Desistance: an inside view

This guest post comes from Kris MacPherson who has recently completed a criminology degree with the Open University and who is currently completing a sentence in a Scottish prison. If you’d like to get in touch with Kris about his post, please leave a comment with your contact details and I’ll pass them on.

One of the most frequently voiced problems in relation to desistance, according to Maruna (2012), is the difficulty in differentiating between desistance from committing crime and a pause between criminal acts. Using the example of stealing a car, Maruna asks if a person who steals a car on Friday and does not commit another offence for the rest of the day could classify as desistance. What if the car thief refrains from taking another vehicle for a month or a year? [When] Is this desistance?

Let’s break it down.

For some people, the term ‘desistance’ conjures an image of repentance and desire for atonement on the part of the ‘offender. For that person, it signifies the realisation that s/he has value and potential to be something other than a scar on the social flesh of his/her community. In this sense, the word implies a permanent and complete realisation that the previous pattern of behaviour is damaging and hurtful to not only for victims and their families but also the families of those engaged in criminal activity.  The loved ones of those who offend are often, in fact, their last victims.

As Maruna’s example (above) suggests, someone involved in criminal behaviour who then goes through a period of committing no crime at all has not necessarily desisted from crime. In fact, this person, for whatever reason, may simply be ‘winding their neck in’! Legally speaking, the place where they live (or offend) might have had an intense police presence and/or been saturated with CCTV (‘jailbait’, to use a colloquialism), or other life events such as physical incapacitation or illness may possibly have prevented the person from perpetrating further acts.  Desistance then may imply or require a particular attitude as well as a pattern of crime-free conduct.

In the academic study of serial murder, a person who commits a series of murders with gaps in between homicides has certainly not desisted in between killings. These apparently crime-free periods in between murders are referred to as time intervals or, previously, cooling off periods (Salfati et al., 2012). However, we know from the literature (Salfati et al., 2012; Douglas, 2006) that these people involved in these types of extreme offending do not desist during the ‘time interval’. They can’t be classed as desisting simply because they haven’t been caught or the police have not recorded an offence. Post-apprehension, people confess to trolling, stalking, burglaries and other behaviour in between murders (how else could they find victims?). Therefore, these time intervals are not as crime-free as one would like to think.

The idea of a ‘time interval’ could be applied to the (apparently) crime-free gaps in the careers of people involved in less extreme forms of offending. Can their ‘lulls’ only be classed as a time interval in between convictions? How else can we define a period of ‘crime-free’ behaviour? It is logical to postulate that even a ‘career criminal’ does not go through his/her life committing crimes every minute of every day. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that there are gaps in between offences, however short/long they may be.

One could argue that what makes mere time intervals different from genuine desistance is the notion that the person experiencing the time interval still retains a criminal or criminalised identity. He/she continues to associate with other people actively involved offending (whether these offences were recorded and the offender apprehended/punished is irrelevant). S/he has not seriously considered changing or intended to make a complete break with their criminal lifestyle like those who are dedicated to desistance. Those who commit crime as a way of life usually have a specific criminal forte/proclivity in the same way that people who are addicted to drugs have a particular preference for a specific substance. They still may use other substances but there is one particular drug that they ‘prefer’.  It is often much the same with those living a criminal lifestyle.

For me then, desistance actually implies that one has made a conscious decision to break from a criminogenic life pattern, lead a completely different lifestyle, and continue to do so rather than simply passing through a period of refraining from committing crime. But how does a person arrive at the realisation that crime is a destructive process, affecting their own lives as well as those of others? Do they simply wake up one morning and make a spontaneous decision to change? Or is there something more gradual and ongoing at play?  The latter seems more plausible.

My own experience with desistance came after a long, gradual period of reflection on my past and exposure to academic study while serving a rather protracted period of incarceration. This particular spell wasn’t my first time in prison as I had spent another term in a young offenders’ institute. How I chose to spend this period of incarceration as opposed to the other is very different. Could it be argued that I was ‘desisting’ from crime since I was under lock and key? I would say that incapacitation does not amount to desistance, especially if you still harbour the old pro-criminal sentiments and consider these as part of your identity. Could my behaviour in the community be classified as desisting in between committing crimes pre-sentences? I would say no because I still harboured a certain self-image in which criminality was at the core. While prison does incapacitate a person, it does not completely diminish his offending capabilities. It merely hinders them.

For example, a person can still assault another person in prison. S/he can still use/sell drugs and even attempt to escape – all of which are still judged criminal offences in the eyes of the legal system. With the advent of technology like theInternet and mobile phones, the scope of prisoner-perpetrated criminality is widened if the prisoner in question has in his possession (or access to) a mobile phone. This could include intimidating court witnesses and arranging to have prohibited articles smuggled into the establishment. The prison economy is much more lucrative given that prices can increase exponentially, maximising profit. For example, an ounce of Class-A drugs could be bought in the community from anywhere between £600 and £800, depending on one’s source (referred to as ‘mates rates’). This same ounce, if broken down, could easily generate a total of £5,000 in prison, give or take. A phone purchased for £500 in the community could easily fetch between £2,000 and £3,000 inside prison.

The fact that such acts occur in prison does not make them any less criminal than if they were committed in the community. It is the fact that they are contained that may makes them seem less criminal — or it could be the fact that because they are offender-on-offender crimes that makes the public less concerned about the ramifications. Tabloid media portrayals of ‘offenders’ exacerbate the problems of those returning to the community from prisons, depicting them as undeserving and dangerous criminals for whom transformation is impossible. For a small minority, these portrayals may be accurate. However, the majority of people in prison are people with serious issues who can be helped if given the proper support and guidance.

Significant numbers of people liberated from prison are homeless, compounded by the fact they have little/no chance of employment. Unless employment is guaranteed by a family/friend willing to give a chance to someone leaving prison, a situation is created in which the person is signposted towards committing crime to sustain himself/herself because they are marginalised to the extent where they have no money or prospects. How could one even contemplate desistance in such a climate never mind practice it? If desistance is a process or a pathway then we must try to comprehend its destination (McNeill, 2015). Perhaps the final destination in the desistance process is the acknowledgement by society and state that reform has been realised or is at least possible, leading to ‘restoration of citizenship’ and reintegration into society as an all-inclusive and productive member.

Surely, this is the summit of the desistance mountain.

Some European countries have laws where an offender is classed as rehabilitated after a specific period in the community with no new convictions (Scottish Executive, 2012). An improvement to the Rehabilitation of Offenders (Scotland) Act 1974 vis-à-vis the reform of prisoners who have maintained desistance, I am sure, would go a long way. Imagine being stopped by police officers who radio base to ascertain whether you are wanted or have previous convictions (a common occurrence for some). The answer they receive states you do have convictions but are classified as rehabilitated under the amendment to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Wouldn’t this change embedded attitudes towards ‘ex-offenders’? It is the responsibility of the person to maintain desistance but other agencies have their own roles to play. If someone takes the path of desistance but society closes all of the appropriate doors in his/her face, then where will this lead? Granted desistance is a process but it can definitely be argued that the more supports and protective factors a person has in his/her life, the less likely he/she will view crime as an appropriate response to a given situation (protective factors are individually-specific – having a child, supportive parents, making pro-social contacts, etc).

There are those for whom prison is the only alternative. However, someone who commits to desistance should be given the required support. Therefore, prisoners are not the only ones who have a role to play. We all do.

8 thoughts on “Desistance: an inside view

  1. Great article Kris, asks very important questions which I’m not sure many in society can answer. I am still struggling towards the summit myself and wish you well on your journey.

  2. Thank you, an excellent and knowledgeable piece of writing about desistance. I am a researcher, passionate about the power of higher level (post-compulsory) learning and its ability to develop critical reflection, hope and resilience. I would be interested to know your views about how important learning is – both in your case and in general.

  3. It is wonderful to read this honest and considered articulation from Kris. I look forward to reading much more from him in the future. He has a voice that must be heard. We all have a role to play.

  4. I met Chris a few years ago in Low Moss Fergus, he got moved and I lost contact with him. Could you connect me with him?

  5. Brilliant article Kris! Fergus, can you please pass on my details to him? I am currently doing a PhD on this very topic and Kris eloquently touches on some pertinent points in relation to desistance.

  6. Such a well considered, well-written article, Kris. Very keen to hear more of your thoughts about the potential engagement in prison education has to catalyse the desistance process. I’m doing a PhD exploring the link between learning in prison and desistance from crime and am keen to hear more of your thoughts based on your experiences.
    If it’s possible, please pass on my email address to Kris. I’d really love to hear more.

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