U.S. flag

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

International Perspectives and Lessons Learned on Desistance

Executive Summary
Download the full chapter
Date Published
November 1, 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.

Since the mid-1990s, there has been a sustained research effort in many countries to further knowledge about why people stop offending. Although the theoretical understanding of desistance from crime has advanced considerably, a critical gap remains in our collective understanding about how this knowledge should be applied. Such knowledge is crucial because if key decision-makers are able to operationalize these insights into research-informed innovations, then future practice in crime prevention, sentencing, and the wider criminal justice system may be further improved.

This white paper explores how insights from desistance research have been used in the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, further afield. It discusses how desistance has been defined and operationalized, and reviews the main associates and correlates of desistance. The key processes associated with desistance appear to be related to:

  • Marriage or partnership (including parenthood).
  • Employment (or another legitimate role in society, such as learning or homemaking).
  • Leaving the area where a person grew up or offended in the past.
  • Aging (especially after age 25).
  • Accommodation that is secure, safe, and away from others who may encourage offending.
  • Finding a reason to stop offending.
  • Making the decision to stop — and having this decision supported by a wider network of institutions and individuals.
  • Deciding “who” one wants to become in the future.
  • Aspects of the criminal justice system that assist desistance (others find that these stigmatize and hinder desistance).
  • Religious conversion (in some cases).

The paper then critiques many criminal justice systems’ desistance-promoting elements, drawing on insights from England and Wales, Scotland, France, and Israel, as well as some experiences in North America. It finds that much of what criminal justice systems do is not conducive to supporting desistance. Based on this review, the paper argues that criminal justice systems may need to adapt their current approaches so they more readily embrace the idea that people who want to desist:

  • Have strengths that can be harnessed, while admitting that there are weaknesses that need to be avoided. This implies a change to assessment procedures.
  • Need to be treated individually (at least some of the time) and given opportunities (rather than threats or punishments) to which they will want to respond positively.
  • Should be engaged and employed as co-producers of their own (and others’) desistance. This implies a greater use of former service users in peer mentoring schemes and as program designers.
  • Will face setbacks and relapses during their journeys away from crime. Realism rather than idealism is the watchword here.
  • Will find informal, rather than formal, interventions most valuable and meaningful.
  • Do better when they are kept out of prison or sent to prison only briefly (whenever possible).
  • Will be more likely to remain out of trouble when criminal justice system workers support them in the wider social and community contexts in which they live. This means partnering with religious institutions, employers, community groups, local sports groups, and other organizations based in the community.
  • Will do better when the criminal justice system supports their relationships (where appropriate).
  • Should be encouraged to practice newly formed social identities (such as parent, partner, and employee) in supported contexts.
  • Should have good progress recognized and, if possible, certified.
  • Can be supported in careers (either formal employment careers or those developed away from the economy, such as school governor, homemaker, and volunteer) by selective access to their previous criminal histories.

The paper closes with proposals, policies, and practices that have been made or adopted to improve an individual’s chances of desisting from crime. These ideas are drawn both from empirical studies and from the “philosophy” of many criminal justice systems and the ways in which it shapes desistance-related work. Four areas are discussed: changing the assessment lens; strengths-based opportunities to give back; building and supporting jobs, homes, and relationships; and certifying and recognizing change.

This paper provides suggestions on how colleagues working in the United States could develop these ideas into workable policies and practices. It is clear that although there are some useful pointers for what can be undertaken, these interventions need both careful thought and a change in other aspects of the criminal justice systems in all countries in order to transform their basic philosophies from those of suspicion to those of hope.

Date Created: October 19, 2021