Desistance from crime: A review of the literature

Marianne Bevan

Research Advisor, Department of Corrections

Author biography

Marianne Bevan is a Research  Advisor in the Research  Analysis Team. She started at Corrections in May 2014. Prior to working at Corrections, she conducted research and implemented projects on gender and security sector reform in Timor-Leste, Togo, Ghana and Liberia.


Desistance from crime, or the process of ceasing offending and 'going straight', is a much discussed yet poorly understood aspect of criminology (Mulvey et al., 2004). Most simply, it refers to the successful achievement of permanently giving up an offending lifestyle (Farrall & Calverley, 2005). Desistance is however generally recognised to be a process rather than a single event. The path to desistance is thus often characterised by lapses, relapses, and recoveries (Shover, 1996; Maruna, 2001; Giordano et al., 2002). Criminal history data suggests that, at some point in the life course, usually before age 35, most offenders undergo what Wolfgang et al. (1972) described as ¡®spontaneous remission¡¯, where criminal behavior appears simply to cease.

The developing desistance literature emphasises a range of variables commonly found to be associated with desistance. These range from personal and life course factors, to external influences related to social bonds, employment, partnerships, and family. How these variables influence particular desistance pathways can differ depending on the age, gender and ethnicity of the person.

The following review presents a summary of some of the more important research findings into factors that motivate and support desistance amongst offenders.

Agency and identity formation

As already noted, most offenders are observed to eventually ¡®mature¡¯ out of criminal behaviour. Research on desistance has therefore focused on aspects of the maturation process which might influence desistance.

This process of ¡®growing up¡¯ can lead to new adult roles, a revision of personal values and reassessment of what is important, which can alter perceptions of the value of crime (Shover & Thompson, 1992; Shover, 1996; Healy, 2010; Barry, 2000; Bottoms et al., 2004). The desistance process is influenced by internal transformations through which offenders are able to develop a new sense of self which in part involves an ¡®ex-offender¡¯ identity (Giordano et al., 2002; Maruna, 2001; Farrall, 2002; Bottoms et al., 2004; Healy, 2010). Maruna¡¯s (2001) study, which utilised life history data from 55 men and 10 women, found that there was a key difference in how desisters and persisters understood and explained their lives, with desisters more likely to create ¡°new pro-social narrative identities in order to account for, and disassociate themselves from, their criminal pasts¡± (Appelton, 2010, p.134).

Other studies have highlighted the importance of personal agency, resilience and identity change in the desistance process (Farrall & Maruna, 2004; Serin & Lloyd, 2009; Graham & Bowling, 1995; Healy, 2010). Gender and ethnicity can have an impact on these internal processes (Deane et al., 2007; Hundleby et al., 2007). Deane et al.¡¯s (2007) research with Aboriginal groups in Canada showed that encouraging the reconnection to their cultural ancestry and overcoming internalised ethnic stereotypes supported the development of a new pro-social, Aboriginal identity. Several studies have shown that male desisters are more likely than female desisters to cite personal choice and agency when describing their desistance process (Graham & Bowling, 1995; McIvor et al., 2004; McIvor & Raynor, 2007). Farrall (2002) and Giordano et al. (2002), while endorsing the importance of ¡®cognitive transformation¡¯, also emphasise that its influence should be understood within context: that desistance requires a combination of the individual¡¯s exposure to the right ¡®hooks for change¡¯, with their willingness to embrace these ¡®hooks¡¯.

Peer groups

Peers play a significant role in encouraging or discouraging the delinquent behaviour of adolescents (Barry, 2000; Jamieson et al., 1999; MacDonald et al., 2010; Healy, 2010; Webster et al., 2006; Laub & Sampson, 2003). Peer group offending is often a central factor influencing young people¡¯s decision to offend, and desisters in a number of studies spoke of separating themselves from former peer groups in order to achieve desistance from crime (Healy, 2010; Jamieson et al., 1999; Warr, 1998; MacDonald et al., 2010). Developing new pro-social friendship groups through re-connecting with groups of peers known prior to offending or creating new friendship groups has supported the desistance process for some ex-offenders (MacDonald et al., 2010; Giordano et al., 2003).

Family relationships

Family is understood to play an important role in the push toward, or the pull away from, a criminal lifestyle for young offenders. The existence of good-quality familial relationships can be a key factor in desistance (Bottoms et al., 2004; Healy, 2010; Farrall, 2002; Graham and Bowling, 1995; Farrall & Calverley, 2005; Barry, 2010). Family bonds can provide emotional and material support (Graham & Bowling, 1995), for example through offering access to employment networks (Calverley, 2013). They also provide less tangible forms of support, such as supporting motivation to change identity and ¡®go straight¡¯ (Liebrich, 1993; Sullivan, 2012). Family members may also be models of pro-social behaviour (Healy 2010). Similar to peer groups, the positive impact of family relationships is highly dependent on the quality of that relationship. Where youth have experienced abuse and neglect, or other family members are themselves involved in crime, it is less likely that relationships will have a positive impact on desistance (Calverley, 2013).

Romantic relationships

Desistance literature has long focused on the impact of being in a romantic relationship on desistance from crime (Maruna, 2001; Laub and Sampson, 2003; Savolainen, 2009). The quality of the relationship rather than its mere existence is thought to impact positively on desistance, with research by Healy (2010), Giordano et al. (2007) and Simons et al. (2002) showing that romantic relationships only increase the likelihood of desistance when satisfaction with the relationship is high. Being in a relationship can provide both ¡®informal social control¡¯ (Osgood & Lee, 1993; Warr, 2002) and can also facilitate motivational behaviour change which leads to changes in goals and shifts in the way that deviant behaviour is seen (Giordano et al., 2002; Giordano et al., 2007; Maurana, 2001; Shover, 1996; Farrall, 2005). Research by Simons and Barr (2012) showed that desistance was higher for young people in secure romantic relationships because it allowed them to develop more trust, empathy and a sense of fairness. The beneficial effects of romantic relationships are often less evident for female desisters. Women are more likely to be negatively impacted by having a partner involved in crime and, in these cases, it is the ending of the relationship that supports desistance (Simons & Barr, 2012; Simons et al., 2002; Haynie et al., 2005; McIvor et al., 2004).


Becoming a parent is often considered a major transition towards adulthood which, like marriage and employment, can alter daily routines as well as create an avenue for a new identity to form. However, evidence for impact on desistance is mixed (Giordano et al., 2011). Parenthood can provide a sense of responsibility including economic responsibility (McIvor et al., 2004; Healy, 2010), the opportunity to create a non-criminal identity in the community (Sullivan, 2012), motivation for reconnecting with members of one¡¯s wider family (Brown and Bloom, 2009) and a purposeful activity which changes routines (MacDonald et al., 2010). Research by McIvor et al. (2004) suggests that the effect of parenthood on the desistance process is more pronounced for female offenders. However studies by Giordano et al. (2002), Kohm (2006) and Blokland & Nieuwbeerta (2005) showed a more limited relationship between the transition to parenthood and desistance. There are a range of factors that moderate the effect of parenthood on desistance, including relationship situation (Monsbakken et al., 2013) socio-economic status (Giordano et al., 2011; Kreager et al., 2010), and cultural-contextual attitudes within different ethnic groups affecting the extent to which parenthood is a valued social role (Calverley, 2013; Katz, 2000; Sullivan, 2012).

Community support

The wider community around the desisting individual can support desistance, though more through sustaining it, rather than triggering it (Healy, 2010). Farrall & Calverley (2005) and Healy (2010) found that trust and recognition from significant others in the wider community was a factor motivating desisters to sustain a crime-free lifestyle. However, the value of community support is obviously dependent on the nature of the community that the desister is reintegrating back into and, where there are fewer social and economic resources, and more negative influences, the potential for positive impact is lessened (Calverley, 2013).

Employment, training and recreational activities

The research provides a general consensus that stable employment can promote desistance from crime. A number of studies appear to confirm this (Uggen and Kruttschnitt, 1998; Laub and Sampson, 2003; Horney et al., 1995; Farrall, 2002), although some found only limited impact (McIvor et al., 2000; Barry, 2000). Many of the studies showing the link found that employment has impacts only under particular circumstances, for example when employment generates a personal sense of ¡®purpose¡¯ (Farrall, 2004; Farrall, 2002; Wadsworth, 2006; Staff & Uggen, 2003; MacDonald et al., 2010). According to Farrall (2004) and MacDonald et al. (2010) ¡®purposeful¡¯ employment can support desistance by reducing unstructured time, providing an income which increases independence, increasing self-esteem, helping to develop a legitimate identity, creating new social networks and providing personal goals. Achieving education qualifications, participating in training, and volunteering have also been found to have positive impacts by adding ¡®purpose¡¯ to ex-offenders¡¯ lives (MacDonald et al., 2010 Calverley, 2013).

Sobriety and recovery from addiction

Drug use and abuse is often inimical to desistance: drug use and drug-seeking behaviour is often a criminal offence in itself, or typically leads to a range of other criminal acts. Treatment for substance abuse can be an important first step for many desisters, and recovery from addiction is often recognised as a necessary goal before desistance can commence (Christian et al., 2009; Morash, 2009; McIvor et al., 2004). However, desisters are not all found to be entirely drug-free: the ¡®Pathways to Desistance¡¯ study revealed that those with stability in their daily routines could successfully desist even if continuing with (albeit) lower levels of substance use (Mulvey et al., 2004).

Mental health

Offenders with severe or unmanaged health problems face an increased risk of adverse outcomes including: physical illness, relapse into drug use or, particularly in the case of mental illness, inappropriate behaviour that provokes a criminal justice response. Both male and female offenders with mental health conditions reported more post-release criminal behaviour than other returning prisoners (Coleman & Vander Laenan, 2012). It follows therefore that successful treatment of concurrent psychiatric disorders will be an important enabler of desistance.

Spirituality and religion

While religion has featured in desistance studies as a factor supporting behavioural change (Maruna, 2001), there has been limited research to date investigating the role it plays in desistance, although several studies find it can have a positive impact in certain circumstances (Giordano et al., 2008; Shroeder & Frana, 2009).

Criminal justice interventions

There is conflicting evidence about the impact criminal justice interventions have on the process of desistance. A number of studies (for example Carpenter, 2012) claim to have found that incarceration seldom features as a motivating factor amongst those who desist from criminality. On the other hand, some researchers have found that the desire to avoid further entanglement with the criminal justice system was commonly cited as a critical consideration amongst offenders who had ¡®gone straight¡¯ (Barry, 2010; McIvor et al., 2000). The role of supervision by probation services in particular has been investigated, also with equivocal outcomes: desisters only occasionally cite the influence of probation officers as a factor in their desistance (Bottoms et al., 2004; Farrall, 2002; Leibrich, 1993). When there is a good quality relationship, however, the process of desistance is more likely to be supported (Barry, 2010; Leibrich, 1993).


As this review has shown, the pathways that people utilise to desist are complex and varied; desistance occurs via a wide range of pathways and is not a singular process. It may take a number of years, and may be partial for extended periods before it becomes complete. Age and maturation are often important factors. Related to this, the creation of a new pro-social identity is central to the desistance process of many ex-offenders. While choices and decisions to desist have been shown to be a factor, and often an important one, there is usually more to desistance than simply willing it. Individual motivation often interacts with external factors such as the creation of social ties or bonds (between the individual and society) ¨C like work, partnerships or parenthood. While the majority of research on desistance shows some combination of these different factors and pathways out of crime, the common elements are often experienced differently based on the age, ethnicity, and gender of the desister. Therefore, desistance-oriented interventions must have sufficient sensitivity to individual diversity if they are to succeed.


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