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

Executive Summary
Download the full chapter
Date Published
November 8, 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.

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 adulthood.[1] This is true even among those who engage in more serious forms of crime.[2]

In this regard, the age-crime curve creates a paradox. Individuals are more susceptible to crime in late adolescence and early adulthood, but they are also more likely to abandon criminal behavior after this period. As such, some of the more punitive criminal justice interventions targeting adolescents and emerging adults may interrupt an otherwise downward slope of criminal behavior. Given the overrepresentation of minority youth at all stages of the juvenile and criminal justice processes — including arrest, pretrial confinement, prosecution, sentencing, and incarceration — the stigma of criminal justice responses overwhelmingly affects youth belonging to marginalized groups.[3]

Adolescence is a period marked by significant psychological, biological, and social changes. Offending behavior is one of many possible responses to a lack of access to adequate resources or supportive environments for coping with these developmental transitions.[4] In 2019, adolescents (7%) and emerging adults (ages 18-24; 20%) accounted for more than one quarter of all arrests.[5] It has been estimated that 30% to 60% of adolescents with an arrest will also be arrested in early adulthood, but the rates of persistence in crime decline steadily with age.[6]

Decisions to give up crime may involve several relapses and reversals before an individual reaches the final point of giving up crime permanently. This white paper provides an overview of the mechanisms underlying this process of desistance from crime among juveniles and adults and the implications for criminal justice policy and practice. Drawing on the research literature and relevant theoretical frameworks, the paper offers nine key recommendations on desistance-promoting criminal justice policy and practice.

  1. Criminal justice interventions would benefit from a paradigm shift that expands from an exclusive focus on recidivism to the consideration of positive outcomes that may result in reduced involvement in crime. Program evaluations that prescribe to this new paradigm should: (a) integrate the well-established fact that desistance from crime occurs gradually and that setbacks are to be expected; (b) consider changes in individual and social outcomes in addition to behavioral measures; (c) offer a balanced assessment of both failure and success outcomes and invest resources in tracking progress before, during, and after any given intervention; and (d) provide incentives for success.
  2. Biosocial research has suggested that from a cognitive perspective, emerging adults (18-24 years old) may resemble adolescents more than adults. It would then be logical to extend assumptions about reduced culpability to individuals up to the age of 24. Young adult courts are an example of such an accommodation. The age-crime curve confirms that most individuals are likely to give up crime during emerging adulthood; in many cases, criminal justice processing during this period may be counterproductive and might delay the process of desistance from crime that would otherwise occur naturally. Prosecutors play a key role in fostering desistance by avoiding further processing for individuals who do not pose a significant threat to public safety.
  3. Longer prison sentences are not effective in promoting desistance from crime and reducing recidivism. In fact, confinement disrupts the desistance process in many ways, and it should be used only as a last recourse. When possible, jurisdictions should favor alternatives to confinement for both juveniles and adults. Few individuals remain active in crime after the age of 40. Barring exceptional circumstances for those who pose a clear threat to public safety, there is no empirical basis for incarcerating individuals for decades past mid-adulthood.
  4. Because the decision to give up crime is regarded as a gradual process rather than an abrupt event, preparation for release from confinement should ideally begin early in the sentence for those cases where incarceration is deemed necessary. Individuals can make constructive use of their time in prison if they can find meaning to their sentence, get to the root of the reasons that brought them to prison in the first place, and develop a plan for their return to society. These are essential components of the desistance and reintegration processes.
  5. Interactions with law enforcement may disrupt desistance in many ways that are not necessarily well understood by officers. Given that most initial contacts with law enforcement do not result in further criminal justice processing, arrests that do not lead to a conviction constitute a poor measure of criminal behavior and may create unnecessary stigma that hampers the desistance process. This stigma disproportionately affects individuals belonging to socially marginalized groups. Convictions or incarcerations may be more valid indicators of official crime.
  6. The stigma of a criminal record has enduring effects on the ability to successfully reintegrate into society. Expungement laws can help offset some of the negative consequences of the stigma of a criminal record.
  7. The mere prevalence of past offending is insufficient to assess future risk of reoffending. We need to account for other dimensions of the criminal record, including the recency and intensity of involvement in past crimes. Housing and employment policies that adopt a blanket ban against individuals with a criminal record cannot be justified on the basis of public safety concerns and are in fact detrimental to the process of desistance from crime.
  8. Many state and local jurisdictions have developed promising initiatives and interventions that draw on principles of the desistance paradigm, but few have been rigorously evaluated. Partnerships between policymakers, practitioners, and academics are crucial to conducting more systematic assessments. We also need to better understand whether the level of responsiveness to any given intervention varies across demographic groups (specifically age and gender), criminal history characteristics, and histories of trauma.
  9. Efforts to promote desistance from crime are not the sole responsibility of any single agency. The most promising desistance-promoting policies and practices rely on ongoing partnerships between the various agents of the criminal justice system and community resources, including law enforcement, prosecution, corrections, and community organizations.

Date Created: October 19, 2021