use crime as indicators of desistance. So people may decline and eventually sort of slow down and stop conducting criminal behavior and that may be an indication that desistance has happened. But other measures, maybe self-control or attitudes, could also be used as an indication that desistance is happening. And this could be a measure of success for programs as well and I think that’s really important. So that’s the quick summary of the conceptual, and operational, and methodological definitions of desistance. And I’m happy to take any questions later.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Mike. We’ll move now to our next presentation by Dr. Danielle Boisvert. Danielle is a Professor and Senior Associate Dean in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. Her chapter examines desistance from crime from a biosocial perspective, and offers recommendations for new research and for the development and implementation of biosocially informed approaches to desistance in correctional policy and practice. Danielle.
DANIELLE BOISVERT: Great, thank you. Thank you so much. I’m going to try to cram a lot of information in eight minutes. So my contribution to the series of papers was the application of a biosocial lens to desistance from crime. I presented how practitioners and policymakers can rely on current research on brain development, neuropsychological functioning, and stress system response to improve risk assessments, enhance treatment planning, and support desistance in correctional settings. This white paper also highlights the negative impact that correctional environments can have on neuropsychological functioning and stress system response, and points to the importance of researcher-practitioner partnerships to incorporate a strengths-based perspective and encourage the interdisciplinary study of desistance. Next slide.
The conceptualization and operationalization of desistance as a developmental process creates a logical connection to the biosocial perspective. This framing of desistance as a process facilitates the integration of biology into traditional sociological explanations of desistance, which often focus on life course turning points, as well as psychological explanations of desistance such as the Big 5 personality traits to include important brain functioning elements that I call the Critical 2. Specifically, the Critical 2 refer to an individual’s level of neuropsychological functioning and to their stress system response. So the research on brain development and maturation provides a tremendous insight into the known patterns of common desistance taking place from adolescence to adulthood. From this view, aging out of crime may be considered part of a neuromaturational process, influenced primarily by normative biological changes that occur naturally from adolescence into adulthood. In other words, most adolescents may simply mature out of crime and delinquency as their biological and environmental--environments-their biological and social environments change over time, requiring little to no formal intervention from the criminal justice system.
However, not everyone’s following a normative developmental path. In fact, 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, or they may be acquired throughout the life course as the result of adverse environments and risky lifestyles. These adverse environments and risky experiences, such as traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, and living in impoverished environments, can disrupt normal brain development throughout the life course. And this disruption in turn can impact the typical desistance process often seen from adolescence into adulthood. Next slide.
From a correctional rehabilitative standpoint, practitioners adopting a developmental view of desistance would benefit from an enhancement approach to correctional interventions. And an enhancement approach focuses on improvements to clients’ baselines and critical areas. In other words, service providers should seek to identify and address both specific deficiencies and strengths for continuous improvement to promote desistance. Moving forward, developing risk assessment tools that include biological risk factors, particularly the Critical 2, is an important next step in correctional rehabilitation. These biopsychosocial profiles have the potential to increase the efficiency of risk prediction. And a biopsychosocial profile may be obtained by including neuropsychological and physiological tests, as well as administering biosocially informed questionnaires to already developed risk assessments. The goal would be to better make distinctions between low-risk individuals who are following a normative path based on brain development, and individuals who have neurodevelopmental dysfunctions that result from genetics or prenatal environment, or that were acquired throughout the life course. And this information gathered from the biosocial--biopsychosocial profiles would provide better insight on when and how to provide interventions and when to abstain. Doing so will also further inform the development of alternatives and supplemental programs to current rehabilitative practices for those between the ages of 18 and 24.
As mentioned, emerging adults who are experiencing a normal developmental path and are typically low-risk individuals should receive minimal interventions. In fact, repeated studies have demonstrated that placing traditionally low-risk individuals in high-intensity environments and programs can have more detrimental effects that have--if nothing had been done with them at all. The accumulated brain development research suggests specifically that incarcerating low-risk individuals may actually create additional risks by inhibiting or delaying brain development and psychosocial maturity due to the impoverished environment of many correctional facilities. Given this information, an institutional setting should be used as a last resort for those who are low risk and younger than 25 years old, the age at which the brain is on average fully developed.
On the other hand, a large portion of the institutes’ population are high-risk individuals, and here officials should focus on mitigating the negative impact that conditions of imprisonment have on cognitive functioning and stress response. In other words, we should strive to avoid excessive exposure to impoverished environmental conditions known to create and exacerbate risk. For example, mitigation efforts for people who are incarcerated may include meeting nutritional needs, increasing the amount of daily exercise and sleep, encouraging social interactions with loved ones through visitations, and limiting noise pollution, toxin exposure, and overcrowding in jails and prisons. Next slide.
When interventions are needed, it’s recommended that practitioners and researchers work together to consider programs geared toward restoring and/or improving neuropsychological deficits and stress system response. And some examples of biosocially informed initiatives may include cognitive remediation, mindfulness training, nutritional supplements, and medications for those with mental illness and/or substance use problems.
Programmers also need to consider the way individuals perceive and react to stress. Individuals with stress system dysfunction have difficulty interacting with others and responding to stressful situations appropriately. So, typically our nervous system and cortisol responses to stress act as warning signs for us in adverse environments, leading people to behave more cautiously. For people with dysfunctional stress system responses, however, they may show fewer inhibitions and react in ways that are deemed antisocial and criminal when exposed to stressful stimuli.
So as mentioned, the biopsychosocial profiles that capture neuropsychological and stress system functioning have the potential to improve risk prediction and better match individuals with specific rehabilitation programs that are best suited to their current needs. It’s important to note, however, that this approach has the potential to continue to place emphasis on individual deficits. A complementary line of research in correctional practice that focuses on desistance from crime following a strength-based approach is greatly needed. It’s time to move beyond approaches that use re-offending as the sole metric of success or failure.
Desistance is a process, and enhancement efforts seek to improve various aspects of one’s life. Interventions then should focus on both diminishing risk factors and improving protective factors, such that success can be measured on a continuum. So overall, this work highlights the science that links biology and the environment to inform our understanding of desistance as a process. Today, however, there’s not been a systematic approach to integrating biosocial research to correctional practice. Moving forward will require interdisciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners actively working together through a biosocial lens to better understand and promote desistance. Thank you.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Thanks, Danielle. We’ll move to the next presentation. But before we do so, I want to encourage folks again to use the Q&A box. Feel free to enter any questions that you might have for our authors as we go along and we will address as many as we can at the conclusion of the presentations. Thanks. The next presentation is by Dr. Christopher Wildeman. Chris is a Professor of Sociology at Duke University, and Professor at the Rockwool Foundation Research Unit. His chapter considers how imprisonment shapes the desistance process for individuals who chronically engage in criminal activity, and discusses implications for policy, practice, and research. Chris.
CHRISTOPHER WILDEMAN: Great, thanks, Ben. So, a couple preliminaries. First, I don’t actually remember if I asked to have control over the slides or not. So I apologize if I mess any of that up. Ben, is there a way for you to advance them?
DARYL FOX: Yes, we will--we will go ahead and advance those, yes.
CHRISTOPHER WILDEMAN: Okay. Perfect. Thanks Daryl. So second, nothing to get the nerves jangling like 330 something participants, when I feel like the most people I’ve spoken to at one time for the last 18 months is like four? So thanks everybody for showing up and hopefully this is helpful. The third thing I just wanted to say is, I just wanted to really echo some of the things that Danielle said in terms of conditions of confinement, and especially the need to sort of focus on improved conditions of confinement, whenever we’re thinking about criminal justice contact and desistance. So just to really highlight some of the positives there. The final thing I’ll say is, I am the person on this panel who knows the least about desistance probably. So I’m really thrilled to be included and get to learn from the other folks contributing to this volume.
Okay, sorry. All those preliminaries out of the way, we can go to the next slide. So there’s not actually a ton of research that’s directly on how incarceration affects the desistance process. And I think a lot of the work in this area really suffers from some of the deficiencies that Mike highlighted in terms of thinking about desistance as this sort of binary outcome, right? So a lot of the work that I’m going to talk about is essentially looking at the effect of incarceration on recidivism, often measured just as being re-incarcerated not even being convicted of a new crime after release. But I think we can still apply some of those insights more broadly to our understanding of the desistance process. And a lot of this work on sort of incarceration and life course outcomes provides support for a couple key conclusions.
The first is that custodial sentences, so getting a prison or jail sentence as opposed to a noncustodial sentence like community service or supervision. Longer sentences, which is relatively self-explanatory, and more punitive conditions of confinement. And here really what folks are focusing on is higher security level facilities or in some cases placement in solitary confinement, whether it’s administrative or disciplinary segregation, increasing levels of criminal activity, and hence, theoretically, sort of inhibiting the desistance process. The other thing that we know about how incarceration affects folks is that incarceration has sort of a whole host of other negative events or effects on other core life course outcomes. So here we could think about some of Bruce Western’s work on how incarceration affects labor market outcomes or some of Jason Schenker and Mike Massoglia’s work on how incarceration affects health and well-being, or some of Kristin Turney’s work on how incarceration sort of further destabilizes families that were often already struggling in core ways. And as a result of these direct effects that we see in terms of criminal activity, and also these indirect effects that we see in terms of destabilizing life course circumstances more broadly, it’s quite likely that incarceration inhibits desistance. Next slide, please.
Now, that being said, there are a whole host of problems with existing research, which is always the case, but it’s important to highlight them here. The first is, there’s really not a lot of work that’s directly on the effects of incarceration on folks who chronically engage in crime. People who in the criminological literature would be called chronic offenders, but we’re--I think we have appropriately made the decision to use sort of person first language going forward. So that’s sort of a key limitation. And I think again, Danielle did a nice job of thinking about the different risk profiles that folks have, even though the development of risk profiles is something that I don’t really understand well, and so wouldn’t necessarily feel confident using that language.
The other big issue here is that most of the data that we’re using the base are--or most of the data that we’re using here, very rarely measure both criminal activity and criminal justice contact well simultaneously. And so often what we’re getting is indications of future criminal justice contact. And then we’re using that as a stand-in for criminal activity, when we’re not getting any information on criminal activity absent criminal justice context. So there’s sort of some pretty key measurement and there’s here. There’s also very little emphasis on conditions of confinement, which again, I think Danielle did a fantastic job on from a biosocial perspective, but it’s important to mention here more broadly. And then the other core issue and, you know, to allude back to something Mike said--you know, Mike talked about how Sampson and Laub were sort of really transformational in our understanding of the desistance process, yet the good data are from folks who really don’t map on well at all in terms of the contemporary conditions that folks who have been involved in criminal activity are exposed to. And so they are sort of a host of kind of key limitations here. Next slide, please.
So these limitations notwithstanding, again, and I alluded to this earlier, is that it seems pretty likely that incarceration inhibits the desistance process, even for folks who chronically engage in criminal activity, and there are even some indications that it might do more to inhibit desistance among this population. Okay. So that being said, I’ll move to the next slide and have this sort of practical, kind of, bits. And certainly welcome any questions on these, I don’t--I don’t think that I have sort of the perfect answer either in the chapter or in general. So, you know, I think it--when we think about policy, the fact that incarceration is costly, which is something that folks have been talking about increasingly in recent years. It’s important to mention, but then it also doesn’t appear to promote desistance, and so the long-term effects of it on crime are things that we might want to think about more. And I think the key sort of other take home focus here is that the more we can move in a less punitive direction the more beneficial those effects are likely to be when it comes to desistance. So if someone has to go to prison thinking about less sort of severe or punitive conditions of confinement and shorter sentences, and then more broadly, if folks thinking about whether custodial or noncustodial sanctions would both be possibilities. Next slide.
So the--so the tricky bit here, right? And I think this is something that a lot of folks are likely to hang up on is each of those suggested policy changes present key challenges for practice--and I got to say, I actually love to hear what Bret has to say about this, as someone who works so closely with the DOC, so more noncustodial sanctions have spilled over as to how we do probation or community service. Shorter sentences have key implications for how we think about programming with populations that are going to be in and out of a correctional facility more quickly, and less punitive conditions of confinement means that we potentially need to fundamentally re-think sort of the spatial nature of prisons and jails. And so there are these real key difficulties or opportunities in terms of practice that are worth mentioning. Okay. Next slide, please. I know I am almost at time.
So when we think about avenues for future research, which is obviously the thing that, you know, I’m most engaged with as a researcher, I think there are kind of three different ways we can go. The first way is we could really build on existing Bureau of Justice Statistics holdings. And here, sort of the National Corrections Reporting Program is probably the best example where we could think about pairing something like the National Corrections Reporting Program with some sort of follow-up survey where we look at incarceration, weigh incarceration, the desistance process, and life course conditions more broadly.
A second piece, and I think, again, you know, Pennsylvania is a place that really springs to mind as an exemplar here, but we could think about studying conditions of confinement more, and also thinking about ways that we could modify conditions of confinement in ways that are likely to enhance health and well-being, and hence lead to lower risks of recidivism and promote more opportunities for desistance. And then the third thing is that we could think about extending existing longitudinal studies that have followed folks only into their late 20s or their early 30s to think about how desistance plays out more broadly over the life course, in much the same way as Sampson and Laub did in shared beginnings [INDISTINCT]. And with that, I think we’ll go to my last slide, but I’m pretty sure I’m done. So thanks everybody for your time and attention. I’m really happy to be here.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Thanks so much, Chris. We’ll jump to our next presentation by Dr. Christopher Bret Bucklen. Bret is the Director of Planning, Research, and Statistics for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. And his chapter examines desistance concepts from a practitioner perspective that reviews the evidence for desistance-focused interventions and considers factors that may facilitate or inhibit the use and implementation of desistance principles in real world settings. Bret, take it away.
BRET BUCKLEN: Thank you, Ben. And greetings, everyone. Good afternoon. So my task for the--for my chapter in this volume was really to put the--as Ben said, the practitioner angle on all of this work, having worked for Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for about 21 years now, to examine the issues that are discussed in this volume through the lens of a practitioner, and discuss some of the issues that will inevitably arise with implementing desistance-focused concepts within a criminal justice agency or a correctional agency. So the first thing I want to say is that if I were to poll decision-makers, policymakers, or legislators in Pennsylvania on whether or not they could define recidivism, I would venture to guess that eight out of 10 would--at least eight out of 10 would know--at least know what recidivism is. Or have heard the term before and could give some definition of recidivism. On the flip side, if I were to poll our policymakers, our legislators in Pennsylvania, my guess would be that similarly about eight out of 10 would not be able to tell you what desistance is. Probably eight out of 10 never even have heard the term desistance, much less be able to really give any kind of practical definition for desistance. So there’s really a disconnect.
Our policymakers are quite familiar with recidivism now. It really has been integrated into correctional practice as a key performance metric. But desistance, as Mike referenced early on, is really still quite new, even though the term has been around for a long time. And recently, academics have argued that recidivism is a limited concept and so that we need to incorporate desistance. They’ve pointed out problems with recidivism, such as recidivism focuses on failure rather than success. So the analogy would be an educational system that uses as their primary performance metric school dropout rates. That’s not a robust way to measure success when you’re focusing on failure, which the argument goes that recidivism is primarily focused on failure. Secondly, as has been pointed out by previous presenters, recidivism tends to be operationalized as a binary measure. So you either fail or you don’t, you recidivate or you don’t within some follow-up period. And thirdly, recidivism often tends to use official measures, which runs the risk of conflating the measurement of actual criminal behavior with system responses to criminal behavior. And so if arrest policies change or supervision policies change, that may change recidivism without actually measuring a change in actual criminal behavior. And so the--it conflates those two.
These are just some of the arguments that academic criminologists have made for why we--recidivism is a limited concept, and we should move to focus on desistance. On the other hand, desistance has its own set of issues for policymakers. It’s not without issue. First, as has also been mentioned, it is mostly a theoretical concept at this point. Policymakers don’t do well with theory, they need practical applications. And as I mentioned, it’s also still very unfamiliar to most policymakers. It’s also, as has been mentioned, there’s no widespread agreement on how to define or operationalize desistance. And fourthly, many of the markers that have been suggested for desistance, markers of desistance, and criminal behavior, the links are often correlational and weak at best. So there’s not a lot of strong evidence between a lot of the suggested links between markers of desistance and criminal behavior itself. And so my proposition is that recidivism should remain an important measure, an important part of the discussion of desistance if we’re going to make desistance relevant to policymakers.
And so if I could put a subtitle on this next slide that is up, I would say recidivism, plus desistance, they need each other. I think recidivism and desistance need to both be concepts within this desistance discussion. In this next part of the paper, I discuss--and I don’t have time to discuss here in detail some key issues related to both desistance and recidivism in terms of conceptualizing and operationalizing them. One would be what behavior counts as desistance, do we include technical supervision violations, technical parole and probation violations that aren’t actually in a lot of cases? New crimes, does that count as recidivism? A second conceptual issue is what sources do we use for measuring criminal behavior? Recidivism research tends to use official records, arrest, reconviction, re-incarceration. A lot of the desistance research tends to use self-report measures. So how can we use those together and complement them, what sources should we be using for criminal behavior. And then the third one, which is really a big issue that Mike touched on, is what time horizon or follow-up period to use for measuring desistance.
So that third issue of time horizon for measuring desistance, I think I’ve outlined in the paper three existing bodies of research or conceptual frameworks that I think could be incorporated for helping to think about--how to think about timeframes for--time horizons for measuring desistance. And again, I don’t have time here to get into all three in detail but the first one would be redemption research, Blumstein and Nakamura’s work, which looks at how long is long enough. And so how long--what kind of benchmarks does someone need to reach in order for their risk of re-offending to be sufficiently low to meet some “marker of redemption.” In Blumstein and Nakamura’s work, that tend to be--tended to be five to seven years. So maybe we don’t need to follow people for 20 years if they’ve reached a benchmark that’s sufficiently low for meeting a redemption benchmark.
The second, to signaling and risk assessment, I would label both of those as probabilistic approaches. And so, you know, both of those are looking at who is likely to desist in the future or who is likely to have already desisted without having to wait for those follow-up periods. So who has given--in the signaling research by Bushway and Apel, who has given out a signal that they have already desisted. In the risk assessment language, who is sufficiently low risk for future reoffending. These are probabilistic approaches that don’t have to rely on long follow-up periods in order to give some estimate or probability that someone has desisted. So these are useful concepts to incorporate, I would argue, or to think about in terms of that time horizon issue.
In terms of operationalizing desistance, what I have here is a preview from a recidivism report that we’re going to be releasing at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, a forthcoming report. We periodically release a recidivism report that’s pretty comprehensive. This upcoming report that we’re going to be releasing, I introduced the concept of desistance as a way to try to get policymakers in Pennsylvania familiar with the concept within a recidivism report, so I’ve nested some discussion about desistance within our recidivism report, and I have a whole section in that report on desistance. And I’ve tried to provide some concrete measures for policymakers to think about desistance. I’ve included three measures in the report.
These are not original to me, this comes from Loeber and Le Blanc’s work. But three measures of desistance would be deceleration or the rate of offending, de-escalation which is the seriousness of offending, and reaching a ceiling which--and my definition here would be just the inverse of recidivism after a follow-up period, I footnote here at the bottom that this is not exactly the same concept that Loeber and Le Blanc have for reaching a ceiling. They refer to something slightly different. But in my definition, I’m basically referring to reaching a ceiling as the inverse of recidivism. So I introduce these three concepts in the report, and take a small sample and look at who is meeting these--one or more of these definitions of desistance. And what is interesting is that 90% of the sample meet one or more of these definitions of desistance, either they’re decelerating, they’re deescalating, or they’re not recidivating at all, which is a quite different story than when we just look at recidivism and see that after a follow-up period, recidivism rates are quite high.
So this is just some screenshots from that report. For instance, in terms of deceleration, I find that before incarceration, the participants that I examined were being arrested on average once every one and a half years. And in the 10-year-period after incarceration, they were being arrested on average once every four years. So they were going from one and a half years to four years, and that was a deceleration for 73% of the participants. In terms of de-escalation, we looked at the offense gravity score for the 10-year period before incarceration and all the arrests that happened before incarceration compared to after incarceration. And 57% showed a reduction in the gravity of their offending after release. Only 19% showed an increase and the remainder basically had no difference--appreciable difference in the seriousness of offending. The third measure, reaching a ceiling after a 15-year follow-up period, 80% have recidivated. So only 20% had not recidivated, which again is quite high but then when we incorporate deceleration and de-escalation, and the slide that I showed you on the previous slide, what we find is that nine out of 10 meet--met one of those definitions. Either they slowed down, they slowed down in their seriousness of offending, or they stopped altogether. Which is different that if we just looked at recidivism.
And in the next part of the report, what I focused on in the next part of the report is really trying to take stock of and review the evidence of desistance-focused correctional interventions. These are interventions that we use in Pennsylvania, many of these we use. Other state correctional agencies, other correctional agencies use many of these types of interventions. This is not a full extensive literature review, but what I tried to do was describe the intervention, tie it to a theory of desistance. So for instance, cognitive behavioral therapy can be tied to cognitive transformation theory, prison visitations, informal social control theory, and so forth.
And then what you don’t see here is I assessed the quality or the quality of the research and the findings from the evaluations on these various interventions. And my conclusion from this review here is that while there are a lot of options, desistance-focused correctional intervention options, that the evidence is pretty mixed for most of these, and that the evidence is not very strong. In fact, most of it is co-relational. There is not a lot of causal evidence for many of these interventions. And so, you know, the evidence is really quite mixed on a lot of these interventions and we can go into the Q&A part of this, we can go into individual interventions if we want to discuss that, but that’s a summary of my conclusion from this section in the report.
And then the final section in my paper look--consider some “real world” considerations going forward for implementing desistance into a policy concept--into context, excuse me. And, you know, just a couple of issues that come up, one, the short time horizons for policymakers and politicians. As was discussed before, desistance tends to rely on long follow-up periods or long time horizons. On the other hand, policymakers and policy--politicians are working on very short time horizons, they’re looking on--they’re working on, you know, four-year election cycles, a one-year or a two-year budget cycle. And so if they’re wanting evidence for programs, there’s a mismatch there between the long time horizons that are required for a lot of desistance research and the short time horizons that policymakers and politicians work on. That’s where I think probabilistic models could be helpful, and also in terms of program evaluation, rapid cycle experimentation could be useful to try to get quick feedback or quick signals if programs are working based on rapid cycle experimentation.
Secondly, budgets--in the policy world, everything’s about budgets, and so I would, you know--we need more randomized controlled trials, more cost-benefit analysis to really have more solid evidence. Thirdly, there’s the issue of whether we consider non-criminal-justice outcomes. Mike touched on this a little bit. I would argue that criminal justice outcomes should remain the primary focus. There are also data issues with--between interagency data exchanges with getting non-criminal-justice outcomes. And then lastly is communication, how do we practically communicate these concepts and their relevance to policymakers? And I would draw here on Laub’s--John Laub’s translational criminology framework and also what NIJ has long supported with your researcher-practitioner partnerships. Danielle referred to that, I believe, in her presentation. These are useful concepts for thinking about how to communicate complicated desistance-focused concepts to policymakers. And with that, I’m beyond my time so I’m going to stop and I’d be happy to answer any questions in the Q&A part. Thanks.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Thanks so much, Bret. The next presentation is by Dr. Stephen Farrall. Steve is a Professor and Research Chair in Criminology at the University of Derby, England. His chapter reviews the main associates and correlates of desistance, presents lessons learned from various countries that have pursued such policies, and discusses interventions that appear likely to support and promote desistance. Dr. Farrall?
STEPHEN FARRALL: Good. Thank you very much, Ben. And I’d like to start by thanking the NIJ for organizing both the collection and the seminar, the webinar today, which I think is going to prove to be both most interesting and I hope useful. Can I have the next slide, please. So the paper or the chapter that I wrote really deals with how desistance has been defined and operationalized and what the main associates and correlates of it are, I think, critiques some of the ways in which criminal justice systems have approached desistance or not approached it. And then it looks really at some of the interventions that appear likely to support and promote desistance and it’s really that that I’m going to focus on in today’s webinar. Can I have the next slide, please.
So the paper argues that there are some general things that can be done. The first thing is to recognize that many people being supervised or in prison, being prepared for release, have strengths. And those strengths can be harnessed and used to assist people in their processes of desistance. Too often, the criminal justice system really sees people as, if you like, the physical bearers of risk. They are, if you like, a walking risk assessment, and that needs to change and that also needs--implies a sort of change to the assessment procedures, excuse me, which I’ll come on to talk about shortly. One of the other things that the general literature suggests is that individuals need to be treated individually, that is to say not always in a group or group-based settings, they need actually to be seen as individuals and kind of recognizes individuals and have their individual problems and concerns dealt with. We also need to start seeing people being supervised as co-producers of their own desistance and also co-producers of other people’s desistance. So in summary, we need to start using former service users as peer mentors and designers of criminal justice interventions. Can I have the next slide, please.
So one of the other things that the criminal justice system isn’t very good at doing is recognizing that people face setbacks, they relapse into drug use, or alcohol use, they get involved in fights and tussles, those sorts of things. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that their progress towards desistance has been interrupted. It’s a setback, but it’s not a complete failure. And that really needs to be taken into account when individuals are being sentenced for new offenses. So we really need correctional services, if they think an individual is generally making good progress, to sort of sing up in the court, and make it known that whilst this has happened, this is very typical. A lot of people, for example, go from smoking crack to using cannabis, or other, if you like, softer drugs, and therefore the fact that they’ve been caught purchasing or selling it onto friends is not all that--all that problematic.
Generally speaking, people find informal rather than formal interventions most valuable. And that’s because in some aspects, they’re already invested in those relationships, the informal ones, relationships with parents, or partners, or children, or neighbors, those sorts of things. Generally speaking, as we’ve heard already at least twice, people are better off in terms of their desistance when they’re kept out of prison, or sent to prison for a shorter period of time. We also need to have prisons that are more permeable so that people can be released for the day, or released for the weekend, or released in order to help children with homework, or attend parent-teacher council visits, those sorts of things.
We also need a criminal justice system that is going to encourage people to forge new relationships with other groups and bodies in the sort of wider social community context. And so that’s going to mean the criminal justice system working with all sorts of other organizations, some of which people will have worked with before, of course, and is, you know, fairly well known, but others are organizations that they may not have encountered. So for example, running groups, or sporting groups, or choirs, those sorts of things, are they organizations which allow people, for example, to complete a round of math, you know, something like that and raise money for charity, or are they choirs which are open to individuals just to come along and sing and to experience that kind of set of relationships. It’s going to be like normalizing interventions so that they’re not all about criminal justice, they’re just about life, and culture, and those sorts of things. Can I have the next slide, please.
So the criminal justice system is going to do most good when it starts to support relationships that individuals have with partners, with parents, with children, those sorts of things, with employers, in some cases, where those relationships, of course, are appropriate. So it needs to find ways of working with individuals so that they can practice if you like, and develop the skills for newly formed social identities. So for example, training to become--or training to be a better parent, or to be a better partner, or in some cases, actually, to deal with the kind of organizations that lots of us routinely deal with, Social Security departments, employers, those sorts of things. We also want to develop a criminal justice system that recognizes good progress when it has been made. And so that may mean producing certificates or it might mean inviting people back into courts to tell the judge or the magistrate who censors them, the kind of progress that that--that they have made and to be kind of, like, encouraged in that as a way of supporting their desistance.
So those are some of the things that we need to start to think about. We also perhaps need to think about only releasing information about people’s previous convictions in a very selective way. So after a certain period of time or after a certain age, if the offender was a juvenile, or only releasing some of the convictions if they felt that--to be no longer of serious concern. Of course an individual with a series of convictions for pedophilia wanting to work in school, it--that clearly would not be appropriate. But there are other cases where a selective disclosure of criminal--previous criminal convictions might be warranted. Can I have the next slide, please.
So here are some kind of practical suggestions. The first one, I get the feeling I’m kind of pushing an open door here, is that the U.S. as a whole, and individual states in the U.S., and it’s not just the U.S., the U.K. as well, really need to roll back from this kind of feeding frenzy of mass incarceration, incredibly high rates of imprisonment, which, you know, 50 or 60 years ago, were utterly unimaginable. So we need to develop a criminal justice system that relies much, much less than it currently does on imprisonment as it’s--or one of its main, if you like, disposals. We also need to change the assessment and planning systems for individuals, particularly if they’re being supervised in the community or being prepared in prison for release. So, normally, lots of those assessment systems [INDISTINCT] drug and alcohol use, and unemployment, and their relationships. And these things are normally assessed as zero - no risk, 10 - risk. But actually, what we need to do is to find a way of recognizing some of the strengths in that, so we need to recalculate that, we need to have, if you like, negative risks, i.e., strengths.
So it might be, for example, that whilst an individual does still have a drug problem, or an alcohol problem, they have a set of relationships with a new partner, or with a grandparent, or child, which is one of the things that they are committed to, and which in some respects, one of the things which a supervision package can be built around, if you like, the hook for change, to use Peggy Giordano, her colleague’s term. So we need to do some things that actually are fairly straightforward in terms of just the way in which we assess individuals, and their needs and risks. One of the other things that we can do is we can actually employ former offenders, either to work in the criminal justice system as drug counselors, or general counsel’s probation staff, but also to take on other roles which are socially beneficial. I know that there’s a history at least in some states of using former prisoners or serving prisoners as kind of firefighters in some of the U.S. national parks at certain times of the year. But there are all sorts of other things that people can be--excuse me, employed in, in socially beneficial ways. Lots of--lots of these in criminal justice system, for example, need catering services, and it could well be that former inmates provide one avenue for recruiting those individuals. Can I have the next slide, please.
Okay, this is my last, also a penultimate slide. So we need to kind of help people build family relationships and social capital, to enable them to access jobs and resources to support change. And in the chapter that I wrote, there’s some schemes, I mean most obviously of all, jobs, friends, and houses, which was a scheme run from a prison in England is one example of that. Another example, of course, is circles of support. They’re typically used for sex offenders, but I can’t see why they shouldn’t be used for other groups of offenders. There’s also, in some countries, most obviously, France, processes of judicial rehabilitation whereby previous convictions are sealed, as it were. And also we need to find a way of helping individuals to solve future challenges, rather than talking to them again and again about why they started to offend. In some respects, the reasons why they started to offend may be interesting to know and may be need to be borne in mind. But really, the focus should be on how you get people to stop, rather than trying to prevent something from happening that has already happened. And the last slide, please.
So what to do next? Well, I think a series of pilot schemes to kind of take some of these ideas, operationalize them, embed them in some bits of the criminal justice system and start the work of evaluating and operationalizing these kinds of ideas would be a good first step. Now, as somebody was mentioning, I think it was a bit earlier, these projects are going to need to be well supported, both financially and in terms of political capital. They are going to have to be supported from the very top of both states and the U.S. as a, if you like, nation state, and they’re going to need a commitment of funding that lasts several years, five years as an absolute minimum. Then the evaluations need to be independent of those people running the projects. That kind of goes without saying, and you need to find a way of assessing the viability of the projects, from the very outset before they are funded. The last thing sounds like a great idea on paper, but might not necessarily work in practice. The good thing is that, in some respects, the U.S. could be set up as a natural [INDISTINCT]. There’s all sorts of different states, different histories, different cultures, different populations and subpopulations living within those states. And so there’s an ideal opportunity really there for researchers and practitioners in the U.S. to start to run some of these programs, see the situations in which they work well or don’t work, and think about the ways in which those can be changed or contexts in which they do work.
Sometimes people ask me, you know, what works? What works in stopping people offending? What works in reducing burglaries? What works in getting grants, all those sorts of things? Well, the thing that works is persistence. So if you just keep doing different things, you will eventually find something that works in that particular case. Might not work for other people in similar situations and you might be sort of, if you like, back to square one and doing interventions that you’ve done previously. But the thing that works is persistence. And I suppose that’s one of the messages that needs to be taken away, not just by yourselves, but also by those people who are trying to stop offending. With that, I shall wrap up and say thank you very much.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Thank you so much, Steve. And our final presentation this afternoon is by Dr. Lila Kazemian. Lila is a Professor of Criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and her chapter provides an overview of the mechanisms underlying the process of desistance for--from crime among juveniles and adults, with the focus on implications for different system decision points and recommendations for different system actors. Lila?
LILA KAZEMIAN: Thank you, Ben. And good afternoon, everyone. I was tasked with reviewing the empirical literature on desistance from crime among adolescents and adults and the applications to criminal justice policy and practice. So first, I want to highlight some empirical facts about the transition from juvenile offending to adult crime. There’s, of course, first the paradox of the age-crime curve. We know that offending peaks in late adolescence and early adulthood, but we also know that crime declines after this age. So, some of the punitive criminal justice interventions that target adolescents and emerging adults could actually be interrupting an otherwise download slope of criminal behavior. And from a cognitive perspective, we’ve heard already that emerging adults, those aged 18 to 24 years old, they might resemble adolescents more than adults. So it’s logical to extend assumptions about reduced culpability to individuals up to the age of 24. And thirdly, something a redundant theme today, desistance from crime is best perceived as a process rather than an abrupt event, which suggests that relapses in this process are considered to be normal.
So, I just want to give a few--a brief snapshot of some of the implications of the desistance knowledge space for various criminal justice agencies. And I’m going to start with law enforcement. So, police arrests can negatively affect known correlates of desistance in a way that may not be well understood by law enforcement officers. And the key point that I want to highlight here is that arrests that do not lead to a conviction are a poor indicator of criminal behavior, of official crime, and they create undue stigma. And actually, the U.S. is one of the few countries that uses arrests as a measure of criminal behavior or rearrests as a measure of recidivism. Most other countries use either conviction data and sometimes incarceration data. And using arrest as a measure of criminal behavior is problematic because most arrests don’t lead to a conviction, the large majority of arrests don’t lead to a conviction. And arrests are also heavily skewed towards people of color. And there’s really no reason to penalize someone for an arrest where the charges were dropped. It leads to unnecessary discriminatory practices, particularly in housing and employment decisions.
In the courts, so we know that how courts, prosecutors, and judges process cases can play a key role in the process of desistance from crime. Sentencing practices, just like every other phase of the criminal justice system, disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities, especially the poorest. And there are several relevant issues to consider in the link between court practices and desistance from crime. First, we know of course, sentence severity does little to prevent reoffending. Chris highlighted this point. And it’s important to note the crucial role of prosecutors. John Pfaff has written about this--the idea that the steady increase in the number of prosecutors in the United States and their growing discretionary power has really been one of the main drivers in the increase of incarceration in the U.S. And I also want to talk about the prosecution of emerging adults, the 18- to 24-year-olds. So the Supreme Court’s acknowledged the reduced culpability of young people in three landmark cases. So Roper, Graham, and Miller, and excuse me, Danielle’s paper highlighted some reasons underlying the court’s decision. So, reduced capacity for impulse control, etc. And given what we know about brain development and about psychosocial maturation, courts could consider the possibility of raising the age of criminal responsibility and extending the juvenile status into emerging adulthoods. And so some of our colleagues have discussed the idea of expanding more of these young adult courts that would be specifically for 18- to 24-year-olds.
Desistance from crime in the context of incarceration. So we know that prison impedes the desistance process in many ways. I’m not going to reiterate the points that Chris raised. But there’s two points in particular that I’d like to highlight. The first being that prison misconduct can be a really poor indicator of criminal behavior and of desistance from crime. So individuals can engage in rule-breaking behavior while they’re incarcerated and at the same time, maintain a narrative that’s consistent with the desistance framework. So rule violations are not always indicative of an intention to persist in crime. The circumstances of those behaviors matter. And there are individuals who engage in rule-breaking behavior while incarcerated who do so to maximize their odds of successful reintegration upon release. And the second point I want to raise is that prison adaptation creates many incompatibilities with the outside world. So individuals might adopt coping strategies that are well-adapted for survival in prison, but that are incompatible with life on the outside. So to promote desistance from crime and successful reintegration, our prisons really need to be advocating for values that are more consistent with the values and principles that we promote on the outside.
With regards to our desistance-promoting supervision practices, we have a supervision system that seems to be well equipped to detect recidivism, but not necessarily conducive to desistance from crime. So we know for instance, that in some states, as many as two-thirds of the prison readmissions occur as a result of technical violations. And many of the factors underlying supervision violations, things like poverty, addiction, mental illness, racial and ethnic bias, these cannot be addressed at the individual level, even with an extraordinary level of motivation and personal agency. And some of the desistance-promoting supervision strategies that have been embraced in Europe, some of which Steve just mentioned, cannot be realistically adopted in the United States if parole and probation officers continue to grapple with exceedingly high caseloads. And so it’s really important in probation and parole practices to strike a better balance between both informal and formal control structures, as well as better balance between sanctions and incentives.
And so when we talk about shifting from a recidivism-focused model to a desistance-promoting approach, what we mean by this is, first of all, to regard desistance from crime as a process and normalizing relapses. Specifically here, I’m referring to offenses that do not pose a threat to public safety. It does not make sense to resort to confinement for those offenses that are not a threat to public safety. And I’m not suggesting that we need to get rid of recidivism as an outcome measure. I think it is an important measure, but that we also need to integrate other positive outcomes and to strike a better balance between punishments and incentives. And then, of course, interagency collaborations are really important to promote desistance from crime, no single criminal justice agency can promote desistance on its own. A desistance-promoting criminal justice system would resort to the harshest forms of punishment only as the last recourse, not as the first option, and with a strong focus on preserving the human dignity of individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system. So, retributive sanctions may serve a moral purpose for some, but we need to acknowledge that these types of sanctions are often at odds with the desistance framework and with our crime prevention efforts more broadly. Thank you.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Excellent, Lila. Thank you so much. And thank you to all of our authors for their excellent presentations. We do have a number of questions in the queue from our audience. Thanks for your engagement throughout. And feel free to continue to submit questions as we start the discussion with the authors. I recognize we’re pretty close to time here. We can stay on for a few minutes after the hour. But we’ll start now and try to get through a handful of questions and move on from there. So first, sort of, as a housekeeping question, we were asked if the publication is available now in print and the answer to that is the full PDF is now available, individual author chapters. And just today, the full volume with a foreword from our Acting Assistant Attorney General and an introduction from our Acting Director at NIJ is available at nij.ojp.gov/desistance-from-crime. And we’ll put that into the chat for you all to review.
I think I’ll start first with Mike. We have a question in the Q&A box around what changes you would recommend to criminal justice agencies and other organizations like BJS who measure recidivism to begin capturing measures of desistance, and I think this might fold in with Bret as well.
MICHAEL ROCQUE: Yeah, I mean, it’s a great question. And I was also thinking about what Bret was saying in terms of how we need recidivism measures in addition to desistance measures, or that they are all part of the same sort of family of indicators that we need to measure. And so I would agree with that and suggest that the BJS should not discard recidivism measures in terms of people being arrested or incarcerated. I agree with Lila, in terms of her point that arrest statistics as an indicator of criminality is particularly problematic. But recidivism is, as Bret mentioned, something that most criminal justice practitioners and policymakers understand and is a--is a very clear benchmark. It is--it is easier in many ways to conceptualize than desistance because as Shadd Maruna mentions, desistance is the absence of something whereas recidivism is the presence of something.
So it’s much more clear, but what I would recommend is that we think about success in multiple domains not just have you avoided conviction, right? That could mean that you’re desisting, but it could mean that you just haven’t been caught. Have you found housing? Have you found--have you gone to treatment? And if you’re suffering with some sort of substance use issue, have you succeeded in terms of graduating from treatment? You know, other types of indicators that can--that can be brought together to represent the process that we’re thinking desistance actually is, will only help to move knowledge forward in this domain. And so what I would--what I would say just to end this and, Bret, you can jump in if you want, but what I would say is that criminal behavior is an indicator of desistance. It’s just in my opinion, it’s an indirect indicator but we have--we rely on indirect indicators all the time when we’re working with policies and practices. And so it’s not necessarily ideal, but it certainly doesn’t mean that we should discard it altogether.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Bret, I will turn to you now, but I’m going to shift gears just slightly. So we have a question in the chat, “If the evidence on interventions is mixed that theoretically desistance is better, how can practitioners push probation departments and other stakeholders to endorse the systems-based approaches that are not evidence-based? So it’s hard to support something that has little evidence and the evidence that exist is mixed, so kind of building on your point that in some ways it’s a hard sell to the executives, which is a real-world problem.”
BRET BUCKLEN: Right, I agree with that sentiment. And what I would say in response is we need better evidence. So that’s where agencies should invest is in developing researcher-practitioner partnerships, developing in-house capacity to evaluate programs in order to evaluate these interventions, and develop stronger evidence for it so that it can be sold to decision-makers, executive staff, legislators. That was my point on budgets is that, you know, they’re not going to allocate budget resources to things that don’t have strong evidence for or doesn’t have a strong return on investment for it. Even if it’s something that shows evidence of working, if it costs more to implement than it returns, they’re not likely to allocate budget resources towards that. So I think the key is stronger evidence, more randomized trials, and more cost-benefit analysis in order to build the strength of the evidence. Inevitably, some interventions are going to not turn out to be effective, or at least return on--return on investment, and those should be discontinued. And the ones that meet the rigor, then they’re going to be able to be easily--more easily sold to the decision-makers and policymakers and legislators in order to put resources towards them. So I agree with the sentiment. And I think the answer is just better evidence.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: So you mentioned the decision-makers and Lila, here, I’ll ask this question. “There seems to be a mismatch with the criminal justice system that reacts to binary events; how can judges and probation and parole officers account for a person who is desisting?”
LILA KAZEMIAN: So I can give an example from a broad--of a system that does that. I know that in Belgium, when somebody is going back in for some form of parole violation, they don’t only look at the offense that was committed, they look at the person’s progress as they were reintegrating, and they take into account the person’s motivation and sort of the steps that they had taken prior to that relapse to get their lives back on track. So instead of focusing only on the offense that occurred, they looked at it from a more--they look at it from--with--from a far more holistic approach, and looking at the person’s effort overall in the reintegration process. So that would be one way to frame it more in terms of overall efforts. Of course this is really difficult to do when we have so many people under correctional control. This is the type of practice that could work well--if only if we reduce the number of people that we have on parole and probation.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Thank you, Lila. Steve, building off that a little bit, we have a question that similarly asked what practitioners can do to foster and strengthen, you know, positive sort of pro-social factors for remaining in a lifestyle that is free of crime with a particular interest in what the research might say about cultural factors that might enhance desistance. Do you have any thoughts there? I know your paper touches on some of this.
STEPHEN FARRALL: Yeah, sure. So to take the kind of the first of those two parts, I mean, how do you keep somebody in the game as it were. I mean, that’s not easy from a probation officer’s point of view because the most important relationship that that individual has, in many cases, not all of them, but in many cases is going to be somebody other than yourself. And so their temptations and the time that they spend with these other people is something that individual probation officers are constantly, if you like, struggling against. So that’s very difficult. I mean, I think the things to try to do are to try to focus on things that they have in their life that they feel good about. And things that keep them, if you like, on the straight and narrow, to use that rather hackneyed term. And which provide them with hope that things are going to be better. I mean, hope and providing people with hope that things are going to be better, that they won’t always be addicted, that they will be able to get a job, that their lives will turn around, is really what all this is about, and is also one of the hardest things to achieve. It’s also something that individual criminal justices--justice systems need to get better at.
I think it was John F. Kennedy who said that societies get the kind of criminals they deserve. And a society that doesn’t provide people with hope is not going to be one that actually gets people that think things are going to be better. So, you know, it is providing people with hope and working with them in terms of their strengths. Now in terms of the cultural variations, and there’s lots of different ways of using the word culture. I’m kind of thinking that the question, at least in my mind, is really about what in the U.K. we call different ethnic groups. But in the U.S., you’re much more comfortable talking about racial groups. I don’t use the term racial simply because I believe there’s only one human race but you have different ethnic groups within it. Now, there hasn’t been a lot of work done on variations by ethnicity, but that which has suggests that some of the variations that different groups face are due to structural impediments. So you can use people’s ethnic identity as a way not of essentializing race, but as a way of appreciating the kind of structural obstacles that individuals face. In the U.K., our Black British population, people who--or people whose forefathers moved to the U.K. from Africa or from the Caribbean, tend to be, if you like, amongst the poorest. And they tend to have jobs which don’t give them a lot of hire and fire opportunities. Whereas if you look at the U.K.’s Indian population, that’s much more like the white middle class than the U.K.’s white middle class. So they often run their own businesses, and own their own houses, those sorts of things, typically very well educated, certainly better educated than the white U.K. population. So that gives that ethnic minority an opportunity to hire sons and daughters who’ve got into trouble in a way that, for example, the U.K.’s Black British population doesn’t.
Then again, the U.K.’s Bangladeshi population is very, very poor. But Islam and the kind of notion of being a good Muslim is something that provides people from that background with, if you like, a script for moving out or moving away from crime. And of course if you take your faith seriously as a Muslim, that’s quite a lot of attendance at your--at your mosque. So it really kind of starts to wrap in to the day-to-day routines that individuals have, and slowly pulls them further and further and further and further away from those influences and individuals who may previously had got them into trouble.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Thank you, Steve. I recognize we’re at time, folks, but I’m going to hang on for at least two more questions here and thanks for those who are able to join us for a few more minutes. Danielle, I want to ask how the literature on biopsychosocial criminology proposes that we assess biological differences through noninvasive manner. So essentially, how do we avoid the pitfall of condemning people from birth based on their biological characteristics?
DANIELLE BOISVERT: Okay. All right. Thank you for that question. I just like to start by saying that, you know, there is this longstanding misnomer that biology and DNA is destiny. So I just want to point out that that misnomer has been discredited throughout the years through epigenetic research that has shown that environmental conditions can greatly influence how genes are functionally expressed. And so even though someone might be at genetic risk for certain behaviors, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be expressed based on the environmental condition in which they are in, that will dictate the likelihood of that expression. So what I’m proposing here is actually not to include DNA as one of the markers as part of assessment. There are other noninvasive low-cost ways that we can incorporate biological factors into assessments that don’t rely on DNA. So for example, we could administer some validated executive functioning tests, for example, the Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale. There are others that are validated as well. We could modify assessment questionnaires to capture biosocially informed risk indicators.
So all the things we were talking about before, so trauma, abuse, neglect, substance use, traumatic brain injury, lead exposure, essentially any of those known factors that influence cognitive abilities and stress response. We can also potentially incorporate baseline nutrition profiles through blood work, but as Bret pointed out, that could be a little bit costly. It’s about $100 per person to get those types of profiles. And we could also gather physiological information through measures of heart rate activities, skin conducts--skin conductance, we could look at measures of stress hormones, and enzymes. So there are a bunch of different ways that we can incorporate this that moves away from simply looking at DNA markers. Of course, everything that I’m suggesting will require a lot of partnership between practitioners and researchers, and specifically making sure that those who are doing these assessments are skilled in these areas. Thank you.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Thanks so much, Danielle. And a question for Chris, I think goes to some of the recommendations that you were making at the end of your presentation. But it asked how researchers can navigate the complex barriers of longitudinal studies with formally engaged--chronically engaged individuals post release to track and monitor incremental steps to desistance long-term. So I guess here asking for some of your insights on how longitudinal studies might be leveraged. And then a secondary piece of this is more about how to then translate the evidence from those studies to informed policy and practice.
And I apologize, but we may have dropped Chris. All right. So I’ll go to one open question for the group. And, folks, feel free to jump in. It’s an interesting one here, as we’re thinking about moving away from a binary measure of desistance, how is the definition of crime itself implicated in this work? Thinking through various behaviors, or circumstances that might be criminalized such as homelessness, poverty, mental illness, and when talking about criminalizing those things, if you’re talking about biosocial considerations, and in what way do we consider crime or harm in public safety? Do you think there’s a redefinition of crime that flows from your work and this focus on desistance? I see Dr. Farrall, maybe you were going to jump in.
STEPHEN FARRALL: Yeah, I was going to give other people the chance to jump in. But yeah, I mean, I think that’s a--it is a good question. It all kind of runs the risk of becoming very kind of philosophical quite quickly so what we mean by crime, doing harm other than crime, all those sorts of things. I mean, I think, you know, there may be some technical violations, some minor things that we need to kind of--kind of let go off as serious misdemeanors that actually get people back into the court. But I don’t know, it’s a tricky one. I mean, I suspect that probably, you know, that--to get to the--to get to the--cut to the chase, it either dramatically changes your whole idea of what crime is, or it doesn’t really change it very much depending upon how far you want to kind of push that envelope. I’d be interested to hear what Lila has to say.
LILA KAZEMIAN: I mean, normally when we talk about crime we’re really talking about street level crime, right? We’re not generally talking about white collar crime or other forms of crime that can also cause a great deal of harm. But I think that one of the important points is, again, comparing to other countries, substance use in other countries and empirical studies, it’s regarded as a risk factor. But in U.S.-based studies, it’s often used as a dependent variable, criminal behavior, right? And so I think that’s probably the most important shift to make that anything that pertains to addictions, this is a public health issue and it’s not a criminal justice issue, and to cease treating addiction as a crime. So I think that’s an excellent question, and we do tend to do that. And, again, other countries don’t treat it in this way.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Thank you, Lila. Well, we are at the end of our time. Again, thank you for folks staying over about 10 minutes here. I want to thank, again, all of our authors. I thank OJP and NIJ leadership and certainly the audience for your participation this afternoon. We have recorded the webinar that will be made available on nij.gov. Again, the full volume is available for download at nij.gov. We will also commit to looking through the questions that we didn’t have an opportunity to get to this afternoon. And we look forward to engaging with you, with the field, to help advance recommendations provided in the volume for research, policy, and practice. So thank you so much, and have a wonderful afternoon.
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