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Desistance from Crime: Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice

A six chapter volume discussing key themes on desistance from crime.
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Date Published
November 1, 2021

Why do people stop their involvement in crime? What factors help shape this process? How can policy and practice improve individuals’ chances of ending their criminal behavior?

No single criminal justice agency can promote desistance on its own. Partnerships across state, local, and federal agencies — along with the support of family and community stakeholders — are instrumental in supporting desistance from crime and reducing recidivism.

In NIJ’s new publication Desistance From Crime: Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice, experts explore these and other critical questions surrounding the process of individuals ceasing engagement in criminal activities, referred to as “desistance.” They discuss how to conceptualize and measure desistance and offer innovative ways of using desistance-focused approaches in criminal justice practice, policy, and research.

This collection of work takes important steps in describing how a desistance framework can move the field forward across key decision points in the criminal justice system. As a result, the field will be better positioned to meet the needs of stakeholders, improve individual outcomes, and effectively reduce crime and promote public safety for communities across the United States.

Chapter 1: But What Does It Mean? Defining, Measuring, and Analyzing Desistance From Crime in Criminal Justice

This chapter will review how desistance has been defined and measured and offer recommendations on the best way to do both.

One focus area that has emerged from research on crime over the course of an individual’s life is what scholars call “desistance from crime.” Desistance is generally understood to mean the reduction in criminal behavior that occurs after a person reaches adulthood. But exactly what desistance is remains unclear, as varying definitions and measurement strategies have evolved over time. Because inconsistent definitions will lead to varying measurement strategies, it is difficult to come to conclusions about desistance.

This chapter looks at historical research on desistance and discusses various conceptual definitions of desistance. It then reviews how researchers have measured and modeled desistance and examines the implications of these strategies. Finally, the chapter provides an overview of unresolved issues and offers a set of recommendations for policymakers, practitioners, and scholars.

Chapter 2: Biosocial Factors and Their Influence on Desistance

This chapter will examine desistance from crime from a biosocial perspective and provide a guide for new initiatives in evidence-based correctional policy and practice.

Desistance from crime from a biosocial perspective 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. This chapter calls for refining assessment practices, procedures, and facilities management in correctional settings to recognize the importance of biological risk factors.

Chapter 3: The Impact of Incarceration on the Desistance Process Among Individuals Who Chronically Engage in Criminal Activity

This chapter examines how imprisonment influences the desistance process for individuals chronically engaged in crime.

Research indicates that imprisonment has few, if any, beneficial effects on criminal activity, except for the period when the individual is in a correctional facility. It also shows that imprisonment has disruptive effects on the life-course of individuals, leading to worse labor market outcomes, more interrupted family lives, and poorer health. Virtually none of the existing research considers how imprisonment affects the desistance process for individuals who chronically engage in criminal activity. This is an important oversight because this is the group for whom desistance from crime is most important both for society and for themselves. This chapter considers how imprisonment shapes the desistance process for individuals who are chronically criminally active and discusses the implications of these findings for policy, practice, and research.

Chapter 4: Desistance-Focused Criminal Justice Practice

Law enforcement, courts, corrections, and community supervision agencies play a key role in the desistance process and reducing recidivism.

This chapter examines a practitioner view of desistance concepts from a practical implementation standpoint.

Academic criminologists have increasingly challenged the criminal justice system to pivot from a focus on recidivism to a focus on desistance. However, implementation of desistance concepts in the criminal justice practice has lagged. This chapter provides a basic overview of the theories of mechanisms of desistance and attempts to describe them in a practical way. It also discusses some of the issues in operationalizing desistance and provides examples of operational definitions of desistance that criminal justice practitioners can use. The chapter moves even more from theory to practice and discusses desistance-focused interventions. Finally, it briefly discusses some limitations of desistance as a criminal justice metric, including obstacles for adopting desistance in a politically driven system and in day-to-day practice.

Chapter 5: International Perspectives and Lessons Learned on Desistance

This chapter focuses on international interventions that have been initiated to foster desistance.

Since the mid-1990s, there has been a sustained research effort in many countries to further knowledge about why people stop offending. This chapter first discusses how desistance has been defined and operationalized, and reviews the main associates and correlates of desistance. It then critiques many criminal justice systems’ desistance-promoting elements and presents the lessons learned from various countries that have pursued such policies. Finally, it notes some of the interventions that appear likely to support and promote desistance. It also provides suggestions for how colleagues working in the United States might develop these ideals into workable policies and practices.

Chapter 6: Pathways to Desistance From Crime Among Juveniles and Adults: Applications to Criminal Justice Policy and Practice

This chapter provides an overview of the mechanisms underlying the process of desistance from crime among juveniles and adults.

The association between age and crime is one of the most established facts in the field of criminology. It is generally agreed that aggregate crime rates peak in late adolescence/early adulthood (ages 18-21) and gradually drop thereafter. Although most adults who engage in criminal behavior also offended during adolescence, most juveniles who commit crime do not persist in crime in adulthood. This chapter describes the known correlates of desistance from crime as well as the features associated with continued involvement in crime. It examines the implications for criminal justice interventions and agencies — including law enforcement, courts, supervision, correctional facilities, and reintegration efforts — and offers nine key recommendations on desistance-promoting criminal justice policy and practice.

Date Published: November 1, 2021