Book review: Desistance from Sex Offending: Alternatives to Throwing Away the Keys

Laws, R. & Ward, T. (2010).

Guilford Press: London.

Reviewed by Benita Stiles-Smith, PhD

Reviewer biography:

Benita Stiles-Smith is a Senior Clinical Psychologist practising in the Hastings Psychologist’s Office of the Department of Corrections. Her graduate education was obtained in the United States, and she has enjoyed practising in a variety of settings prior to joining the Department of Corrections.

The New Zealand Department of Corrections has a keen interest in the process of reintegrating offenders into mainstream society. Desistance from offending is an area of burgeoning study in the field which supports and underpins the process of reintegration. The Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) Model (Bonta & Andrews, 2007) is the underlying model the Department of Corrections uses for working with offenders. This book adds a deeper understanding of working with offenders who are in the process of not only moving from offending, but toward pro-social living, and brings to life many practical aspects of responsivity in the process of achieving desistance from crime.

For those interested in broad and historical context, Laws and Ward initially take care to present the background to desistance thinking, reviewing the progression of research which has slowly accrued since the 1980s. They draw upon the seminal research of Sampson and Laub (1993) and the progression of their thinking by Maruna (2001), cogently discussing relationships between criminological, forensic psychological, rehabilitation, and reintegration literatures.

Taking into account that desistance research is currently in the early stages of development, this book presents a framework for supporting rehabilitation and reintegrative work through use of the Good Lives Model. A substantive presentation of the model is given, with assessment and tracking tools, case presentations and formulations developed, and components and potential applications of the model demonstrated.

When used in conjunction with RNR, the Good Lives Model provides grounding and breadth for RNR within rehabilitative reintegration. Desistance theory describes an integration of social and cultural elements, and the Good Lives Model expands and weaves threads from these elements with focus on future orientation, individual application, and contextualised, strength-based, and holistic perspectives. Such familiar elements as motivational interviewing, offence mapping, and dynamic risk factors are parts of the rehabilitative discussion and formulation. This occurs in several phases and results in a plan which is generated by helping the offender identify his particular factors for desistance.

The book ends with a comprehensive and thoughtful discussion regarding ethics and the attendant dilemmas in correctional systems. Robust support of desistance is recommended as the additional necessary element to the RNR focus we are using. Knowing more about desistance process will help us to support it, and using the Good Lives Model may be an effective avenue to increasing this knowledge base.

This book was one of the first of its kind when it was published in 2010, and has been followed by several other books on desistance (e.g., Calverly, 2014; Flynn, 2012; Healy, 2012; King, 2013). Groups of interested practitioners and researchers are increasingly collaborating to describe the phenomenon and process of desistance. This book, however, was a ground-breaker which continues to be current in its views and is home-based for us, being written by a New Zealand researcher. Reading it gives a good foundation for other literature which has since been produced on the topic.


  • Bonta, J. &, Andrews, D. A. (2007). Risk-need-responsivity model for offender assessment and rehabilitation. Public Safety Canada: Ottawa.
  • Calverly, A. (2014). Cultures of desistance: Rehabilitation, reintegration and ethnic minorities. Oxford, UK: Routledge.
  • Flynn, N. (2012). Criminal behaviour in context: Space, place, and desistance from crime. Gloucester, UK: Willan Publishing.
  • Healy, D. (2012). The dynamics of desistance: Charting pathways through change. Oxford, UK: Routledge.
  • King, S. (2013). Desistance transition and the impact of probation. Oxford, UK: Routledge.
  • Laws, R. & Ward, T. (2010). Desistance from sex offending: Alternatives to throwing away the keys. Guilford Press: London.
  • Maruna, S. (2001). Making good: How exconvicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Sampson, R.J., & Laub, J.H. (1993). Crime in the making: Pathways and turning points through life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.