Desistance as a Framework for Supervision

The editors and publishers of The Springer Encyclopedia Criminology and Criminal Justice (edited by G. Bruinsma and D. Weisburd) have given their permission for me to post on the blog a new book chapter (technically and Encyclopedia entry) that the Discovering Desistance team wrote a few months ago, in an attempt to summarise arguments about the implications of desistance research for criminal justice supervision. I have copied the Introdcution below, in an attempt to whet your appetite — you can find the whole chapter via the link at the bottom or on the Useful Resources page.

Desistance theories and research seek to understand and explain how and why people stop offending – and stay stopped. The notion that such studies might provide a framework for offender supervision, and even for criminal justice interventions more widely conceived, has a long history – dating back at least to the work of the Gluecks (Glueck and Glueck, 1937[1966]). If, as they argued, desistance is about maturing out of criminal conduct, what could be done through criminal justice interventions to ‘force the plant’, or to accelerate the maturational process? The question is, of course, a very good one, not least in the context of contemporary preoccupations with the economic, human and social costs of reoffending by ex-prisoners (see for example, Ministry of Justice, 2010) and with the broader challenges of ex-prisoner reentry (see Petersilia, this volume).

And yet, between the 1930s and the end of the 20th century, hardly any use of desistance research to inform sentencing and correctional policy and practice is discernible. Instead, the story of this era is the familiar one of the rise and fall and rise again of rehabilitative interventions; a historical cycle linked to but not fully explained by debates about their effectiveness or ineffectiveness. Though these two topics – the process of desistance from crime and the effectiveness of rehabilitative interventions – are obviously linked in several ways, the connections between them did not begin to be properly explored until the turn of the century.

Today, debates and discussions about desistance and how to support it through criminal justice interventions seem to be bubbling up all around the world of corrections, not just in jurisdictions with deep cultural and historical connections, like the UK and the USA, but also in places as diverse as Norway and Singapore. 

This chapter does not aim to explain this upsurge of interest in desistance, nor does it engage with the important and interesting question of when desistance research is relevant (and irrelevant) to criminal justice (see McNeill and Weaver, 2010). Suffice it to say that unless criminal justice is concerned on some level with rehabilitation and reducing reoffending, desistance theory and research is unlikely to have much purchase. But to the extent that sentencing and correctional systems, and more specifically to the structure and practice of supervision[1], are concerned with these outcomes, understanding how and why people stop offending (with or without help or hindrance from the justice system) has obvious appeal. 

Rather than seeking to review theories of and evidence about desistance itself, this chapter has the more modest aim of charting the emergence and development of the arguments advanced over the last 12 years about the implications of this body of work for offender supervision. Readers with little or no knowledge of the desistance literature would be well advised therefore to first read this Encyclopedia’s chapter on ‘Desistance as compared to rehabilitation’.


[1] Throughout the chapter we borrow the US convention of referring to ‘sentencing and corrections’, meaning the end of the justice process where sanctions are decided and then delivered. Our particular focus is on supervisory sanctions; i.e. those sanctions or elements of sanctions, like probation and parole, which involve the supervision of the sentenced person in the community.  

Desistance as a Framework for Supervision


[1] Throughout the chapter we borrow the US convention of referring to ‘sentencing and corrections’, meaning the end of the justice process where sanctions are decided and then delivered. Our particular focus is on supervisory sanctions; i.e. those sanctions or elements of sanctions, like probation and parole, which involve the supervision of the sentenced person in the community.