Desistance: Growing out of criminal careers

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Desistance: Growing out of criminal careers

There are numerous theories on why different persons commit crime, from rational choice, social disorganisation, strain, social learning, social control, labelling and biological or evolutionary theories of crime (Briggs, 2009). We even know that crime is committed mostly by males who start offending in their early teens, peak during their late adolescence or early adulthood and usually grow out of their antisocial behaviour by the time they reach their thirties to forties (Maruna, 1997). But until recent years little has been written on the phenomenon of why people grow out of their criminal careers and desist from offending (Maruna, 1997).While for the most part traditional theories explain why crimes are committed, they also tend to infer that as a person ages they should commit more crime. The reasons why persons desist from offending have been as quoted by Moffit as being "the most robust and least understood empirical observation in the field of criminology" (Maruna, 1997). This

Theoretical approaches to desistance

Shadd Maruna describes a dichotomy of theoretical approaches towards desistance. On the one hand Maruna describes an Ontogenetic approach where research points to persons naturally growing out of criminality. While this approach commits to the fact that persons do offend less as they age, they do not correlate directly with biological changes due to age. An example of such changes can be found where an age/hormone graph showing how testosterone levels change with age in males does not correlate directly with an age/crime graph. Other factors such as physical strength that normally peaks at about thirty years also do not correlate directly with age/crime statistics. There is a large overlap in the periods where biological factors and crime figures do indicate that age is a major factor in contributing to desistance from crime insomuch as persons desist from crime as they grow older, but the exact reasons why are still confounding (Maruna, 1997).

On the other hand Maruna also describes a Sociogenic approach to trying to explain desistance. In this case loose ties with criminality and social changes that come upon a person such as relationships, family, bringing up children, completing an education, or finding employment are the chief factors that encourage a person to desist from criminal behaviour (Maruna, 1997). These sociogenic factors, although pointing us somewhat directly to some of the reasons why some persons do not continue their criminal careers still have issues as the reasons why these persons desist depend on other factors too. Who a person gets married to, what kind of employment can be achieved after completing education, even the kind of education that is achieved can influence greatly the chances of desisting from crime (Maruna, 1997). And it’s not only positive influences that commit a person to desisting from crime, a negative education (such as learning criminal skills during incarceration) can influence a person to say enough is enough and suddenly move away from antisocial behaviour. In short, while these theories do give some insight as to why some persons desist from criminal careers they cannot be utilised in isolation. As with most theories in criminology they must be used in order to seek a direction in which to delve into s deeper empirical research on the topic of desistance.

Understanding Desistance

Desistance research can be traced back to the Gluecks who in the period between 1930 and 1960 became interested in and published works on the ending of criminal careers (Farrall & Calverly, Understanding Desistance from Crime, 2006). While in the recent past theoretical approaches to desistance have often been seen as incomplete when viewed in isolation of each other and the intimate search in trying to find a definition of desistance leaves us in a mire of questions that bode further investigation (Laub & Sampson, 2001) current interest in the field has brought fresh ideas to light. When speaking of desistance we can find two contrasting forms, “primary desistance”, that is a short term form of desistance where the offender refrains from committing crime, is not of a great interest to researchers due to its short term effects. On the other hand, “secondary desistance” where the offenders voluntarily change their lives in order to move completely away from criminal careers has sprung the interest of a number of current researchers (Farrall & Calverly, Understanding Desistance from Crime, 2006). This form of desistance is where the offender decides on their own accord and or due to externalising factors, to change their role in society from an anti-social based role and a burden to society to that of a productive pro social person (Farrall & Calverly, Understanding Desistance from Crime, 2006). Current work on desistance can be seen as a change from the dichotic debate between “what works” and “nothing works” activists into something more of a question on what has worked, what has not worked and more importantly what the factors that influenced each of the outcomes are (Farrall & Calverly, Understanding Desistance from Crime, 2006). These factors have been looked into through longitudinal studies of persons who have been in contact with the criminal justice system (Farrall & Calverly, Understanding Desistance from Crime, 2006).

Desistance in females

This all said, not much has been investigated in the topic of female desistance. Some research in female desistance has been made and many parallels between male and female desistance have been made. One such parallel is that, as with males, females tend to desist from reoffending as they grow older. But, the cut off age where females start to desist seems to be when they reach adulthood, implying that desistance in males and females may be a case of maturity where females tend to mature psychologically at an earlier age than males (Farrall & Calverly, Understanding Desistance from Crime, 2006). Similarly, life changes such as marriage, bearing children, employment opportunities and family relationships have all been found to contribute to female desistance (Rumgay, 2004).

Desistance and minorities

Ethnic minorities have been the focus for study in criminal behaviour for many years. The causes that encourage these groups towards antisocial behaviour have been well recorded and studied. But these communities, with their own sub-cultures, norms and traditions have now also become a focus for desistance research (Caverly, 2011). In a study by Caverly it was noted that the family ties in a group of males in the UK with Bangladeshi origin it was noted that in these tight knit patriarchal communities the families went to great lengths in order to aid the offenders while they were incarcerated (Caverly, 2011). This aid was noted by the offenders who in turn saw that other offenders from other ethnicities did not garner the same kind of support from their families (Caverly, 2011). This new awareness of what support they ad from their families brought on the drive towards desistance (Caverly, 2011). Other ethnic minorities have different sub-cultures that may either encourage or discourage desistance among juveniles within their communities (Caverly, 2011).


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