U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Desistance-Focused Criminal Justice Practice

Executive Summary
Download the full chapter
Date Published
October 25, 2021

Recorded Webinar

NIJ hosted a webinar during which the authors presented and discussed key themes from each of their chapters. A recording of the webinar and transcript of the webinar will be posted and linked here when ready.

Academic criminologists have increasingly challenged the criminal justice system to pivot from a focus on recidivism to a focus on desistance. Desistance — a word that is far less familiar than recidivism to most practitioners and the public — measures the process by which those who previously participated in criminal behavior move toward stopping the behavior or ending a criminal career. However, implementation of desistance concepts in criminal justice practice has lagged. This white paper examines desistance concepts from the practical implementation standpoint of a practitioner.

When incorporating desistance into practice, researchers and practitioners must decide how to operationalize and measure desistance. For instance, what behaviors count as desistance? One view holds that outcomes such as employment and sobriety might serve as markers of desistance.  However, existing research that examines the link between these markers and criminal behavior is often correlational and relatively weak. It is tempting to focus on these non-criminal-justice outcomes because they are easier to affect in some cases, while recidivism rates tend to show very little change.

This paper argues, however, that criminal behavior should remain the focus of desistance and that recidivism should not be abandoned as a measure of desistance. Further, research should establish stronger causal connections between non-criminal-justice outcomes and reductions in crime and recidivism so that policymakers have the confidence to focus on those outcomes as a way to influence criminal behavior. This may be accomplished by using more experimental research (e.g., randomized controlled trials) in corrections. Practically speaking, practitioners and policymakers often do not have time to wait for long follow-up periods to confirm criminal behavioral change. This is where probabilistic models like “redemption research,” “signaling theory,” and risk assessment may prove useful for predicting who is likely to desist.

Researchers and practitioners must also decide what data sources to use to measure criminal behavior. Official records of offending are arguably more consistent and accessible to researchers and practitioners, but they might conflate measurement of actual criminal behavior with policy choices around system responses to criminal behavior. Self-report measures do not suffer this problem, but it may be harder for researchers and practitioners to accurately and consistently collect them. A combination of both data sources may be ideal.

It may be practical for researchers and practitioners to routinely collect and report three measures of desistance: (1) deceleration, (2) de-escalation, and (3) “reaching a ceiling.” Deceleration captures a slowdown in the frequency of criminal offending and may be measured, for example, by comparing arrest rates in fixed periods of time before and after a criminal justice sanction such as incarceration. De-escalation captures a reduction in the seriousness of offending and may be measured by changes in offense gravity scores, which many states use to rank the seriousness of individual crime types. Finally, reaching a ceiling reflects a complete cessation in criminal offending; it is essentially the inverse of recidivism for some follow-up period of time.

Desistance-focused interventions in corrections tend to stem from theories of desistance. At a high level, desistance theories can be divided into those that focus on internal change (ontogenetic) and those that focus on external change (sociogenic). Interventions focusing on internal change include cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, and medication-assisted treatment. Interventions focusing on external change include prison visitation, family counseling, employment and education programming, and relocation programs. In addition, programs that concentrate on building human agency include deterrence-based approaches and contingency management. Correctional interventions that use procedural justice to build the system’s perceived legitimacy, along with reentry programming that focuses on destigmatization, are also promising practical approaches to encouraging desistance.

The research on these various approaches is mixed, but generally it is fairly weak and correlational. This paper challenges researchers to establish stronger evidence in support of desistance-focused interventions through more rigorous evaluation designs, such as randomized controlled trials. A broader use of cost-benefit analyses can also help weigh the benefits against the costs of operating such interventions. Policymakers face tight budget constraints and must have solid evidence about efficacy and returns on investment.

Policymakers also tend to work on short time horizons and need fast answers. The use of risk assessment instruments, regularly reported recidivism rates, and rapid cycle experimentation can help meet these challenges. Communication is also often a barrier to implementing desistance principles, as policymakers and academic researchers tend to speak two different languages. A “translational criminology” approach could help facilitate better two-way communication. Translating desistance research into practice will continue to prove challenging, but it is a worthy endeavor for improving criminal justice outcomes.

Date Created: October 15, 2021