“I’m trying to change my ways”: The desistance processes of persistent offenders

Dr Bronwyn Morrison
Principal Researcher, Department of Corrections

Jill Bowman
Principal Researcher, Department of Corrections

Phil Meredith
Principal Analyst, Research and Analysis Team, Department of Corrections

Author biographies:
Bronwyn has a PhD in Criminology from Keele University, UK. She has worked in government research roles in New Zealand for the last 14 years. She joined Corrections in March 2015 as a Principal Researcher. She has conducted research on prisoners’ post release experiences, family violence perpetrators, remand prisoners, female prisoners, public perceptions of crime and criminal justice, and the fear of crime. She was also the primary author of the 2009 New Zealand Crime and Safety Survey main findings report.

Jill has worked for the Department of Corrections for nine years as a principal researcher following a variety of roles in both the private and public sector. She has conducted research on literacy and numeracy in prisons, methamphetamine use and treatment experiences, substance abuse and mental health comorbidity, correctional mental health services and prisoners’ post release experiences.

Phil has worked for the Department of Corrections for 18 years. He started his Corrections’ career as a Probation Officer, and held positions as Senior Probation Officer and Service Manager prior to joining National Office in 2008. Since this time he has worked in a variety of analytical roles, including making significant contributions to the Community Probation Change Programme. He has held his current position since early 2014.


In March 2019, there were over 620 people in New Zealand prisons who had amassed a hundred or more convictions over the course of their criminal careers. Most of these prisoners were male (96%), their median age was 43 years, and almost two thirds (63%) identified as Māori. Two fifths (41%) were recorded as being gang affiliated. On average, these persistent offenders have spent a total of nine and a half years incarcerated in New Zealand prisons, with more than two thirds accumulating ten or more separate prison sentences during that time. For the majority, their criminal histories are dominated by dishonesty offending. Over 80% have been cycling in and out of the criminal justice system for three decades or more, with three-quarters acquiring their first criminal conviction before they entered their twenties.[1] The costs of policing, criminal court proceedings, and incarceration associated with this group are undoubtedly considerable, while the social and emotional impacts of their offending are also likely to be considerable.

There is some evidence that the concentration of persistent offenders is increasing in New Zealand. For example, while the overall prevalence of offending has dropped in recent years, data suggests that those who remain in the system are, on average, higher risk and have more extensive criminal histories than before. This situation is the predictable outcome of policies aimed at diverting first time and low-level offenders away from the formal criminal justice system, which has been the case in New Zealand for many years. The logical by-product of the systematic diversion of low level offenders is an increase in the concentration of more serious, persistent or chronic offenders within the known pool of offenders being sent through formal criminal justice channels.

This situation has implications for Corrections, as persistent offenders represent particular challenges for rehabilitation and reintegration services. Many persistent offenders will have high levels of rehabilitative need, especially in relation to drug and alcohol abuse and/or addiction, as well as enduring mental health problems. Most will have previously completed rehabilitation programmes with seemingly little success. Persistent offenders also face significant barriers to reintegration. After decades of failed releases, many will have lost or at least significantly eroded familial and other informal support networks. Few will be married or have stable long-term relationships, many will be estranged from their children, and most will not be returning to stable accommodation. A large proportion will have never held permanent employment, let alone have an established skill or trade. The majority will have left school at an early age with no formal educational attainment. Alongside these barriers, decades of repeated prison stays will have caused significant institutionalisation, whereby the norms of prison culture will be psychologically ingrained, leaving people struggling to manage normal facets of life outside prison.

As both local and international research shows, persistent offending is an anomaly: for most, offending peaks around age 16 or 17, and then sharply declines with few people continuing to offend past their mid-20s (Moffitt, 1993; Farrington, 1986). For most offenders, therefore, crime is an “adolescent-limited” phenomenon (Moffitt, 1993). Research suggests that only a small proportion (typically around 5% to 6%) of adolescent offenders become chronic or persistent offenders who continue to offend beyond their mid-twenties (See Moffit, 1993; Shover, 1996).

According to Moffitt (1993) “life-course-persistent offenders” are more likely to start criminal careers at a younger age and engage in a wider variety of offending. Moffitt contended that life-course-persistent offenders suffer from “cumulative continuity”, whereby anti-social tendencies evident at pre-school age continue and interact with social and environmental factors, such as permissive or otherwise poor parenting and/or school exclusion, and intensify across the life course. While altering form (moving from, for example, biting and hitting at preschool, shoplifting and truanting at age 10, selling drugs and stealing cars in the teenage years, through to violent offending and workplace embezzlement in adulthood) anti-social behaviour remains a staple feature across the life span. As Moffit (1993: 679) stated:

“Continuity is the hallmark of the small group of life-course-persistent anti-social persons … the underlying disposition remains the same, but its expression changes form as new social opportunities arise at different points in development.”

While Moffitt’s (1993) theory accounts for the continuity in the “troubled lives” of persistent offenders it offers little insight into discontinuities. A well-developed axiom within criminological scholarship is that crime declines with age: a point which is also true for persistent offenders (Shover, 1996; Laub & Sampson, 2003). As Laub & Sampson (2003: 150) observe:

“The role of offending declines with age, even for high rate and presumably chronic offenders, making the notion of the life-course-persister, problematic.”

Despite this fact, surprisingly little has been written about how persisters eventually desist from crime (Laub & Sampson, 2003). Persisters often appear in desistance studies merely as counterfactuals against which desisters may be compared to reveal fundamental differences between the two groups (Maruna, 2001; Sampson & Laub, 1993). For example, Maruna (2001) argues that persisters are “doomed to deviance”; they blame negative turning points in childhood for their subsequent criminality, have a low level of personal agency, characterised by a “ubiquitous feeling of helplessness” (Maruna, 2001: 76). As a consequence, they see themselves as victims of circumstance, rather than having an active role in decision making (Maruna, 2001: 83). Persistent offenders rely on “condemnation scripts” which involve “a self-absolutory narrative” in which a negative present follows linearly from a negative past (Maruna, 2001: 75). They talk about being “burned out” and “fed up” with “the system”, but don’t think they are capable of making changes to their lives. Persisters lack the positive pull or generativity used by desisters who claim to be on some form of higher mission to “make good” and “give back” to society (Maruna, 2001).

In their extensive longitudinal study examining over 500 delinquent boys to age 70, Laub and Sampson (2003) found that persisters had never or rarely worked, retained delinquent peer associations into adulthood, held anti-authoritarian views and saw criminal lifestyles as preferable to conformity. They typically also had longstanding drug and/or alcohol addiction issues, and held a pessimistic view of the world and human nature. Few had been married or had close personal attachments and most were “devoid of connective structures at each stage of the life course” (Laub & Sampson, 2003: 194). While presented with “hooks for change” (Giordano, Cernkovich, & Rudolph, 2002), persistent offenders were typically unable or unwilling to avail themselves of opportunities to leverage themselves out of criminal lifestyles.

The problem with such accounts is that they fail to adequately explain the fact that most persisters eventually desist, meaning that any identified differences between the two groups are likely to be either temporary or arbitrary. Further, by juxtaposing desisters and persisters, such research typically elides the fact that desistance is a process rather than a static state or stable personality characteristic.

Several questions arise from this critique: most crucially, given their lack of social capital, education and work experience, addiction problems, high level of institutionalisation, attachment to criminal peers, and generally pessimistic outlook, how do persisters overcome these barriers to eventually desist? Second, what, if anything could be done to help persisters to desist earlier in their lifecycle? Finally, how can corrections agencies help to catalyse, accelerate, and sustain desistance among seemingly persistent offenders?

Findings from the post release study

The Department’s post release study offers some preliminary insights into these questions. This research was based on interviews with 127 prisoners as they neared release from prison (including 45 women and 82 men), with follow-up interviews conducted three to six months post release (n=97) and at 12 months post release (n=38). Fieldwork for the study was carried out between December 2015 and March 2017, and took place across seven prisons and a wide variety of communities distributed across New Zealand.

In terms of persistent offenders, two distinct groups of interest emerged from the post release study. The first group was comprised of an older group of individuals who appeared to conform to the description of “life-course-persistent offenders” (Moffitt, 1993) but who nevertheless appeared to have commenced desistance processes. An examination of this group has the potential to offer insights into how persistent offenders desist: what helps and what gets in the way, and, crucially, what role corrections agencies can play in this process. The second group of interest was comprised of younger participants, who bore all the hallmarks of “life-course persistent offenders” and, while often claiming they wanted to desist, had generally failed to do so since their original release, having struggled to avail themselves of various “hooks for change”. An exploration of this group affords an opportunity to examine why “hooks for change” fail to take hold among this group and consider what more could be done to try and leverage people out of persistent offending at an early stage of their lifecycle.

Desisting “persisters”

The desisting persisters group was almost exclusively comprised of male offenders, many of whom were in their 40s or early 50s at the time of their final interview. Many had offending histories spanning three or more decades, usually including a wide range of offence types (i.e. property, violence, and drug offending). They had all experienced multiple sentences of imprisonment. The offending-centred lifestyle of this persistent group was entrenched, normalised and all-encompassing. It was not unusual for members of this group to have amassed over one hundred convictions each, and many had spent half or more of their adult lives in prison.

It is fair to conclude that this group faced much greater barriers to desistance than other groups within the post release study, particularly in the areas of homelessness, (un)employability, absence of prosocial support, high levels of institutionalisation, and longstanding addiction issues. Most claimed to have wanted to desist for at least a decade, and had commenced primary desistance multiple times without ever having moved on to achieve the more sustained non-offending patterns associated with secondary desistance, where more permanent shifts towards a non-offender identity are apparent (Maruna & Farrall, 2004).

Unsurprisingly, they tended to be less optimistic and more cautious about their desistance prospects. Following multiple failed attempts to desist, many expressed a diminished sense of agency. Thus, despite claiming they wanted to desist on the one hand, they often felt that desistance was not simply a matter of personal choice, but was instead something ultimately determined by forces beyond their control. For example, on being asked whether he would re-offend, Tony, a Māori male in his mid-40s, replied:

“I can’t say it. Who knows? That’s it, I can’t say it … I won’t lie to you, but who knows. I could be anywhere, I don’t know where …. Anything is a big risk. I’m one of the biggest risks: high risk, you can’t get bigger than that.”

Overall, there was much less evidence of grand identity shifts underway among this group. People often claimed that they were in the process of “trying to change” rather than asserting they had, in fact, made a significant change. As Wayne, a NZ European offender in his mid-40s stated:

“I just want to make some more efforts … I think if I put my mind to it more … it’s just early stages at the moment … At the moment that’s why I try to be more real, more honest to myself that I can’t [re-offend].”

Unlike women and younger people, positive “hooks for change” (Giordano et al., 2002) were often absent within this group. When asked why they wanted to desist, therefore, many claimed that they were simply fed up with the “hassles” of their offending lifestyle, particularly repeated terms of imprisonment. Many claimed the nature of prison life had fundamentally altered, and that old rules and hierarchies had dissolved, leading to a much greater sense of unpredictability. For most, the rationale to desist was negatively framed as wanting to avoid further imprisonment, rather than any positive desire for a better life. Most worried about growing old in prison. In the rare cases where “hooks for change” did occur, these typically pertained to new roles as grandparents. Being a “good” grandparent was, at least for some, constructed as a means to “atone” for one’s past parental shortcomings.

While not a “hook for change” per se, employment nevertheless remained a key desistance enabler for this group. Employment was rarely associated with significant identity shifts within this group. This occurred only where employment was construed as more professional and/or in keeping with long established career objectives. In such instances, employment could be the mechanism through which people reclaimed a previous positive identity as a “hard worker”. Many persistent offenders, however, had poor employment histories, and few held aspirations beyond simply holding down a job. For these people, employment helped desistance by providing structure and routine to their days, keeping them busy, and avoiding boredom and keeping away from “bad influences”. As Tamati, a Māori male in his late 30s, noted:

“Work’s work and I like work because it’s the same thing every day. A routine and that’s what it is, a routine … that’s what I’ve always liked about jail, I know where I am and I know what’s going to come …”

For many in this group, therefore, employment was considered functional: it could support desistance, but did not appear to catalyse it.

Importantly, few persistent offenders had managed to increase their social capital through employment opportunities. People often claimed they didn’t avail themselves of social opportunities afforded through work, as these typically involved alcohol consumption and, as such, represented a “high risk” situation. The absence of social capital resulting from employment often had a significant impact on this group, many of whom had abused or exploited and, consequently, lost what prosocial supports they may have once had.

In a similar vein to Maruna’s (2001) findings on desistance, persistent offenders who were attempting to desist frequently claimed to be engaged in some form of “generative” activities. The generative pursuits mentioned included: helping their children or grandchildren/moko, helping other younger people and/or addicts, taking part in voluntary work, and taking up leadership roles in hobbies or sports groups. Such pursuits seem to be part of a broader narrative of “normalisation”, which often involved a desire to demonstrate a conventional stake in mainstream society or achieve a degree of citizenship. People appeared to derive more personal benefit from generative activities when such activities had resulted in recognition from others – whether probation staff or family – of more fundamental shifts in identity and permanent markers of desistance. Again, this echoes findings from international research on relational desistance (Maruna, 2001; Nugent & Schinkel, 2016); however, findings from the post release study suggest that generative pursuits may be even more important for those who lack familial support or “bridging social capital” (Nugent & Schinkel, 2016: 580; see also Healy, 2010) and, on account of decades of offending, are less able to reclaim a positive “true self” (see Maruna, 2001).

Another critical factor associated with desistance among this group was avoiding negative influences, particularly gang connections. Leaving gangs was a complex undertaking, and some achieved this more successfully than others. Gang exits typically worked best when the departure was negotiated, which often involved the individual providing some useful service to the gang, such as “taking the rap” for charges on behalf of others. It was also helpful to have family members who were in senior positions within gangs to “approve” one’s departure, as well as having a plausible reason to leave (i.e. putting family first after a lengthy period of imprisonment). Where people were perceived as being indebted to gangs, or had some ongoing and specific utility to a gang, exiting could be more difficult.

Having spent many years in prison and having been entrenched in criminal networks for extended periods, many attempting to desist struggled to sever ties with criminal associates completely. As Tony observed, “I get on better with a lot of ex-inmates than outside people”. However, most had attempted to change the frequency of, and contexts in which they interacted with criminal peers to “avoid trouble”. For example, Wayne acknowledged that he was still hanging out with his friends who were all “users”, but was quick to point out that he wasn’t engaged in drug use. He noted:

“I tell people if they are going to use any form of drugs, do it outside or go use it somewhere else but not here. And they go, ‘Oh, don’t be a pussy’, type of thing. I said, ‘No, I’m not being like that’. The fact is I don’t use, why should I let other people do it in my house if I’m not doing it … I’m not going to put my health and my house at risk if a dumb person wants to do something like that.”

Examples of “diachronic self-control” (Shapland & Bottoms, 2011: 274) were also common, where people reported attempting to remove themselves from bad influences through isolating themselves, often by staying at home on their own. Of course, only time will tell whether avoidance in the absence of forging new prosocial links is sufficient for sustained desistance; indications from the post release study, however, suggest that those who develop new, positive links generally do better than those who isolate themselves in order to avoid criminal associates and risky situations.

Across this group, poor problem solving and coping skills was one of the most common stumbling blocks to successful desistance. This finding is in line with international research which has shown that many of those released from prison adopt problem-solving strategies which are unlikely to positively resolve their problems and are just as likely to exacerbate them (see Zamble and Quinsey, 1997). Years spent in institutions affected people’s coping strategies in multiple and, at times, contradictory ways. On the one hand, there was a strong sense that people needed to deal with their problems on their own, without asking for assistance. Many of those further along the desistance process talked about finally being able to accept help from others, which for some represented a key “turning point”. Several men in this category had experienced childhood sexual victimisation and/or physical abuse. Receiving counselling for these experiences, as well as positive experiences with Corrections staff (for example, receiving support from education tutors, custodial officers or probation staff) had often helped these people to start trusting others sufficiently to receive other forms of help. A contrary impact of institutionalisation was a common belief that people were wholly reliant on others to sort out their problems for them. As Tamati noted:

“So how come I keep going back to jail and getting blamed for crimes I’m committing when I’ve pretty much got no choice but to commit them?”

A further product of institutionalisation was a relatively rigid sense of morality or fairness, reflected in perceptions of post release problems in very black and white terms. For example, Tony had been placed in shared accommodation with a woman previously unknown to him after being recalled, losing his accommodation, and then being re-released on parole. The woman had significant mental health issues and, as Tony put it, would frequently “go nuts” smashing up the flat and threatening to damage his possessions. He had called Police on numerous occasions to deal with escalating interpersonal conflicts with his flatmate, who had formally been evicted but refused to leave the flat. Tony had been encouraged by both Police and his probation officer to try and compromise with his flatmate and to seek alternative accommodation himself. He was refusing to do either because she was the person with the problem behaviour who had been evicted and it was not fair that he should be disadvantaged by her behaviour.

Similar problems had also emerged at Tony’s work where conflict had arisen between Tony and a group of younger staff who he perceived to be lazy and ineffective. He did not tell his manager, because this would constitute “narking”, which, in turn, resulted in mounting animosity and interpersonal conflicts. This culminated in his loss of employment (a position obtained via a Release to Work placement and retained for many months post release) despite the fact that he was not the origin of the problem and was described as a reliable and hard worker. Probation efforts to empower Tony to manage his own problems, as is frequently recommended by desistance literature (see, for example, Farrall, 2002), were thwarted by Tony’s idiosyncratic sense of moral justice apparently forged over several decades of incarceration, and his associated assumption that others should adjudicate over conflict situations (anticipating that he was in the right, and others in the wrong would be dealt with accordingly).

A factor which seemed to encourage desistance amongst some in this group was the provision of practical help or support. For example, receiving help to find a job or enrol in a course, locate suitable and sustainable accommodation, obtain household items, or practical advice about how to manage interpersonal problems were identified as positive “turning points” for some persistent offenders. As noted above, when such help was provided by Corrections’ staff (whether prison-based staff or probation officers), it could sometimes lead to a more fundamental reformulation of attitudes towards accepting help from others and cement what were hitherto only partial desires for desistance. For some people, offers of support, even when the help did not result in the outcome sought, were equally important catalysts to desistance. This is because the offer of help often signalled that “respected others” recognised the person’s desire to change, and believed that they were capable of change. In this regard, aside from the obvious practical benefits of employment and housing, the perception that others believed that the person was worthy of help was important.

Looking across the different individual case studies of people within this group it is clear that their desistance processes had similar features in common. For persistent offenders, desistance was often framed as a less taxing alternative to repeated imprisonment, rather than being viewed as a positive means to obtaining a better life. There was less evidence of significant shifts in identity and desistance was more often viewed as a somewhat haphazard daily struggle, contingent on a range of uncontrollable external factors (“I can’t say what will happen tomorrow”), rather than an incremental progression. While many within this group were reliant on others to help them, they typically had fewer prosocial supports to leverage. On the other hand they often had difficulties trusting others and asking for, or receiving, help. Without assistance, people within this group regularly defaulted to ineffective and typically self-defeating coping strategies. When practical help was provided, however, it could have broader psychological benefits and could help to reinforce desistance goals.

That many within this group had been claiming they wanted to desist for ten years or more, and exhibited zig-zag patterns in and out of offending throughout this time, is a sobering thought, and raises the question of whether something could have been done sooner to encourage desistance at an earlier stage of the life-course. In consideration of this question we turn to the lives of a group in their 20s at the start of the post release study who, by the end of the study, appeared well on their way to life-course persistent offending.

Young persisters: life “off the rails”

Of those currently in prison with 100 convictions or more, 50 (8%) are 30 years or younger. On average young persisters have each accrued 125 convictions and received 10 custodial sentences. The average age at which they received their first prison sentence was 17.6 years and to date they have spent an average of 6.7 years incarcerated. Almost two thirds of this group (62%) are gang affiliated, and most are classified as “high risk”.[2] Māori account for nearly half this group (n=48%), with NZ Europeans accounting for 44%, and Pasifika for 8%. An examination of lives of younger persisters within the post release study offers some useful insights into why people persist in offending beyond their 20s and what opportunities might exist to accelerate their movement towards desistance during these years.

Compared to older persisters, younger persisters were often more ambivalent about desistance: as Vince, a 19-year-old European male observed, “I can’t really be confident. [Prison] didn’t scare me that much, or not as much as it should have”. While many acknowledged that they’d “been doing this sh*t too long”, few had any solid goals for life post release, whether in relation to re-offending or seeking a “better life”. As one young man noted, “I don’t have any concrete plans, but there are some big possibilities for me …” A number talked about looking for work, but few had taken active steps to organise employment prior to their release. Few had any substantive work experience, and many had left school prior to turning 14, with no qualifications. Some showed evidence of wanting to engage in “generative pursuits”, but such aspirations were often rather whimsical. For example, Brendan, a Māori male in his early 20s, dreamed of getting into the music industry:

“When I get out of here, that’s going to be my motivation, get into the music industry. Get a studio going. Yeah, maybe take a few of the brothers before they go down the wrong path, take them with me and try and lead them into something positive instead of making mistakes.”

Employment was often considered important by these young people. As Brendan observed:

“Work is an absolute must. If you’re not working then how are you going to support yourself financially?  … You need money for food, clothes, you need things to pay rent. You have to live. You can’t do things by yourself, you need help. Money is good, money makes the world go round I guess. It’s a job what does it.”

Some of the young persisters had been unable to find work post release and were financially struggling. Despite this, it was not uncommon to hear strong views about not accepting “hand outs” from WINZ, as Vince, a 19-year-old European male noted, “I just don’t believe in [the benefit]. I don’t think you should be paid to sit on your arse and do nothing”. As another young persister noted:

“I don’t believe in taking money from Work and Income. Especially knowing it’s pretty much a hand out, you know, coming from people’s hard work pay that they’re getting taxed on. Half the people on the benefits aren’t even actively seeking jobs or anything … so I’m not really a fan of taking a hand out. I’ve always been independent … unfortunately I had to do crime.”

For those who weren’t working, life often lacked any purposeful activities, as Brendan noted: “I’m not doing anything now”. Having left the highly structured environment of prison, young persisters often struggled with the lack of daily routine they encountered on the outside: as Brendan remarked, “I just need more structure”.

For those who did work, the pressure of holding down a job could generate stress and anxiety, which, in turn, led to increased drug and alcohol use. For others, long hours and good pay could help to support a “life as a party” lifestyle (Shover and Honaker, 1991: 14). Vince, for example, worked as a chef and frequently engaged in heavy drinking sessions with his boss and work colleagues, and used his wages to purchase drugs and cars for burn-outs and “drifting”.[3] Several young persisters reported having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which affected their ability to sustain work due to getting easily bored, or simply being too tired to come to work having had difficulty “winding down” and getting the sleep required to function at work. Again, drugs and alcohol were often present in these scenarios to assist people to relax after work.

Importantly, work was seldom a means to increase social capital or connectivity. Where increased connectivity did happen through employment, this was seldom prosocial in nature. Overall, there was little evidence that employment functioned as a positive “hook for change” among this group, a finding echoed in international studies which suggest employment has only marginal benefit for offenders under the age of 26 (Uggen, 2000).

More generally, young persisters lacked social capital and “connectivity”. Several were estranged from their families, or had on-and-off relationships with their parents. Most experienced only fleeting intimate relationships and none had enduring relationships. This often left young persisters in dire circumstances post release, with many having limited prosocial avenues for meeting their basic needs. Several were wholly reliant on formal support mechanisms, such as Corrections-funded services and aid provided through religious organisations to help meet basic living needs. Despite receiving assistance, this support often backfired for young persisters (for example, supported accommodation brought them into contact with criminal peers, and/or was associated with drug and/or alcohol use), and few managed to leverage any additional social capital through these mechanisms. For example, Brendan had received considerable practical support from a church-based charity. When asked how church formed part of his social life he replied, “I haven’t got any social life with anyone [at church]”. The support Brendan received was therefore limited to addressing his basic practical needs and appeared relatively “transactional” in nature. Brendan reported no religious epiphany and revealed little desire to find a new life for himself within the church community. Over time his interactions with the church became limited to “crisis calls” when he lacked food, accommodation or felt he needed to be “rescued” from a “high-risk situation”.

Young persisters were also much more likely than their older counterparts to retain active links with criminal associates, including gangs. Few viewed this to be problematic, despite often acknowledging the role of gangs in their past offending. While many claimed they were no longer technically members of gangs, most conceded that many of their friends were members, and that they were continuing to associate with gang members on a regular basis. Their inability to sever criminal ties appeared to be a common factor in the downfall of young persisters post release.

A final common feature among young persisters was a lack of agency, with many of the belief that they could not determine what would happen in their lives, which they saw as directed by forces outside their control. When being asked what their future would hold, a common refrain amongst this group was “I don’t know. You can’t say what’s around the corner”. A victim-mentality was commonplace, with young persisters seeing themselves as victims of the criminal justice system, and victims of circumstance: as one young persister stated, “I am a victim to poverty I guess”. As has been commonly found amongst persisters in other international studies, many believed that bad events in their childhood (including abuse, neglect, homelessness, gangs) has set in train a seemingly irreversible chain of negative consequences:

“I got involved with gangs, drugs and alcohol and ended up in the old CYFS houses. My mother ended up in a mental hospital. I guess I just went off the rails from there …”

In this context, continued offending was often positioned within young persisters’ accounts as the only logical option. As Brendan stated, “It’s just part of our DNA just to fail”.

Implications for practice

In a context where we have 50 young people currently in prison who have already amassed over one hundred convictions each, encouraging earlier desistance among this group would seem a worthy investment, both socially and fiscally. Three main implications for corrections practice arise from this research:

First, it is encouraging that many older persisters contemplated desistance at earlier stages of their criminal careers, with some commencing primary desistance multiple times. More effort could be placed on helping persistent offenders identify and capitalise on positive “hooks for change” (Giordano et al, 2002). Within this work, there is likely to be a place for encouraging “generative pursuits” (Maruna, 2001), and also recognising and celebrating people’s initial efforts to change, i.e. relational desistance (Nugent & Schinkel, 2016). More could be done to emphasise the transformative role of employment, particularly as a mechanism for increasing social capital. It is also important to reflect on “what went wrong” during previous desistance attempts, in order to improve desistance prospects for subsequent releases. This should form a staple feature of release planning.

Second, as the zig-zag desistance pathways of persisters attest, simply wanting to desist is seldom enough: people also need the means. As Burnett and Maruna (2004: 395-6) argue, successful desistance requires “the will and the way”. While the desire to desist is important, the very real practical problems experienced by persistent offenders should not be obscured. In a context of diminished personal resources and support, persistent offenders are often highly reliant on corrections agencies to leverage the practical support needed to commence primary desistance (for example, accommodation, employment or access to income support). Based on findings from the post release study, it appears that offers of practical assistance for those with little support can help cement desistance resolve and furnish the sense of confidence and hope necessary to overcome impediments to secondary desistance. As international research has demonstrated, desistance can begin without a conscious decision or significant cognitive transformation (Laub & Sampson, 2003: 279). It is therefore possible that the provision of support, delivered with kindness and compassion, can help catalyse the desistance process before people have come to a decision to stop offending.

Third, as has been found in international research, those who re-offend both perceive and experience more problems than those who desist (Zamble & Quinsey, 1997), and as the above findings show, persistent offenders are likely to encounter significant and compounding problems after they leave prison. For this reason, greater emphasis should be placed on developing effective problem solving and coping strategies (both pre and post release) which can start to address entrenched patterns of institutionalised thinking and behaviour. This will also require encouraging people to increase their sense of personal agency: people must want to desist and believe that it is within their grasp to do so. Certainly the weight of criminological evidence is on their side, as most people can and do desist.

Evidence to action: Service investment and enhancement

Since the post release study began in late 2015, there have been a wide range of service expansions and improvements across the Department which are directed towards addressing many of the issues raised above. Most notably, Corrections has almost doubled its investment in community-based employment and supported accommodation reintegration services in the past five years (from $11 million in 2014 to over $20 million in 2017/18). Of the 7,160 referrals made to reintegration services in 2017/18, 42% pertained to people with 50 or more previous convictions, while 12% related to individuals who had a hundred or more convictions. Consequently, persistent offenders are being targeted by reintegration services in a way that appears consistent with the overarching Risk-Needs-Responsivity model followed by the Department more broadly.

In October 2016 Corrections introduced the Offender Recruitment Consultants (ORC) service: a service involving Corrections staff directly liaising with employers to find employment placements for people being released from prison and/or serving community sentences. By January 2019, over 2,300 people had achieved employment placements through the ORC service. In addition to obtaining employment, the ORC service is complemented by in-work support provision, helping people to maintain employment once secured. As this article has shown, such support is likely to be particularly invaluable to young persistent offenders who struggle to retain employment, and carries the potential to help both young and old persisters to grow their social capital through employment.

Corrections has also been piloting a range of initiatives aimed at improving people’s “social connectivity” through whānau engagement. A key example includes the WHARE programme for young acquisitive offenders; an offence category particularly over-represented in the population of persistent offenders. Running in both prison and community settings, this programme innovatively combines rehabilitation and reintegration services, and incorporates a focus on whānau engagement. Recent evaluation findings reveal promising results, particularly in the area of whānau engagement (Duncan and Caughey, 2019). In a similar vein, the Wraparound Family Support Pilot, launched in June 2017[4], works with family and whānau of offenders with mental health problems to help develop a supportive environment in which to sustain treatment gains (Bowman, Barnes and Thomson, 2018). Since the start of the pilot, 200 families have been referred to the service. Corrections has also recently partnered with Te Taiwhenua to introduce a community-based residential facility (Te Waireka) for women in the Hawke’s Bay region. One of the goals of this project is to increase women’s connectivity with local iwi and whānau ora based service providers. Given international evidence on the importance of social connectivity to desistance (see, for example, Laub & Sampson, 2003; Farrall, 2002), and the general absence of such support in the lives of persistent offenders, such approaches are likely to be of particular benefit to this group.

Although problem-solving and coping skills have formed a staple feature of Departmental rehabilitation programmes for many years, in 2018 the Department piloted a new induction programme, Kia Rite, in women’s prisons, with a strong focus on enhancing problem-solving and coping skills. An equivalent programme called “Head Start” is being piloted in men’s prisons. Introducing such skills early within people’s prison sentences allows these skills to be embedded across the duration of a person’s sentence, enabling more advanced problem-solving and coping skills at the point of release. These skills will be especially beneficial for persistent offenders who, as shown above, often struggle to effectively manage the myriad of practical problems they face post release.

Between March and October 2018, the Department has also been piloting a Short Violence Prevention Programme (SVPP) at Otago Corrections Facility. Delivered by Department psychologists, this programme targets the complex criminogenic needs of men at high risk of general and violent re-offending. The programme specifically targets those serving short sentences, who nevertheless rapidly cycle in and out of prison, and who have traditionally had insufficient sentence time available to attend longer high-risk programmes such as the Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation Programme. A recent review of the pilot has revealed positive results in terms of reductions in the incidence of violent and aggressive events in prison (see Perkins, this edition)). With a quarter of the persistent offenders currently in prison having ten or more previous violence convictions the SVPP would be expected to have a positive impact on this group.

Finally, within Corrections’ Gang Strategy (2017-2021) a Gang Engagement Framework is being designed to support staff working to reintegrate gang-affiliated offenders. It will set out an approach for working with gang affiliated offenders who are motivated to live crime-free lives through a strong focus on rehabilitation, reintegration, and disengagement. Given the significance of gang affiliation in the lives of persistent offenders, particularly young persisters, the framework is expected to benefit this group.

[1] These figures are based on muster data extracted on 12 March 2019.

[2] Utilising the Department’s RoC*RoI classification, the average risk categorisation for this group is 0.83. High risk is defined as 0.7 and above, medium 0.3-0.69, and low >0.3.

[3] Drifting is a risky driving technique where the driver intentionally over steers, with loss of traction in the rear wheels or all tires, while maintaining control and driving the car through the entirety of a corner.

[4] Wraparound Family Support Services were piloted in Manukau, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Dunedin.


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