Research: How and Why People Stop Offending: Discovering Desistance

APRIL 2012 • Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services
Insights – Evidence summaries to support social services in Scotland

Written by: Fergus McNeill, Stephen Farrall, Claire Lightowler, Shadd Maruna

Full Report (12 pages)  

From report:

This Insight provides a brief introduction to the research evidence about the process of desistance from crime. It also explores some of the potential practice and policy implications emerging from this evidence. It has been prepared as part of a wider project, Discovering Desistance (, which aims to share and extend knowledge about desistance and how criminal justice supervision can better support individual efforts to change. In this project, the forms of evidence involved include not just academic research (as traditionally understood!), but also the knowledge of ‘desisters’, of people subject to supervision, of the ‘natural’ supporters of desistance within family and social networks, of criminal justice practitioners and managers, and of policy makers.

Key Points:

  • Better understanding of how and why people stop offending (the desistance process) offer the prospect of developing better criminal justice practices, processes and institutions.
  • By focusing on positive human challenge and development, research about desistance resists the negative labelling of people and the unintended consequences that such labelling can produce.
  • Evidence about the process of desistance has led some to identify a range of principles for criminal justice practice, including:
    • being realistic about the complexity and difficult of the process
    • individualising support for change
    • building and sustaining hope
    • recognising and developing people’s strengths
    • respecting and fostering agency (or self-determination)
    • working with and through relationships (both personal and professional)
    • developing social as well as human capital
    • recognising and celebrating progress
  • Desistance is about more than criminal justice. Desistance requires engagement with families, communities, civil society and the state itself. All of these parties must be involved if rehabilitation in all its forms (judicial, social, psychological and moral) is to be possible.



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