Book review: Global perspectives on desistance: Reviewing what we know, and looking to the future

Edited by Joanna Shapland, Stephen Farrall & Anthony Bottoms
Routledge, London, 2016 (1st edition)

Reviewed by Dr Peter Johnston
GM Research and Analysis, Department of Corrections

Reviewer biography:

Peter Johnston has been with the Department of Corrections for just under 30 years. He started with the Psychological Service in Christchurch as one of three psychologists who set up the first special treatment unit, Kia Marama, at Rolleston Prison in 1989. He moved to the (then) Prison Service, where he was involved in setting up prisoner assessment centres and designing an end-to-end case management system. In his current role since 2004, he leads a team of ten staff who undertake research, evaluations and in-depth analysis of criminal justice data to shed light on trends and developments in the population managed by Corrections, measure the impacts of rehabilitation, and inform policy initiatives.

This book is a serious and significant contribution to current understanding of desistance. Its three editors have each been involved with desistance research for many years and, as is recounted in the introduction, had each been thinking “how wonderful it would be … to bring those who are leading major studies on desistance together in one place, to allow them to discuss each other’s results and what are the current puzzles to be tackled …”. This led to a conference at the University of Sheffield in 2014, attended by around 50 desistance researchers and, ultimately, to the current book.

The book itself is divided into three sections, in which studies with common themes and focuses are grouped. The first section consists of chapters from authors whose research is primarily concerned with the social and circumstantial conditions which influence the individual towards change. Chapters in the second section centre on the concept of stages of desistance, and on life “turning points” which mark the point of real change. The third section contains a number of chapters which usefully explore the relationship between desistance and criminal justice processes. A final “afterword” section then pulls together the key themes and findings from each of the studies, and raises the question of whether a “general theory of desistance” is feasible.

The following are highlights from the studies presented, to provide a sense of where current research is heading, as well as to alert readers to emerging insights that they may wish to delve into more deeply.

In the first chapter (Mechanisms underlying the desistance process) Peggy Giordano reflects on the recurrent finding that desistance seems to be associated with “the diminution of positive emotions connected to crime”. Reasons for this “diminution”, or decline in reward, are multiple and varied, but this observation highlights something that is often overlooked by criminologists – the fact that persistence in crime is frequently maintained by the positive emotions it generates, such as excitement, euphoria and pleasure.

Christopher Carlsson’s contribution “Human agency, criminal careers and desistance” (Chapter 2) centres on the ways and extent to which an individual’s volition is relevant to understanding desistance. He concludes that, though it is a tricky and elusive construct, human agency is nevertheless very meaningful, and something that is crucial to desistance from offending. At one point he asserts that his own reading of the desistance literature demonstrates that “a human agency committed to change is one of the most – if not the most – important predictor of desistance”.

In Chapter 3, Deirdre Healy reports on her prospective study in Ireland designed to capture shifts in participants’ offending, cognitions and social circumstances on the way to desistance. Her primary finding was that “cognitive shifts” – especially the developing tendency, when confronting life problems, to “carefully weigh options”, rather than impulsively react, was highly salient amongst those who succeed in moving away from crime.

Spanish researchers José Cid and Joel Martí give an account (Chapter 4) of a study they commenced in 2010 regarding released prisoners and desistance. Amongst a diverse array of findings, this stood out: “… experiences during imprisonment played a role in the process of change, contributing to feelings of self-efficacy in most desisters … (as a result of) opportunities given by the prison system in areas such as education, work and treatment” (p.76).

Opening the “Life phases and desistance” section, Rolf Loeber and associates examine a range of behavioural aspects of desistance in Chapter 5. Amongst their interesting observations on this topic, they note that complete desistance from crime is typically preceded by progressive increases in “inter-offence time intervals”.

Chapter 6 summarises the Sheffield Desistance Study, a study of 113 males with criminal offences born in Sheffield in the early 1980s. A key finding of this study was that desistance “involved a deliberate change in lifestyle – mixing with different people, avoiding certain places, developing different routines, as well as … learning to react differently to certain potentially testing situations”. They observe also that “offenders are committed to their … criminal self until they determine that the costs of this commitment are greater than the benefits”.

A major US study of desistance is the subject of the seventh chapter by Edward Mulvey and Carol Shubert. Their key observation: studying desistance in adolescents and young adults requires understanding of normal human developmental processes.

Dutch researchers Arjan Blokland and Neik de Schipper examine the extent to which key life course transitions feature in desistance from crime, based on their study involving nearly 1,500 people. While readily replicating the common finding that marriage was associated with desistance in many instances, they also found that parenthood added little to the effect for those who had married; also, that separation or divorce rapidly undid – albeit temporarily – the beneficial effects of marriage.

Following on neatly from the Dutch study, Norwegian researchers TorbjØrn Skadhamar and Jukka Savolainen present the findings of their study to answer the question: Are life course transitions causes or consequences of desistance? They conclude that their findings don’t support a “turning point” hypothesis, but rather that the gradual decline in offending often in evidence before key transitions suggests that the events are more commonly “hooks for change” that is already occurring.

Opening the third section on criminal justice and state interventions, Stephen Farrall presents findings from a longitudinal study commencing in the 1990s which sought to explore the impact of probation supervision on desistance. While acknowledging that, in keeping with many other desistance studies, most of their sample initially denied having gained much from their contact with probation, in later stages “a subtly new story emerged: … far more now reported that probation supervision had helped them”. The main explanation for this appeared to be that advice from probation officers “had lain dormant for many years”, but offenders recalled it and found it valuable when later facing certain situations and stresses.

Mark Halsey then presents key themes which emerged from a decade-long study of offending and desistance in South Australia. His somewhat pessimistic take of the task of “going straight” for young people focuses on the dizzying array of obstacles or hurdles they faced, which are so many and varied that it is almost miraculous than any of them do manage to leave a life of crime behind.

A final chapter by Fergus McNeill is perhaps the best in the book. Interested in exploring how criminal justice processes can aid (or hinder) desistance, he sets out a well-argued framework for improving probation practice to maximise the chances of promoting successful desistance. A choice quote: “… the field of corrections needs its own Copernican correction – one in which supervision and support services revolve around the individual change process, rather than requiring offenders’ lives to revolve around programmes and interventions”.

In summary, this is an excellent book that valuably brings together a wealth of up-to-date and ongoing research on this most important topic. I recommend it highly.