Three aspects of desistance?

This post is based on a short paper prepared for a University of Sheffield Centre for Criminological Research Knowledge Exchange Seminar at the British Academy in London on 15th May.

In recent years theories of desistance from crime (how and why people stop and refrain from offending) have been much developed, discussed and debated, not just in relation to their various interconnected explanations of the process but also, increasingly, in relation to their implications for penal policy and practice. Underlying this developing scholarship lies an aspiration and an expectation that better understandings of desistance can and should enable the development of better approaches to punishment, rehabilitation and reintegration and thus to the creation of a safer and fairer society.

Defining desistance is far from straightforward, but most discussions begin with the idea of the cessation of offending behaviour. However, since it is impossible to know the moment at which any behaviour ceases permanently, scholars have increasingly come to conceptualise and to study desistance as a process (see, for example, Bottoms et al., 2004; Maruna, 2001; Farrall, 2002; Laub and Sampson, 2003). More specifically, we can think of desistance as a process of human development in social context; one that involves moving away from offending and into compliance with law and social norms. Maruna and Farrall (2004) draw an important distinction between primary and secondary desistance; the former relates merely to behaviour, the latter implies a related shift in identity. They posit that shifts in identity and self-concept matter in securing longer-term, sustained changes in behaviour as opposed to mere lulls in offending. Though the importance of this distinction has been debated by some, secondary desistance (and with it substantive or committed compliance to the law, see Robinson and McNeill, 2008) is likely to be important for people who have been heavily involved in offending and/or heavily criminalized. ‘Spoiled identities’ need to be shed if change is to be secured.

In my own recent thinking, I have been exploring whether it may also make sense to develop the concept of tertiary desistance; thus referring not just to shifts in behaviour or identity but to shifts in one’s sense of belonging to a (moral) community. My argument, based on developing research evidence (for example, Laub and Sampson, 2003; Bottoms and Shapland, 2011; Weaver, 2013), is that since identity is socially constructed and negotiated, securing long term change depends not just on how one sees oneself but also on how one is seen by others, and on how one sees one’s place in society. Putting it more simply, desistance is a social process as much as a personal one.

In fact, the links between behaviour, identity and belonging are implicit in the main explanatory theories of desistance. These are commonly divided into ontogenic theories which stress the importance of age and maturation; sociogenic theories which stress the importance of social bond and ties; and narrative theories which stress the importance of subjective changes in identity (Maruna, 2001). Recently, in an important review of desistance research, Bottoms (2014 forthcoming) has suggested a fourth set of explanatory factors which are situational in character. Drawing on his expertise in socio-spatial criminology, as well as on desistance research, Bottoms points out that various aspects of our social environments and of our situated ‘routine activities’ also provide importance influences on our behaviour, for better or worse. While our environments and activities are closely connected to our social bonds or ties (in intimate relationships and to families, work and faith communities), they deserve attention in their own right.

Much of my own work in the last 15 years has focused not so much on advancing our explanations for or understandings of desistance as on the related task of ‘translating’ the implications of this research for policy and practice, and in particular for how we approach to challenges of punishment and rehabilitation (McNeill 2003; 2006; 2009; 2012; McNeill and Weaver, 2007; 2010). Desistance research has particular policy salience to the extent that policy is concerned with reducing reoffending and its associated economic, human and social costs. Rather than simply observing or understanding desistance, the question becomes: “Can we enable desistance through criminal sanctions, or do they tend to frustrate it?” A wide range of recommendations have been developed in response to these questions, but they tend to centre on the following themes: 1. For persistent offenders, desistance is a complex and difficult process, so we need to be realistic about these difficulties, and to expect and better manage lapses and relapses. 2. Since the process is different for different people (even if there are many common threads), interventions need to be properly individualized and tailored to the circumstances of the individual. 3. Since desistance is relational, interventions need to work on, with and through professional and social relationships (and not just through individualized programmes). Developing social capital (meaning networks of reciprocal relationships) is crucial to supporting desistance. 4. Since desistance often involves developing hope for the future, interventions need to work to nurture hope and motivation. Hope seems to be connected to developing a sense of ‘agency’ (meaning the capacity to govern one’s life), interventions should seek to identify and mobilise personal strengths and self-determination. 5. The language of policy and practice matters; to the extent that it entrenches criminalized identities, it may frustrate desistance. We need to mind our language, as well as ensuring that we recognize and celebrate progress, so as to reinforce fledgling positive identities.

In the recent chapter already referred to above, Bottoms (2014 forthcoming) suggests that we need to add to this list interventions that attend to the routine activities and social environments of offenders. In other words, we need to practical supports and activities that enable and sustain change.

Looking at these issues in somewhat broader perspective, I have recently argued (McNeill, 2012; 2014) that over the last 20 years our approaches to rehabilitation have become too narrowly focused on supporting personal change, neglecting three other forms of rehabilitation – moral, social and judicial. The central argument here is that no amount of personal change can secure desistance if change is not recognized by the community (‘social rehabilitation’), by the law and by the state (‘judicial rehabilitation’). Without these forms of informal and formal recognition, legitimate opportunities (for example for participation in the labour market or in social life) will not become available and return to offending may be made more likely. In some cases, the failure in state punishment to attend directly to the need for moral rehabilitation (the settling of debts between the offender, victim and community) may undermine social rehabilitation. Restorative justice may have something to offer here. More generally, my argument is that these four forms of rehabilitation are often interdependent, and that failing to attend to all four reduces the likelihood of successful desistance.

More recently still, I have begun to argue that criminal justice policy and practice needs to reconsider how it frames its goals (McNeill, forthcoming). Studying and supporting desistance eventually forces us to address the complex question not of what people desist from, but what they desist to. In other words, if desistance is a process or a journey, how are we to understand its destination? My suggestion is that the concepts of citizenship, integration and solidarity may have much to offer in addressing this question – and that perhaps a positively framed set of goals for criminals sanctions operationalising these concepts (and a positive set of metrics for judging their successes) may help us move beyond an increasingly fruitless preoccupation with risk and reoffending.


Bottoms, A. (2014 forthcoming), ‘Desistance from Crime’, forthcoming in: Z. Ashmore and R. Shuker (eds.) Forensic Practice in the Community, London: Routledge.

Bottoms, A., Shapland, J., Costello, A., Holmes, D. and Muir, G. (2004) ‘Towards Desistance: Theoretical Underpinnings for an Empirical Study’, The Howard Journal 43(4): 368–89.

Bottoms, A. and Shapland, J. (2011) ‘Steps towards desistance among male young adult recidivists’, in S. Farrall, M. Hough, S. Maruna and R. Sparks (eds.), Escape Routes: Contemporary Perspectives on Life after Punishment, London: Routledge.

Farrall, S. (2002) Rethinking What Works with Offenders: Probation, Social Context and Desistance from Crime. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

Laub, J. and Sampson, R. (2003) Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age Seventy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McNeill, F. (2003) ‘Desistance Based Practice’, pp146-162 in W-H. Chui and M. Nellis (eds.), Moving Probation Forward: Evidence, Arguments and Practice, Harlow: Pearson Education.

McNeill, F. (2006) ‘A desistance paradigm for offender management’ Criminology and Criminal Justice 6(1): 39-62

McNeill, F. (2009) Towards Effective Practice in Offender Supervision. Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, available at:

McNeill, F. (2012) ‘Four forms of ‘offender’ rehabilitation: Towards an interdisciplinary perspective’ Legal and Criminological Psychology 17(1): 18-36 (Pre-publication final draft available at:

McNeill, F. (2014) ‘Punishment as Rehabilitation’, pp. 4195-4206 in, G. Bruinsma and D. Weisburd (eds.), Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, DOI 10.1007/978-1-4614-5690-2, Springer Science and Business Media: New York. [A final draft version of this paper is available open access online at:]

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management. Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, available at:

Maruna, S. (2001) Making Good. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Maruna, S. and Farrall, S. (2004) ‘Desistance from crime: A theoretical reformulation’, Kvlner Zeitschrift fur Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 43: 171–94.

Robinson. G. and McNeill, F. (2008) Exploring the Dynamics of Compliance with Community Penalties, Theoretical Criminology 12(4): 431-449.

Weaver, B. (2013) The Story of the Del: From Delinquency to Desistance. PhD Thesis, Glasgow: University of Strathclyde.