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Biosocial Factors and Their Influence on Desistance

Executive Summary
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Date Published
October 12, 2021

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The field of criminology, which is rooted in sociology, has traditionally been reluctant to incorporate knowledge from other scientific disciplines to help understand the onset, maintenance, and desistance of criminal behavior. Yet scientific advancements made in the natural and biomedical sciences have demonstrated that genetic and biological factors influence nearly all human behaviors,[1] including criminal and antisocial behaviors.[2]

Over 15 years ago, notable criminologist John P. Wright wrote that “the biological sciences have made more progress in understanding crime over the last 10 years than the social sciences have in the last 50.” [3] This statement — perhaps an exaggeration — resonates today, as we have yet to see a concerted and systematic approach to incorporating biosocially informed research into practice. By focusing primarily on environmental and psychological factors and excluding known biological and genetic factors that affect behavior, the criminal justice system may be suppressing its ability to fully benefit from its correctional efforts. If criminal justice is to be truly evidence based, then it is time to fully integrate knowledge and expertise from scholars across disciplines and work together toward the common goal of understanding and promoting desistance.

This white paper examines desistance from crime from a biosocial perspective and provides a guide for new initiatives in evidence-based correctional policy and practice. The biosocial lens relies on the inclusion of brain development, neuropsychological functioning, and stress system response research that has specific implications for human behavior. The integration of biosocial research and the application of a biosocial lens have the potential to provide a more comprehensive account of the factors that influence the desistance process.

The paper offers recommendations to increase both our understanding of desistance through new research and the effectiveness of correctional rehabilitative efforts with biologically informed processes. The recommendations are grounded in two central themes that connect biosocial research to desistance research. First, a growing body of interdisciplinary research on brain development and maturation provides tremendous insights into the desistance process from adolescence to adulthood. In turn, desistance research and correctional policy and practice must recognize and address conditions that interfere with the desistance process through their effect on neuropsychological functioning and stress system response. Researchers, for example, should take into consideration an individual’s developmental period — that is, youth, adolescence, or adulthood — when studying desistance in conjunction with the effects of life events that have the potential to interfere with a normative developmental path.

Second, recommendations for integrating biosocial research into risk assessments and treatment plans aim to further promote desistance. Rehabilitative efforts that include biological risk, needs, and responsivity factors will be critical in creating and administering biosocially informed treatment plans.

To date, there has not been a systematic approach to merging biosocial research into correctional practice. Therefore, many of the recommendations focus on the development and implementation of biosocially informed approaches to desistance. Although presented separately for researchers and practitioners, these recommendations will require significant collaboration between the two groups to advance knowledge and promote desistance in both theory and practice.

For Researchers

  1. Researchers interested in taking a biosocial approach when studying desistance should conceptualize and operationalize desistance as a developmental process and consider an individual’s developmental period (i.e., youth, adolescence, adulthood) in that process.
  2. Interdisciplinary research on desistance is needed, as brain development affects the production of hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes that naturally change over time and are tied to behavioral change.
  3. Further research is needed on how biological risk factors, particularly the “critical two” (i.e., neuropsychological functioning and stress system response), affect desistance.
  4. A more thorough understanding is needed of how adverse environments and risky lifestyles (e.g., substance abuse, traumatic brain injury, and the impoverished environment of imprisonment) interfere with a normative developmental path by resulting in neuropsychological deficits throughout the life-course.
  5. Bioethicists should be consulted when developing biosocial approaches and initiatives in correctional policy and practice to safeguard against the perception of unethical practices.  

For Practitioners

  1. Practitioners should focus on incremental changes in cognition and behavior over time through enhancement plans instead of — or in addition to — treatment plans.[4]
  2. Research partnerships with state and federal corrections systems should continue to explore ways to mitigate the negative impact that conditions of imprisonment have on neuropsychological functioning and stress system response by (1) improving the diets of people who are incarcerated and increasing their amount of daily exercise and sleep, (2) encouraging prosocial interactions with intimate others through increased visitations, and (3) limiting noise pollution, toxin exposure, and overcrowding in jails and prisons.
  3. Researchers and practitioners should develop and implement risk assessments that integrate biological risk factors. They should move beyond deficit-based approaches and include strengths-based methods to promote desistance.
  4. Researcher-practitioner partnerships are needed to study the effectiveness of programs geared toward restoring or improving neuropsychological deficits and their impact on desistance, particularly programs that use cognitive remediation, mindfulness training, nutritional supplements, and medications to treat underlying mental illness and substance use problems.
    1. There is a need to develop and assess the effectiveness of individualized cognitive remediation plans and mode of delivery on the desistance process among a correctional population.
    2. Mindfulness training should be expanded to teach individuals how to change their views of themselves, as identity and self along with cognitive transformations are important explanations of desistance.
    3. Correctional facilities should obtain individuals’ baseline nutritional profiles to identify deficiencies and create an individualized nutritional plan that promotes cognitive functioning and increases capacity to successfully participate in cognitive-based treatment programs.
    4. Comprehensive medical care and medicines should be available to those in community and institutional corrections who have underlying mental illness and substance use problems.
  5. Practitioners, in collaboration with researchers, should incorporate baseline measures of stress system response via heart rate, skin conductance, and stress hormones and enzymes to better inform risk assessments and match individuals with rehabilitation programs that are best suited to their needs.
    1. New initiatives promoting a more active role in one’s own treatment could involve training individuals on how to recognize physiological cues that correlate with antisocial behavior (e.g., increased heart rate or skin conductance) and ways to regulate stress, such as mindfulness training.
  6. Additional research is needed to determine whether the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) differs by an individual’s biopsychosocial profile (i.e., neuropsychological functioning and stress system response) and whether enhancement options targeting other known risk factors (e.g., substance abuse) prior to, or in conjunction with, CBT could further promote desistance.

Date Created: October 12, 2021