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Crime and Desistance: Probing How Probationers' Thoughts on Crime May Inform Their Conduct

Researchers counsel caution on interpreting probationer cognitions — thoughts and thought patterns — as predictors of desistance from crime.
Date Published
July 20, 2021

The ways that people on probation tend to think about crime can offer important clues about whether they will resume or reject a criminal life. A number of past studies have examined how the cognitions of people on probation relate to recidivism, that is, a return to criminal activity. Less of the research has looked at links between cognition and desistance, that is, refraining from crime going forward. [1]

No consensus definition of “desistance” exists in the literature. Among other widely recognized meanings, desistance has been defined to be long-term abstinence from crime [2] or the gradual slowing down of offending.[3] It can refer to the act of refraining from crime or the process of becoming, or remaining, crime-free.

A recent study supported by the National Institute of Justice has generated novel findings on the cognitions people on probation informing desistance, including insight into:

  • Their beliefs motivating a desire to desist from crime.
  • The tendency of their thoughts on desistance to evolve over time — or remain static.
  • Differences between their own thinking regarding desistance and their community supervision officers’ perceptions regarding those cognitions.

Taken together, the two main segments of the study yielded insights on the nature and prevalence of desistance cognitions. The study team called for caution, however, in reaching any firm conclusions on the significance of those cognitions.

Some major implications of the results, according to the researchers, are:

  • People on probation who are motivated to desist but fear that they will be thwarted by outside factors are at greater risk to recidivate.
  • Community corrections agencies should commit to helping them capitalize on their desistance cognitions.
  • Agencies should not be overly confident that they can identify their core beliefs driving desistance and know how to enhance those beliefs.


Probation is the form of community supervision of convicted individuals imposed by courts in lieu of incarceration. Because probation occurs in communities, not correctional institutions, it presents people on probation with opportunities to either return to criminal activity or access resources to help them refrain, or desist, from crime. Their decision-making toward desistance is an important factor informing community corrections policy and practice.

Past research has focused on cognitive decision-making toward or away from crime. Prior to the current project, few longitudinal studies have assessed how cognitive mechanisms underlying recidivism or desistance may change over time. Thus, as of the outset of the project, researchers observed, how cognitions change across time during probation was largely unknown. Research was also scant on the question of which decision-making cognitions may be stronger drivers of desistance. The study’s purpose was to investigate decision-making toward desistance.

Study Design

A research team from the University of Texas at El Paso conducted a two-phase study of desistance cognitions. The researchers engaged community corrections agencies in two locations, one in Texas and the other, a federal probation site, in a neighboring state. The first, qualitative phase, consisted of focus groups of people on probation from both corrections agencies. Researchers asked the participants to reflect on cognitions that promoted positive behavior and motivated them to maintain a crime-free lifestyle, according to the report. The second, longitudinal phase included a questionnaire completed three times over the course of approximately two years by 252 people on probation from Texas and 73 from a state adjoining Texas. A separate element of the second phase gauged community supervision officers’ beliefs regarding their desistance cognitions. The research team trained a sample group of corrections officers on an assessment tool measuring factors such as presence of negative moods and aspects of impulsivity. Finally, official corrections data were used to provide demographic, criminal history, recidivism risk score, and revocation information.

Core Components of Desistance

The questionnaires completed by people on probation identified core components of desistance cognitions. According to the study report, those components include:

  • On average, participants rated their cognitions as pro-desistance and anti-crime.
  • Participants generally held positive views of desistance, the need to extend effort for desistance, and personal agency (that is, capacity for independent action) to desist.
  • By contrast, most participants did not endorse strongly negative expectations for desistance or beliefs that their efforts to desist will be thwarted.
  • On average, participants were found to have higher positive mood states than negative mood states.
  • Participants did not view themselves as strongly impulsive.

The findings on desistance cognitions were qualified, however, by the researchers’ determination that there was limited evidence, in their longitudinal study, that their cognitions changed over time. They concluded that the “models suggest [cognition] stability is more common than change.”

One observed change over time, the researchers found, was that participants endorsed fewer beliefs about the benefits of desistance from crime and had less belief in their independent ability to control whether they would refrain from crime going forward.

Low positive emotion (but not high negative emotion) predicted higher likelihood of recidivism, and the sensation seeking element of impulsivity particularly predicted recidivism after controlling for other aspects of impulsivity.

Other Key Findings and Implications

Among key research findings were:

From two focus groups of people on probation

  • They generally engaged in a process of desistance during probation, becoming more aware over their term of probation of the negative consequences of criminal activity.
  • They were consciously aware of certain cognitions theorized to drive the process of desistance, including:
    • Engagement in cost-benefit thinking.
    • A slowing of impulsive thinking that leads to crime.
    • Endorsement of personal agency, or independent decision-making, toward desistance.

From longitudinal studies of people on probation over three points in time, with community supervision officers assessing their cognitions

  • Findings that cannot be explained by chance alone (i.e., statistically significant findings):
    • Individuals often differed from each other in their crime and desistance beliefs.
    • They perceived more negative consequences of crime and fewer positive benefits of crime.
  • Notable, but not statistically significant, findings:
    • There was some evidence that participants adopted fewer beliefs over time about the benefits of desisting from crime. This finding approached statistical significance, the research report said.
    • Probation officers are more aware of circumstances in which they are not engaged in desistance than in which they are engaged in desistance. This finding also approached statistical significance, the report said.
    • Contrary to a study hypothesis, their cognitions tended to be stable over time, indicating stability was more common than change.
    • People on probation who expressed greater fear that their efforts to desist would be thwarted or blocked by external factors were more likely to recidivate. This finding approached statistical significance when controlling for antisocial intent.

Key policy implications of the study, according to the researchers, included:

  • People on probation may need assistance overcoming barriers to crime desistance. Study results showed that individuals who were motivated to desist but feared — perhaps accurately — that their efforts would be thwarted by external forces were at greater risk to recidivate.
  • Community corrections agencies should adopt a goal of helping them capitalize on their desistance motivations, such as wanting to have a greater life purpose and value.
  • Agencies should not be overly confident that they can identify their core beliefs driving desistance and know how to enhance beliefs toward desistance.
  • The research largely supported contemporary best practices in community corrections, including the need to address procriminal attitudes and poor impulse control as key predictors of criminal behavior.


The research team expected to find that their desistance cognitions change across time and that those cognitions predict outcomes by changing ahead of desistance and relating to behavior in expected ways. Those expectations were generally not met in the study. The study did find support for helping people on probation use their strengths to desist, but cautioned that this would be challenging for community supervision officers to do. More research would be needed before developing and employing strategies for community corrections agencies to manage and reduce risk through a desistance cognition framework, the team reported.

About this Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2014-R2-CX-0009, awarded to The University of Texas at El Paso. This article is based on the grantee report “Research on Offender Decision-Making and Desistance From Crime: A Multi-Theory Assessment of Offender Cognition Change.” Principal Investigator: Caleb D. Lloyd.

Date Published: July 20, 2021