“It’s all about the choices I make”: Understanding women’s pathways to desistance

Jill Bowman
Principal Research Adviser, Department of Corrections

Dr Bronwyn Morrison
Principal Research Adviser, Department of Corrections

Author biographies:
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.

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 the Department of Corrections in March 2015 as a Principal Research Adviser. She has previously conducted research on prisoners’ post release experiences, family violence perpetrators, remand prisoners, female offenders, correctional officer training, 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.


Desistance literature has traditionally been dominated by studies focused on men’s desistance, with few studies examining women’s desistance (Rodermond, Kruttschnitt, Slotboom & Bijleveld 2016; Cobbina, 2010; Farrall & Calverley, 2006). In the last two decades, however, there has been increasing recognition that desistance can be a “gendered phenomenon” (Cobbina, 2010: 211; Bevan & Wehipeihana, 2015; McIvor, Trotter & Sheehan, 2009; Graham & Bowling, 1995). For example, it is widely accepted that women desist at an earlier age than men (McIvor, Murray & Jamieson, 2004; Graham & Bowling, 1995). Research has further shown that women may experience different “turning points” to men, and that even when similar turning points are evident these are often different in quality and effect (Rodermond et al 2016; McIvor et al 2004). For example, in their systematic review of 44 studies examining female desistance, Rodermond et al (2016) found that having children and supportive relationships is more important for female desistance. Other processes that featured commonly in female desistance included economic independence, overcoming addiction problems, and increasing individual agency and self-efficacy.

Findings on employment are more mixed; some studies suggest employment aids women’s pathways out of crime, though others have failed to find a link (Cobbina, 2010; Giordano, Cernkovich & Rudolph, 2002). Those studies which have compared male and female desisters typically find that employment has a much greater impact for males than females (see Rodermond et al 2016; Graham & Bowling, 1995). It has been proposed that gendered differences in job quality, namely the low level of women’s work, may reduce the positive impacts of employment on women’s desistance (see Uggen & Staff, 2001).

The role of relationships in desistance also differs by gender, with research suggesting that relationships with partners, parents, siblings, and children are particularly important factors in women’s desistance. According to Cobbina (2010) familial relationships help to facilitate desistance by providing women with financial and emotional support, as well as childcare provision. Desistance studies have further shown that having children can be a key “turning point” and that becoming a parent has a greater impact on women than men (Rodermond et al 2016; McIvor et al 2004). For women, having primary childcare responsibilities has been associated with a greater recognition of the detrimental consequences of offending, and an increased willingness to engage in work-related programmes, which, in turn, has been found to reduce re-offending (Rodermond et al 2016).

In terms of intimate relationships, male anti-social partners have been found to exert a more negative influence on women than vice versa, and while marriage has been associated with men’s desistance (Laub & Sampson, 2003; Sampson & Laub, 1993), it has a more mixed impact on women (Rodermond et al 2016). There is some evidence that leaving poor quality relationships, such as those characterised by family violence, may positively impact female desistance (McIvor et al 2004). Relatedly, achieving financial independence and developing an increased sense of personal agency has also been linked to the termination of female criminal careers (Cobbina, 2010). Research has further illustrated that women take more active steps to dissociate themselves from anti-social peers, and are more likely than men to seek out alternative prosocial networks (McIvor et al 2004).

Re-offending measures consistently reveal that women released from New Zealand prisons re-offend at much lower rates than their male counterparts. For example, of those women released from prison in the 2016/17 year, 36% were reconvicted within 12 months, compared to 48% of men. Gender disparities are reduced, but still evident, in re-imprisonment rates, with 23% of women compared to 33% of men being re-imprisoned within 12 months of their release from prison (Department of Corrections, 2018: 164). This disparity increases with time so that by two years following release, men are one and a half times more likely to be re-imprisoned than women (Department of Corrections, 2018: 166). Gender differences in re-offending rates are widely observed in other jurisdictions, and have remained constant over time (see Spjeldnes & Goodkind, 2009). Despite this, comparatively little research has focused on female desistance, and why it is that women appear to desist more quickly and sustainably than their male counterparts.

Research on female desistance in New Zealand is very limited. Bevan and Wehipeihana (2015) interviewed 54 women who were serving their second or subsequent sentence of imprisonment to identify key factors which contributed to re-offending. This research revealed that relationships, drug and alcohol use and/or addictions, economic pressures and an absence of pro-social supports were key factors in women’s re-offending. It further found that histories of trauma, poverty and crime, alongside a close adherence to traditional gender norms, affected women’s ability to make the identity transformations necessary for desistance. Such findings are undoubtedly valuable for explaining why women fail to desist; however, they offer little insight into how women do in fact desist and whether desistance would necessarily occur should all the factors they identify as leading to re-offending be reversed. As international research has shown, the factors which explain the onset of offending (or, indeed, re-offending) are often distinct from those factors shown to be associated with desistance (Kroner, Polaschek, Serin & Skeem, 2017; Laub & Sampson, 2003; Laub, Nagin & Sampson, 1998; Healy, 2010; Porporino, 2010).

Bentley’s (2014) study of female prisoners’ reintegration offers some additional insights into women’s post release experiences in the New Zealand context. Based on nine interviews with formerly incarcerated women, alongside interviews with a small number of community-based support workers, Bentley’s study emphasised the importance of support, particularly familial support, to women’s successful reintegration. Aside from support, however, Bentley’s thesis predominantly focuses on barriers to successful reintegration, including the impact of criminal convictions on employment prospects and the need to rely on escort work and/or drug dealing in the absence of viable, more legitimate, work opportunities. Demanding or intensive parole requirements, inadequate accommodation, difficulties severing anti-social ties, social stigma, and problems accessing community-based rehabilitation programmes, particularly those which addressed drug and alcohol issues, were also identified as barriers to reintegration. While undeniably offering important insights into factors which forestall reintegration, Bentley’s study has little to say about what factors contribute to decisions to desist from offending, nor how women’s desistance can be successfully sustained.

Campbell’s (2018) recent qualitative study of female desistance in New Zealand has started to fill this gap. Campbell’s research was based on interviews with 20 women who had been released from prison and experienced either a programme and/or some form of (re)integration support. She found that “hitting rock bottom”, (re)finding faith, detoxing from drugs, as well as age-based maturation and being “over” offending lifestyles represented key catalysts for desistance. In terms of maintaining desistance, Campbell found that having strong motivation to change, preparedness to seek help, taking responsibility for offending, developing a greater sense of personal agency, increasing self-belief through generative activities (such as volunteer work) alongside concrete achievements related to employment, study or resumption of childcare responsibilities were all helpful to maintaining decisions to desist. While not identified as such, relational desistance was identified as critical by Campbell’s participants insofar as recognition of achievement by important others (including probation officers, prison and reintegration service staff) increased self-belief and, thereafter, increased desistance resolve. Relocation and avoidance of anti-social peers was also found to be critical. Campbell found evidence that programmes and reintegration services were also useful, especially when they combined practical and emotional support, and helped women to develop better thinking and coping strategies.

While undoubtedly making a key contribution to our understanding of women’s desistance in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Campbell’s thesis was relatively small scale and half her interviewees had been released from prison for 12 months or less, with over a quarter released for six months or less, and one participant, just one week. While well-positioned to identify what helps and hinders women’s reintegration in the immediate post release period, at least half of Campbell’s participants were not well-positioned to comment on the longer term process of desistance. On the other hand, four of Campbell’s participants had been released more than four years prior to the research, with two released seven years prior, creating recall issues. As has been noted in international desistance literature, retrospective cross-sectional study designs (i.e., interviewing people at only a single point in time) are not particularly well suited to illuminating desistance processes as they actually unfold, and can be vulnerable to post hoc rationalisations and re-biographying (Healy & O’Donnell, 2008: 27; see also, Laub & Sampson, 2003; Bottoms, Shapland, Costello, Holmes & Muir, 2004; Weaver & McNeill, 2010; Kazemian, 2007).

There is consequently a gap in our understanding about why and how women go about desisting in New Zealand, despite that fact that just under two thirds of women released from prison will remain conviction free for at least 12 months following release, and half will remain so after two years. The Department’s post release study offers a rich source of information about women’s desistance processes in New Zealand. The study involved interviews with 43 women up to a month before release, and then follow-up interviews at three to six months (n=25), and 12 months (n=7) post release. Owing to its longitudinal design, the study is well positioned to describe women’s desistance processes as they actually unfolded. Of the seven women interviewed at phase three, five out of the seven were desisting. These women were subject to intensive case studies to explore why and how they were desisting, and to identify if there were common factors associated with their desistance success. These results are presented below and their implications for corrections practice considered.

What helps women to desist: findings from the post release study

Results from the Department’s post release research generally support the findings of international desistance literature; however, there are some divergences which are elaborated below. As noted above, the discussion is primarily based on in-depth case studies of five female desisters. Across the full sample, 25 people had not re-offended after 30 months, 13 of whom were women. Of these, four were interviewed at phase three of the study and form the majority of the case studies on which the remainder of this article is based. In addition to those who had not re-offended at all, there were 44 participants who had re-offended, but had done so at an equivalent or lower level than their previous offending. Eight women were included in this group, of which three were interviewed at phase three of the study. Only one of these women had stopped offending by the time of her third interview and commenced the desistance process. Given her re-offending has occurred soon after release and she had been crime free for more than two years, she was also categorised as a “desister” and accordingly included in the case studies.

It is important to note at the outset that the women in the post release study generally had less entrenched offending histories than the male participants, and were more likely to be serving their first prison sentence at phase one of the study. They were also more likely to be in prison for property and/or drug offending than their male counterparts, and generally represented a slightly older age group.

Overall, proportionately more women than men said they wanted to desist at phase one of the study, and they were typically more resolute about their desire to do so. For example, statements that they would “never, ever re-offend” were common among women. During their phase one interviews 53% of the women, compared to 42% of the men, expressed a strong determination to desist. Of these, 61% of the women and 74% of the men were confident they would actually be able to desist. Approaching release, women generally had more humble goals compared to their male counterparts, for example, hoping to reunite with children, and were genuinely more aware of the likely barriers to desistance they would face on release (see Morrison, Bevan & Bowman, 2018).

At phase two, women were generally still more confident about desistance and expressed a greater sense of agency and self-determination than was the case in their first interview. For women, desistance was often viewed as a conscious choice: as Michelle noted, “It’s all about the choices I make”. Men, on the other hand, were generally less confident about their desistance prospects, having often under-estimated the barriers they were likely to face post release. For example, while 56% of women reported a strong determination to desist three to six months post release, less than a third of men (31%) did so.

By phase three, the women who were desisting often appeared to be further down the path to secondary desistance: that is, moving from simply not offending to the assumption of an identity of a non-offender or “changed person” (Maruna & Farrall, 2004). For example, women comprised 35% of the original sample interviewed at phase one, but accounted for over half (52%) of those who had not re-offended 30 months following release. Women in the study generally exhibited more significant shifts towards a non-criminal identity compared to male participants. Such differences, as noted, may be, at least in part, attributable to the less criminally-entrenched status of our female study participants, many of whom were experiencing their first prison sentence at phase one. However, it was also evident that desisting women within the study were being influenced by some different factors compared to their male counterparts.

Female desisters shared a number of common factors, including:

  • geographic relocation
  • severing anti-social ties, including ending anti-social intimate partnerships
  • a high level of reliance on familial support and a key focus on their children, which were often noted to be the catalyst for desistance
  • abstinence from drugs and alcohol, following the completion of an AOD intervention.

These factors are discussed, in turn, below.

The geographic cure

Several women had moved considerable distances from their pre-prison addresses, with two women moving from the North Island to the South Island. Geographical relocation choices were often precipitated by the availability of familial supports in that location, and often involved a conscious decision to sever ties completely with anti-social partners and peer groups. Relocation sometimes resulted in women living in locations away from their children; however, female desisters often accepted that short term separation from children was a necessary part of “finding their feet” and getting themselves into a more stable situation, after which the return of primary care responsibilities would be more tenable. Often permanently reuniting with children was viewed as a long term goal. Relocation could also result in feelings of isolation, with the loss of friendships, and one woman, who had moved to a small town, was subject to gossip about her past. However, they regarded the disadvantages associated with moving as worth it to have a “fresh start”.

High levels of familial support

Female desisters generally benefited from a high level of support from their immediate family members, most typically parents and/or siblings. For example, one woman had moved to the South Island to live with her sister, while her mother continued to care for her daughters in the North Island; one woman was living with her parents, and another had moved in with a cousin. Family not only provided practical support, but also offered moral guidance. As Hine noted, her cousin helped to keep her disciplined and in line by acting as her “wooden spoon”:

“My cousin is pretty good … she sort of knows everything that I’ve gone through, so she’s my wooden spoon.”

The scrutiny that came with living with family could be intrusive, but the women recognised that concerns about their returning to offending was well-intentioned and the living arrangements were only temporary.

With the exception of one woman whose husband was still in prison, all the female desisters interviewed at phase three of the study were single, and reported no intention of entering into a new relationship in the foreseeable future. While some reported feeling lonely, loneliness was generally considered preferable to “bad” relationships. For many, relationships were associated with their offending; one woman had entered into another abusive relationship on leaving prison, but ended this, despite threats of violence to both her and her family, when she entered residential rehabilitation.

Other supports

In addition to familial support, several female desisters commented on the supportive role played by their probation officer. Probation officers were considered especially supportive when they “listened” and seemed invested in the individual, regularly checking up via phone and text messages to see how probationers were going and if they needed any help. One of the women, for example, was able to vent her frustrations about living with protective family to her probation officer. The probation officer of another woman kept in touch with both her and her family while she underwent residential rehabilitation. Often it was the simple offer of help, rather than the substantive provision of help that was important to female desisters. It was also important to a number of female desisters that probation officers, alongside family members, recognised and endorsed their positive changes in ways that increased self-esteem and contributed to enhanced feelings of agency. Those female desisters who spoke most positively about probation all had female probation officers; however, a bigger study would be needed to test whether matching women released from prison with female probation staff results in better outcomes.

Compared to their male counterparts, female desisters often had more options for support and, where family support was not available, were generally more adept at seeking out alternative supports. This was the case for Teresa, a European woman in her late 40s, who had sought assistance from a local church which had previously helped her husband. The church had provided her with accommodation and employment, and generally helped Teresa increase both her social and human capital.

Employment helped maintain desistance

While research has shown that employment is rarely an immediate concern for women post release (Morrison et al 2018; McIvor et al. 2009), it was important to the female desisters in the study. Few were engaged in what they saw as “high quality” jobs. For example, looking at the five women subject to in-depth case study analysis, one was working at a fast food restaurant in a low-level managerial capacity, one was working in a shearing gang, another had worked in a café and had recently started to work at the freezing works, another was undertaking seasonal work, and the fifth was employed in a catering business. The principal value of work for this group appears to have been its ability to provide routine and stability, increase social capital, and help women achieve greater financial independence. The latter was often deemed important to those women living with family members, but who wished to get their “own place” ahead of resuming some primary care responsibilities for their children. Financial independence was also important for those women who had previously experienced violent or controlling relationships (which they saw as being pivotal to their offending pasts). For these women, in particular, a key value of employment appears to be its ability to enhance their sense of agency and self-belief.

As has been found in international desistance studies, there was some evidence that work was associated with legitimacy and formed part of a “respectability package” for these women (see Giordano et al 2002). As Michelle, a European woman in her 30s noted, employment was a means to demonstrate her commitment to having a “normal” life:

“Everybody has to work and do a job and earn some money so they can feed themselves. That’s just what I do. Doing everyday things. The criminal mentality isn’t there.”

Employment was not typically seen as a means of securing a new identity or significantly improving life prospects for women within the post release study. Indeed, for many, work was conceived of as simply a means to an end. That said, compared to male participants, women were more likely to leverage greater social capital through employment, either through forging relationships with other employees or through receiving support from employers. As Hine observed, her employer provided relational desistance by recognising her change and helping keep her desistance efforts “on track”:

“I’ve gotten to know my boss more and he knows the fact that I’ve got a daughter and stuff and those sort of questions started coming out and I told him. He pretty much had already gathered, but he is just happy with how far I’ve come … It hasn’t put a burden on my job whatsoever, he is more than happy to keep me there every day – keep me on track. He is always asking every day, how are you? What is going on? And just making sure that I’m alright.”

In recognition of her struggles with addiction, Hine’s employer brought non-alcoholic beverages to after-work drinks to ensure that she could still safely participate in work-related socialising.

Compared to their male counterparts, women were less likely to focus on “generative pursuits” as a means to “make good” (Maruna, 2001). Maruna found that “generative scripts” were commonly deployed by desisters to “make sense” of criminal pasts and provide meaning to crime-free futures (Maruna, 2001: 102). Generative activities often revolved around activities focused on improving things for future generations by “giving back” to society – through volunteering, counselling, or mentoring young people or those struggling with addiction. Although one of the women was working in the prison ministry, “doing some good work to be able to help other people”, for most women generative aspirations only extended to being a better mother to their own children. Overall, then, while employment did not seem to catalyse desistance and was not viewed as being particularly transformative, it did appear vital to maintaining desistance and accelerating women towards secondary desistance.


A final factor that appears to have been important in female desistance was sobriety. Compared to male participants, female desisters were much more likely to claim that they were completely abstaining from drugs and/or alcohol consumption. As Michelle noted:

“I want a life. You don’t get up in the morning and think about going out and getting wasted. That’s not what I want. I wake up in the morning and want my thoughts to be on my job or my kids or myself and not where is my next hit or what am I going to do to get this.”

A number of women had undertaken substantive rehabilitation programmes targeted at drug and alcohol usage, including the Department’s Drug Treatment Programme, and community-based rehabilitative programmes. Such programmes were often credited with epiphanies about why their offending had occurred, and the consequences of their offending on others, especially their children. More than any other factor, completing a drug treatment programme appeared to be a key “turning point” for female desisters in the post release study. Such findings are supported by international desistance studies, which reveal that while men are more likely to begin offending prior to drug use, women are more likely to start offending after they begin using drugs (Cobbina, 2010). It is not unsurprising, therefore, that developing an understanding of why they used drugs, addressing these underlying issues and ceasing use appeared more likely to lead to criminal desistance among women in the post release study.

Conclusions and some implications for service design and delivery

Female desisters within the post release study were more determined in their decisions to desist, and their resolve strengthened over time rather than fluctuating as was often the case for male participants. Post release, women’s determination to desist often increased as necessary reintegrative foundations were laid down, which, in turn, strengthened women’s sense of agency and self-esteem. An enhanced sense of agency and self-esteem were both related to desistance success.

While common features were evident in men’s and women’s desistance trajectories, such as receiving familial support and obtaining employment, there were some important differences. For example, women desisters were more likely to relocate and sever ties with past criminal associates and anti-social partners. They were also more likely to be pursuing single lifestyles (at least in the short term) as a means to sustain their desistance, and were more accepting of the isolation and loneliness needed to achieve long-term desistance objectives.

Compared to men, women generally had a much wider array of familial support options available to them post release, and often received substantive help from family members, including parents and extended family. Few needed to rely on formal assistance, such as that provided by reintegration services and/or probation. Women often appreciated probation supervision because it provided someone outside of their immediate family to talk to, but few needed any practical assistance from their probation officer, having received the help they needed from friends and relatives. Across the full post release sample women were generally more adept at leveraging support without recourse to formal reintegration services. The only exception to this was employment: with less depth and breadth of work experience, women were often more reliant on formal recruitment pathways, and often needed external assistance to secure jobs. This implies that women may be less in need of “basic-needs” services, such as emergency accommodation immediately post release, but would benefit from employment services targeted later in the post release period, once other reintegration foundations are in place (see Morrison, Bevan and Bowman, 2018).

The study also raises questions from a Risk-Needs-Responsivity perspective about the level of supervision required by women post release in a context where we know women are much less likely to re-offend and often do so at a lower level of seriousness than their male counterparts. Female desisters in the post release study often continued to have weekly appointments with their probation officer well beyond the point which such intensive supervision appeared necessary on account of their risk level. While women often enjoyed having a “good chat” with their probation officer, supervision rarely seemed to “make a difference” to their desistance outcomes. It is possible that these women could have been more quickly transitioned to less frequent appointments, freeing up probation resources to focus on those at higher risk of re-offending. Notwithstanding this finding, it is also important for probation officers to provide relational desistance during the appointments they do have with women by making efforts to recognise and endorse women’s positive changes, and, more generally, developing and maintaining strong working relationships. Such an approach could be anticipated to contribute to more sustained secondary desistance among women.

Although women rarely saw employment to be “transformative”, insofar as most occupied low level positions with little chance of significant advancement, employment nevertheless was an important means through which women increased their social capital by meeting new prosocial colleagues and forming friendships. The new links forged through employment were often an important buffer against feelings of loneliness caused by moving away and severing ties with anti-social influences. Given that men in the post release study rarely managed to increase prosocial support structures through work, it may be that more could be done to emphasise to men released from prison the benefits of using work as a means to increase social and human capital.

Children were widely regarded as the primary “hook for change” among desisting women, who often had aspirations towards resuming primary care responsibilities for their children. Often this goal was considered long-term, and women accepted that many steps needed to be completed to “prove” themselves worthy of this responsibility. Many female desisters had gained new insights into the impact of their offending on their children through drug treatment programmes, which helped to further crystallise women’s desistance resolve. Such findings may suggest that parenting and/or the impact of offending on children could have a greater focus within drug treatment programmes, and/or that pre-release programmes for women focused on parenting after prison might further improve women’s desistance prospects.

It is also the case that leaving negative, and often abusive, relationships played a role in women’s desistance. Prison-based programmes aimed at helping women to achieve healthier relationships would likely benefit both their desistance processes and the lives of their children.

Finally, it is worth reflecting that the women in the post released study interviewed at each of the three phases were not particularly entrenched in criminal lifestyles, and while some had intermittent criminal histories, none of the women subject to case studies could be described as “persistent” or chronic offenders. It is likely that persistent female offenders may require greater levels of assistance to desist from crime, and it is possible that their desistance processes may differ from the women discussed here. Further research is needed to better understand desistance among persistent female offenders.


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