Desistance is the process of individuals ceasing engagement in criminal activity. It may sound simple but it is quite complex, and the more we understand it, the better equipped we are to help accelerate the process before people are incarcerated or once they leave prison or jail. NIJ Journal Editor Beth Pearsall hosts a conversation on this topic with Senior Social Science Analyst Marie Garcia, Senior Advisor Ben Adams, and Social Science Research Analyst Kaitlyn Sill.
This episode of Justice Today was produced by and discusses the work of the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
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ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Welcome, everyone. I’m Beth Pearsall, the Managing Editor of the NIJ Journal, and I’m your host for today’s show where we’ll be talking about desistance. I’m joined today by three guests from NIJ, and I’m going to ask them each to introduce themselves right now.
MARIE GARCIA: Hi Beth, this is Marie Garcia, and I’m a Senior Social Science Analyst in the Office of the Director at NIJ, and thank you for having me today.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Hi Beth, thanks for having us. I’m Ben Adams, Social Science Analyst and Senior Advisor in the Office of the Director at NIJ.
KAITLYN SILL: I’m Kaitlyn Sill, I’m a Social Science Analyst in the Office of Research and Evaluation. I’m really excited to be here.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Great. Well, welcome and thank you all for being here with me today. So, as we begin, I wanted to first share with you all a story that’s related to our conversation today. Last night, I was telling my husband about our show and how we’d be talking about desistance. But before I could even, you know, explain what that meant, he stopped me and he said, “Wait, I already know what desistance is. It’s the opposite of recividism.” Now, I know for my preparation for our call today that it’s a little bit more complicated than that, so Kaitlyn, I was hoping that we could start on a more general side and talk about, you know, what is desistance? Is it simply the opposite of recidivism?
KAITLYN SILL: Well, that--first off, you shouldn’t divorce your husband over this. That’s a really common misconception, that desistance is just the inverse of recidivism. So, he’s there with most other people. A way to really understand the difference is to really--is to start by thinking of, what does recidivism look like? So recidivism means somebody who committed a crime commits another crime, also known as reoffended. Oftentimes, this looks like somebody may have been rearrested, or reconvicted, or returned to jail after release. In a recidivism framework, success is often looked at in a really binary sense, yes or no, where success is no--where success means no, someone did not recidivate or they did not commit any more offenses.
Desistance though looks of reoffending in a much more nuanced way, that focus is not on the yes or no, but on the process through which criminality declines, or the propensity to offend declines. So the process by which people come to not reoffend or come to cease engaging in criminal behavior. The key to desistance is to really focus on the process, and the recognition that the process doesn’t occur overnight. So it’s not like a switch that someone flips and suddenly ceases all criminal behavior. Rather, it’s--ending criminal behavior occurs gradually and over time, it may incur fits and starts, it may involve backsliding. In the recidivism approach, a person either reoffends or does not reoffend. In the desistance approach, a person can be making progress or be on a trajectory to stop reoffending when--while still engaging in criminal behavior.
So a way to think about the difference between recidivism and desistance is to think about quitting smoking. To apply a recidivism lens to quitting smoking, the question you would ask is, “Did this person smoke another cigarette?” If the answer is yes, they recidivated. So we all know people who’ve been able just to stop smoking and never pick it up again. But we also know that this is really uncommon. More commonly, we know people who try to stop, maybe try multiple times, then maybe they move from being a one a pack a day smoker to a pack a week, then maybe they finish a pack and just don’t go out and buy another. But then they go out and they, like, ask somebody for a cigarette because they’re smoking, and so this becomes a smoke once or twice a year, to maybe they don’t smoke for a couple years, to maybe once a decade. In the recidivism framework, this person is still a smoker. They are still engaging in smoking. In the desistance framework, they’re in the process of desisting, in that they’re making progress towards eventually ending or ceasing engaging in that behavior.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Kaitlyn, I think that’s a really good analogy, and I think it’s also helpful to consider desistance from crime in the context of developmental and behavioral changes, sort of in a trajectory from adolescence to adulthood. So I think folks are maybe a little bit familiar with the visual that criminologists refer to as the age-crime curve. And basically, it’s a curve that shows the relationship between age and crime. And it shows across a lot of different data sources and samples that criminal behavior, generally, increases during adolescence: it peaks in late adolescence or early adulthood, and then decreases thereafter throughout adulthood. And I think intuitively this makes a lot of sense, right? Kids are different from adults, adolescence is kind of a period defined by risk-seeking behavior. Over time, there’s a natural maturation. And that’s--that includes biological changes as well, right? Brain structure and function is actually developing during that time. So kids really have a lot of social, emotional, and biological changes that put them in a position over time to increase things like impulse control, their future orientation, and to better manage anger, resist peer influence. That transition to adulthood also brings a lot of different types of social bonds and changes, whether that’s employment or marriage or becoming a parent. So I think the point with the age-crime curve is that, while it indicates that many individuals are going to mature or age out of engaging in antisocial or criminal behavior, and that there’s going to be some influence of biological and social factors, that process is not going to be the same for everyone. And like you said, there are many different pathways to desistance.
MARIE GARCIA: That’s a great point, Ben. So, focusing on the complete termination of criminal behavior is just not adequate, and it’s not realistic. As Kaitlyn mentioned, her analogy about smoking, it’s just something that happens over time, it fits and starts, people backslide, and we just don’t know when it’s going to happen for someone, but we do know that it can happen. So, focusing on desistance from crime as a one-time event is just not the way we need to look at this, in terms of research and policy and practice. So the process is gradual and continuous, as Ben mentioned, when it comes to kids and learning, you know, over time, how to control their anger and impulse control, and those types of things, so we expect setbacks. We know from the reentry and desistance from crime literature that many people are arrested on several occasions before actually going to prison and jail and serving a term of confinement. And we also know that when they come out of prison or jail, some of them will be rearrested, or they will return to custody. So as Kaitlyn mentioned, we see fits and starts. And so, this is really how important it is to know the difference between reentry, recidivism, and desistance from crime. They’re very, very different, and desistance is a long-term view of criminal behavior.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Okay. Great. So just--you know, I’m hearing that, you know, these pathways vary from person to person, it takes time and setbacks are common. That’s great. But my question is, well, how do we actually know that desistance is happening?
KAITLYN SILL: Going for the hard questions to start off with, Beth. This is a really important question, and it’s perhaps the key question when it comes to translating the concept of desistance, from this theoretical thing that we are talking about into the practical, and using it in the context of policy and practice. That said, this is a major challenge because how do you show progress in something that is a process? That moves through fits and starts, that takes time? In other words, how do we distinguish between someone who will persist over time or someone who will eventually terminate or end criminal behavior. As the author of one of NIJ’s volumes on desistance pointed out, sometimes this can be akin to Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion describing obscenity as “I know it when I see it.”
This type of “I know it when I see it” approach though just doesn’t really work in the context of applying the concept of desistance into the practical. It doesn’t really work to justify policies or programs, particularly, as we don’t necessarily know it when we see it. What we do know is that there are multiple things that the research literature has correlated with desistance. This includes steady employment, stable housing, strong family ties, quality marital relations, military service, becoming a parent. But it’s not sufficient to say that because a person has these things, or experiences these things, that they’re going to desist or cease engaging in criminality. Similarly, it doesn’t say that because these things are not in place, people will continue to persist. This is why your question is probably one of the hardest, but one of the most important questions. We have to be able to know it when we see it, and we have to be able to tell people that we know it when we see it.
MARIE GARCIA: You’re absolutely right, Kaitlyn. We can conceptually wrap our minds around this idea of no longer committing crime. But as she mentioned, it’s difficult to track, you know, how do we know it when we see it? What does this actually mean for us? And as I mentioned previously, desistance is a long-term process. And not just two, three, five years; this could take decades for someone to actually desist from crime, and to actually be able to conceptually and empirically say, yes, they have actually desisted, and here is how we know these things. So this is a long-term process. It’s really difficult for policymakers and practitioners to know when we’re actually being successful in what we’re--in desisting from crime, like, what does it actually look like? You know, how do we know if we’re moving the needle? You know, how do we know that change is actually occurring? Like, this is what makes this line of inquiry very challenging, as Kaitlyn mentioned, but also very interesting and ripe for innovation.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Great. So you both just hinted a little bit about what this means for policymakers and practitioners, but Kaitlyn, can you expand a little bit more on that? What does the desistance approach mean for policy and practice?
KAITLYN SILL: Well, this is always a question for researchers, which is, this is where the rubber meets the road. How does our research and what we understand in the theoretical perspective actually tie into policy and practice? And the key to this is, at some point, someone is going to ask the question: did a policy or program promote desistance from crime? So, while it’s true what Marie said earlier that from a theoretical and research perspective, focusing on the complete termination of criminal behavior is not adequate because it’s unrealistic. This is true from a desistance framework, in the theoretical. From a policy and practice perspective, this can be a really hard sell when you’re trying to justify funding programs or implementing policy change.
So let’s step back and think about this tangibly. Let’s say, based on the research literature, we know that stable housing promotes desistance. So we have practitioners that go out and say, “We need money to provide supportive housing.” And we have policymakers who find millions of dollars in their budgets to provide housing. Under the desistance framework, this would help people desist from crime faster than they would without housing. But that doesn’t mean that people are necessarily going to cease engaging in criminal activity because they have supportive housing. But inevitably, taxpayers are going to say: “did my investment--did my tax investment make us safer?” So policymakers are going to turn to practitioners and say, “Show me. Show me how this made people safer. Show me that your program, my million-dollar investment resulted in desistance.” In the desistance framework, a positive answer might be, “Well, people are on the path to desist from criminal behavior sooner than they might otherwise;” or “people are committing fewer crimes who have gone through our program than we might otherwise expect them to;” or “so this person who previously committed an assault was subsequently arrested, but it was for a burglary.” You can see why this would be a harder sell in the policy and practice world.
So in the situation of desistance, where crime changes may be minor or occur over a long period of time, it becomes even more important to communicate with stakeholders about what desistance means, and how that may translate into increased public safety in the short term and in the long term. So we need to be able to communicate indicators that somebody is on the path to desistance, even if they haven’t fully terminated engaging in criminal behavior. And we need to be able to provide interims findings. As Marie said, this is a process that can--occurs over a long time, and it’s really hard to ask somebody, stick with us, through ten budgetary cycles, for us to demonstrate the impact of this. So, if we can demonstrate interim findings and say, “look, there’s some evidence and we’re getting there,” and maintain investments in those long-term assessments.
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Yeah. I totally agree, Kaitlyn, in your point about communicating and translating scientific information effectively about desistance. And in addition to that, it really needs to be more regularly incorporated into criminal justice metrics. So how we operationalize and measure desistance, I think is an important question like we’ve been discussing. But not only for theorists and longitudinal researchers, also for, you know, the researchers and analysts who are working in our criminal justice agencies, right? They’re the ones that are supporting standard statistical reports, providing performance metrics, you know, providing information to agency decision-makers and other policymakers. And, you know, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy; binary measures like recidivism are just much easier to measure, track, and explain. But, we may be able to learn a whole lot more from indicators that try to capture the desistance process.
One example I’ll provide is work being done by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and their Planning, Research, and Statistics staff. And in addition to the standard recidivism data that they report, they’ve been looking into how to measure and publicly report desistance based on concepts of deceleration, de-escalation, and reaching a ceiling. And you can think about deceleration as basically slowing down the frequency of offending, de-escalation as a reduction in the seriousness offending, and reaching a ceiling as cessation from crime or the end of a criminal career. And some of the preliminary analysis comparing the sample before and after incarceration suggests that nine of ten individuals met one or more of these definitions of desistance in the follow up period. You know, that really sort of changes the story or tells a different story relative to standard recidivism rate, which in Pennsylvania, is about six in ten individuals who are released from the Department of Corrections return were rearrested with three years of their release from prison. So again, this raises questions about what should be considered progress, and what the implications are for our policy and practice decisions.
MARIE GARCIA: Absolutely, Ben. And I couldn’t agree more with your comments about providing, you know, better metrics and measures of desistance for practitioners that are in--that are doing this important work in the system. With regard to program evaluation, as Kaitlyn mentioned, and as Ben also mentioned, there’s a desire to show immediate effects, you know, is this working? Is our--is our people safer? Are--is our funding being used effectively? But with regard to desistance, we just don’t know those answers very quickly. So--and as we mentioned before, a complete cessation of criminal behavior is just not likely right out the gate. So we need to be able to look at this over time.
This makes program evaluation really difficult. It’s really difficult to capture positive outcomes that are beyond recidivism, you know, specifically, did someone get arrested? Yes or no? That’s an easy metric. And that’s probably the most common metric that we have with regard to capturing recidivism. But it doesn’t paint the whole picture, as Ben mentioned, it’s not a very holistic way of looking at the experience of desisting from crime, especially when we need to assess the effects of interventions. Now, we know that a lot of things in our lives take time, so when we give someone who’s coming out of prison or jail, you know, a certain type of program or services, you know, that will help them desist from crime, over the long haul, we need to actually have time to measure those things. So it’s difficult to measure, because of time, because of money, and because of a lot of different factors.
And more importantly, there are questions that are really difficult to answer. For example, how do we measure meaningful family engagement? Like what does that mean? That could mean something very different from--for me than it does for Ben and Kaitlyn. So how do we measure something that’s really subjective? And additionally, how do we capture the notion that someone is--has redeemed themselves, this idea of redemption? You know, how do we know that they have increased feelings of hope for their future? Again, it’s very subjective, and these aren’t yes or no questions. So program evaluation is really difficult. But again, this is a really great place to start doing really interesting work. And we’re excited that we get to talk about this today, and that we actually are having an impact in the field.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Keeping all of these challenges that you’ve all mentioned in mind, you know, I’m hearing desistance is complicated, it’s hard to measure, research takes time. Marie, can you help me understand where NIJ fits into all this?
MARIE GARCIA: Yes. Absolutely. So NIJ is making a lot of strides in the desistance from crime literature. In 2010, Dr. John Laub joined NIJ as our director, and he was with us for about two and a half years. And for those who don’t know, John is a distinguished professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, emeritus now. And John and his research partner, Rob Sampson, engaged in some of the most seminal work in the desistance from crime literature. Their research that you can find in Crime in the Making, and Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives really developed a foundation for all of the work that we see today. So having John at the agency really helped us develop how we wanted to invest in desistance from crime research.
So over the years, we’ve had several solicitations, you know, request for proposals. And most recently, we--in 2021, in the fall, NIJ released a volume of desistance from crime white papers, and we have six really thoughtful and engaging authors write different papers on desistance from crime from very different perspectives. And to support the release of the volume, we also held a webinar, which is available on nij.gov. So we’ve continued to make investments in funding distance-based research. And again, as we’ve mentioned, you know, we have a history of funding, historically relevant longitudinal and extensions of longitudinal studies. So as we’ve mentioned, you know, several times now and myself a few times, we--in order to actually measure success, and whether, you know, determining whether or not someone is desisted from crime, we need to actually look at this over the long haul. So, NIJ has supported a lot of studies that have looked at desistance from crime, and we are actually supporting additional waves of data collection so that we can learn more and more and kind of grow those datasets, so we can answer more interesting questions. And we’re going to continue our inquiry into desistance from crime in the current fiscal year. On our website, you can find that we have a forthcoming solicitation. And so we’re actually, you know, we’re going to--we have all of the recent investments that we’re making, we have the current investment, and we’re really excited about what we’re going to fund this year.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Great. So Ben, can you talk a little bit about what NIJ hopes to learn through this investment in desistance?
BENJAMIN ADAMS: Yeah, sure, Beth. I think one major goal for this research moving forward is really to understand strategies that might--and interventions that might better support or accelerate the desistance process, right? So as we’ve been talking about, if we think of desistance as a process that occurs over time that’s influenced by turning points or life experiences, we need to figure out effective ways both to identify those factors and support that progress for individuals. So we’ve heard from Kaitlyn and Marie about stable employment, and housing, and relationships, whatever might be the case, but it’s not a checklist. It’s--some of these things may be present, and offending may still be occurring. So I think we want to have a better understanding of the mechanisms of change at the individual level. But also think about policies and practice, practices and where they might be more supportive, where barriers might be removed. What do you think, Marie?
MARIE GARCIA: So absolutely, Ben, I absolutely agree with you. And then from the different perspective, we need to look at what disrupts desistance from crime. So you talked about what motivates it, what helps people desist; we also need to understand what keeps them from engaging in this longer term desistance from crime process. And as we’ve mentioned, this won’t look the same for everyone. You know, how people engage with their families and employment, you know, providers and everything they do in the community is very individual, it looks very different for everyone. So what’s disruptive for me may not be disruptive for my colleagues. It’s just everything is very individualized.
And we also can look at the disruptions with regard to a system response. So as I mentioned, a lot of people who come out of the system will return. So we can see a term of incarceration as disrupting one’s desistance trajectory. And when you go back into custody that means you can’t work anymore, that means you’re going to lose your housing. And they could also be detrimental to your relationships. So it’s very disruptive in that way.
We can also look at this with regard to policy responses. Our listeners might know or have heard the term Ban the Box. Now, this is an instance where background checks are used to potentially prevent someone from gaining employment. And what we know is that there are a lot of laws and policies in place that actually do prohibit people with criminal records from getting employment. So what we want to do, we know that that keeps them from engaging in prosocial behavior like employment, from contributing to their community, from engaging with their community. So we know there are some policies that actually are disruptive themselves. And there are collateral consequences that we know NIJ has done a lot of research on.
And we also can look at this from an individual perspective. When people come out, you know, from prison, as Kaitlyn mentioned, it might take six months, it might take nine months for them to reengage. But for some of them, that’s the honeymoon period, right? They’re excited to be out, their families are happy to see them. So they haven’t yet returned to their behaviors just yet. So they might start engaging in substance use, whether it’d be alcohol, or drugs, or a mixture of the two. They might suffer from traumatic brain injury, which has impacts on physical and mental health. So there are other things that could really be disruptive. So what’s really important that--to understand is that these are just examples of factors that can be disruptive, which is why we need research to understand their impact, and not just their impact on the person but their impact on the long term desistance process.
KAITLYN SILL: Building on Ben and Marie, I want to pull together the point that for all of this knowledge that we need to gain about what helps accelerate the desistance process, what disrupts the desistance process; where this really becomes valuable and where this is--perhaps the key to this is translating this into programs, policies, practices that actually help people desist from criminal behavior. From a research perspective, then, it highlights the value of conducting evaluations on those things, to assess are they effective at actually helping people to desist. To do that, assessing desistance based interventions need to focus on more than criminal justice outcomes. As you’ve heard, criminal justice outcomes, such as being rearrested, re-incarcerated, don’t capture the whole story of what it looks like for someone to desist. And so as we’re looking at these evaluations, we want to look at outcomes in line with the desistance framework. This does two things. First, it allows us to better actually capture what desisting from crime looks like, but it also helps us provide further insight on what is happening as people are going through the process. When we’re able to able to look at these noncriminal justice outcomes, we’re able to say this is actually moving the needle. This is actually helping people in the long term desist from criminal behavior.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Great. So we’ve covered a lot of ground today and it’s been a really great conversation. I’d like to wrap up with one final question that I hope will be helpful to our listeners. If you all had one message about desistance that comes through from our talk today, one key takeaway for listeners, what would it be?
BENJAMIN ADAMS: So I’ll start and kind of build on the foundation that Kaitlyn set in the last question. One thing is that this body of research in the more recent NIJ volume really provide an opportunity for us to move beyond recidivism as the justice system’s singular metric of success or failure, right? We’ve introduced a few ways to think about how to measure progress or success on more of a continuum, rather than a binary, yes or no response. But, you know, that’s going to require the ability to collect and track a lot of data on individual progress and setbacks and do that over longer timeframes. It also requires indicators of desistance beyond just crime, as Kaitlyn said. So you’re thinking about changes both in things like self-control or antisocial attitudes, but also positive outcomes, like healthier relationships or improve self-esteem.
And one way to think about facilitating this is by of course, supporting additional research, and Marie mentioned that NIJ has been doing this by funding expansions and extensions of longitudinal research focused on delinquency and crime in the life course, but we also need new efforts with more contemporary samples. One of the things I mentioned at the start of the podcast was the age-crime curve, right? But it’s important to note that youth arrests, youth offending have declined substantially over the past 25 years more so than for adults. So that peak in late adolescence is not as steep and that curve has flattened a bit. So we need to think about how we track desistance in the process that ensures the policy and practice are incorporating you know, the most recent evidence for the populations that are being served today.
KAITLYN SILL: And for mine, I think that probably the underlying tone of this entire podcast and so for this, I’m going to say that I’m going to be the little drummer boy, because this I’m hoping will be an earworm, much like the Christmas song, but also much like banging my drum, is that we need to be conducting evaluations of desistance based policies, practices, and programs in a way that truly allows us to assess and understand the process of desisting from crime. And what everything everyone here has pointed out, comes to the point of, we need to be able to take a long term approach, whether this be through longitudinal data collection, we need to be able to look at noncriminal justice outcomes. And we need to have a recognition that desistance is a process that occurs over time, that includes backsliding, and is going to occur in fits and starts. So we really need to be adaptable and our framework and our narratives about what it looks like to be successful in the prevention and intervention sphere.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Well, thank you, Marie, Kaitlyn, and Ben for joining me today to talk about desistance. It’s been a really great conversation. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. We hope you enjoyed it. Please stay tuned for additional episodes of Exhibit S.
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