Becoming ill, the illness can sometimes not be diagnosed, symptoms show themselves yet, professionals fail to find the problem. The concern in terms of understanding desistance is, it’s becoming misunderstood. Our increased awareness of the phenomenon subjects it to what I would describe as unhealthy elements translating it into practice. Is it becoming undiagnosed of a fatal malady, or just at risk of catching one? I’ll explore this suspected problem briefly outlining fears rather than evidence, it’s an exploratory examination. I’ll explore how I perceive the understanding of desistance, and how unhealthy pathogens might destroy the true meaning.

In terms of ‘understanding desistance’ I’m going to follow Professor Fergus McNeill’s call at the Offender Supervision in Europe Conference earlier this year to “keep it simple”.  The most simplest way possible to understand what it is, is to quote John Laub and Robert Sampson on page one from ‘Understanding Desistance’ (2001) – “Why do they stop offending?”

Personally, in terms of understanding desistance, it began in 2004 while attending college. A tutor introduced me to the subject of desistance due to my interest and experience of being an offender, and a person who stopped offending. In terms of my perception of change that occurred, to be described as ‘rehabilitated’ did not fit comfortably with me or my narrative. The most comfortable description in terms of reformation was to have ‘gone straight’. Although, ‘going straight’ or to have ‘gone straight’ offers little depth in terms of understanding the phenomenon of personal change. It was merely a colloquial for the cessation from crime.

Desistance on the other hand from the perspective of experiencing it, is different. It guides those wishing to understand the narrative of personal change involving all the factors important in terms of the individual narrative. Desistance in terms of academia and now practice is or was described as theory. If you’re a protagonist, experiencing it, living it – desistance, is not theory. It is a reality, and to borrow a term from Emile Durkheim, a ‘social fact’. If the onset of crime is considered a social fact, then its inversion should also be considered a social fact, particularly from those living it.

In terms of what type of pathogen might be infecting how we understand desistance in terms of causing disease, I will start and finish with the criminal justice system. I’ve had the privilege to be involved in two projects illuminating desistance. The first started just before leaving university in 2009. I created a website with a domain – I shared academic texts and other links and opinion in terms of ‘understanding desistance’. Through this medium I became involved in terms of consultancy and a part in the film ‘The Road from Crime‘ sharing my narrative with the Discovering Desistance team in 2011. So it’s fair to say I’ve got a good grasp of what the agenda was in terms of academia and research sharing knowledge with criminal justice, practitioners and policy makers.

I’ve been observing the reaction from the criminal justice system since 2009 in terms of discovery, awareness and adoption of understanding desistance. I’m not going to out organisations I think have got the message wrong. I just want to share fears that desistance in terms of what it fundamentally is, is getting lost in translation.

I’ve observed since 2010 ‘Breaking the Cycle’ Green Paper and the birth of the ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ and it’s post policy initiative ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ a sprint to use the term desistance. In terms of the pathogen, it is the rush to use the word ‘desistance’ and claim to understand how to use it. It has become a buzz word for marketeers and bid writers. I apologise for not showing examples, I’ve spent enough time over the years from an angry and confrontational position and don’t wish to antagonise. I would rather share my concerns universally so we can all look carefully at how we approach using desistance in practice.

As I said earlier I consider those living it, and those who wish to use it in practice, you must move away from ‘theory’. My experience of desistance is not theory, I’ve lived it, done it, I wear the t-shirt. When discussing creating practices to motivate desistance the language commonly been used by organisations is taking away responsibility for change from the person changing. If that syntax is to continue then it’s a return to the language of rehabilitating people. My main concern is that the sprint to advertise an organisations practices promoting desistance is loosing in translation the fundamental tenet of desistance, it is they who change, it is not you changing them or their behaviour.

Hopefully it is not a disease in terms of the symptoms observed, and just a runny nose. We all have to be aware of the dangers of getting it wrong. The cost to society for failing to deliver services that hope to help people desist from crime is costly and dangerous. In terms of why I’m writing this, is to point out the danger services and practices have on the true meaning of desistance and tenet. It’s imperative for desistance to be true and tangible for the person who becomes an ex-offender to believe they did it, they achieved it, they created the change. Otherwise, you don’t understand desistance.


Durkheim, E. (ed) Lukes, S. (1982) The Rules of Sociological Method. London. The Free Press.

Laub, J.H. & Sampson, R.J (2001) Understanding Desistance from Crime. Crime and Justice Vol. 28, pp. 1-69

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