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

Executive Summary
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Date Published
October 18, 2021

Recorded webinar

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Research shows that imprisonment has few, if any, beneficial effects on criminal activity, except for the period when individuals are 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 disrupted family lives, and worse health. As a result, it seems reasonable to assume that incarceration impedes the desistance process — or, at the very least, does not facilitate desistance directly or indirectly.

Unfortunately, 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 of individuals for whom desistance from crime is most important — both for society (because they commit a large number of crimes) and for themselves (because their criminal activity often dovetails with other antisocial behaviors that impede their well-being). The research also rarely measures shifts in criminal activity, focusing instead on criminal justice contact, and provides little insight into how conditions of confinement moderate the effects of incarceration on desistance. In addition, much of the strongest research on desistance relies on data that are not current, making its connections to contemporary society unclear.

This white paper considers how imprisonment shapes the desistance process for individuals who chronically engage in criminal activity and discusses the implications for policy, practice, and research. Assuming these individuals respond to imprisonment as do other populations involved in the justice system, research suggests that long imprisonments will disrupt desistance more than short imprisonments and that short prison and jail incarcerations will disrupt desistance more than noncustodial sanctions (e.g., house arrest, probation, community service).

For policymakers, this suggests that less punitive sanctions may both save scarce state and federal resources and facilitate the desistance process for individuals who chronically engage in criminal activity. The benefits must be weighed against the costs of crime, however. Because even this population rapidly decreases their engagement in crime as they age, policymakers should still strongly consider shorter sentences. This is especially the case in the wake of deep budget cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For practitioners, both the findings on the well-being of individuals who chronically offend prior to imprisonment and the need for these individuals to “make good” after release from prison indicate that a broad suite of programs during imprisonment is needed to facilitate the desistance process. Those who receive noncustodial sanctions are especially likely to need services because they must begin the desistance process immediately or risk custodial sanctions.

Finally, for researchers, the lack of a significant body of research on how imprisonment shapes the desistance process for persons who chronically offend calls for a substantial investment in research that (1) extends several core Bureau of Justice Statistics datasets to provide more direct insight into this question, (2) provides rigorous evidence regarding how conditions of confinement moderate the effects of imprisonment on the desistance process for this population, and (3) extends both general population and high-risk longitudinal studies of youth later in the life-course by using survey data to consider these questions.

Date Created: October 14, 2021