An evidence based summary explaining what desistance is, and how to help someone desist from crime.

What is desistance?

Desistance is the word for how people with a previous pattern of offending come to abstain from crime.

Desistance is a journey. It’s influenced by someone’s circumstances, the way they think, and what is important to them. Each individual’s experience is different.

It doesn’t usually happen overnight. It’s an ongoing process and will probably involve some false stops and starts.

Social scientists have studied desistance for nearly three decades now. This is to understand common patterns experienced by people in their desistance journeys. We now have enough research evidence to guide us in helping people desist.

Desistance research is different from research into ‘what works’ to reduce reoffending. Both types of research are interested in how individuals stop offending. However:

  • ‘what works’ research focuses on the effectiveness of different interventions to reduce recidivism (relapsing into criminal behaviour); whereas
  • desistance research focuses on individual lives over time to understand all the different factors (including but not limited to programmes) that lead to these outcomes.

To help someone desist you can:

  • convey a belief in them and a sense of hope and optimism about how they can live a better life and about their future
  • support them to develop the things that help them to move away from crime
  • build a positive, collaborative relationship communicating respect and encouraging self-respect
  • encourage pro-social recreational activities so they can meet people with similar interests and develop positive support networks
  • provide opportunities to gain employability skills and meaningful work experience
  • provide opportunities to find and keep suitable housing
  • express your confidence that they have what it takes to give up crime and lead a different life
  • encourage and reinforce a new non-criminal identity like helping others - help them test out new identities, for example, being a student, employee or parent
  • support them to develop and maintain positive relationships with family members
  • help them develop a life plan to achieve their goals without harming others
  • help them to recognise what they can give to others, or contribute to their community
  • understand it’s not only about tackling the factors that led someone to commit crime in the past, you also need to recognise and build strengths to help people achieve what is important to them
  • recognise and reward their efforts to give up crime, and encourage and reinforce positive change
  • be realistic - it can take time to change life-long patterns of behaviour and underlying problems, so expect relapses, give second chances and don’t give up hope

What doesn’t help?

  • using language and labels that confirm a criminal identity, having a criminal record carries a huge stigma and limits opportunities for success and reinforcing this stigma isn’t helpful
  • trying to ‘scare’ someone out of crime, by focusing on the damaging consequences
  • only focusing on risk of reoffending
  • telling people what is wrong about criminal behaviour
  • making decisions about people rather than with them
  • telling someone you have given up on them

Further reading

Reconciling ‘Desistance’ and ‘What Works’ Maruna, S. and Mann, R. (HM Inspectorate of Probation 2019)

Desistance as a Social Movement Maruna, S. (Irish Probation Journal Volume 14, October 2017)

Desistance and young people (HM Inspectorate of Probation 2016)

Prospects for a Desistance Agenda (Criminal Justice Alliance 2015)

Understanding the whole person: What are the common concepts for recovery and desistance across the fields of mental health, substance misuse, and criminology? (Revolving Doors Agency / Lankelly Chase 2015)

Evidence and Segmentation Looks at factors linked to reoffending/desistance and ways to address them (NOMS 2014)

Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management report Implications of desistance research for offender management, (NOMS 2014)

Transforming Rehabilitation: a summary of evidence on reducing reoffending includes a chapter on reoffending and desistance (MoJ 2013)

Introducing desistance: a guide for voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations (CLINKS 2013)

How and why people stop offending: discovering desistanceMcNeill, F., Farrall, S., Lightowler, C., and Maruna, S. (Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services 2012)

What Works to Reduce Reoffending Paper promoting desistance (Scottish Justice Directorate 2011)

Understanding Desistance from Crime Maruna, S. (NOMS 2010)

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 3 October 2019