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Desistance Theory: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Amy C. Evans

Amy has a BA/MA Criminal Justice. Worked with youth for over 20 years in academic settings. Avid reader, history and mystery lover.

Desistance Theory is one of many theories that seeks to explain criminal behavior. In this lesson, we will learn about desistance theory, including its definition, and we will explore some examples. Updated: 11/12/2020

Criminology Theories

Criminology theories are theories that try and explain crime and criminal behavior. These theories are often used in the formulation of policies address this topic and to develop programs for offenders and victims. Let's take a look closer look at one of these theories, desistance theory.

Desistance Theory

It's probably more accurate to refer to desistance theories in the plural. For the purpose of this lesson we will define desistance theories as developmental theories that seek to explain why and when humans stop committing crimes as they go through the different stages of life. Desistance typically refers to the ''sustained absence'' of a pattern of criminal behaviors by and individual, and it is a phenomenon that has puzzled criminologists as well as other social scientists who study this subject. While there's evidence that criminal behavior changes over time, the question of why it ceases has yet to be answered and it's actually pretty difficult to come up with a single cause-and-effect relationship to explain this.

Desistance Theory Examples

Desistance theories look at a number of factors that can weigh-in on the course of criminal career. Examples include the following:

Aging-out is posited by desistance theorists as one reason humans cease committing crimes. Research done on the subject actually does bear out that the older a person gets, the less likely they are to engage in criminal behavior. But why is this the case? Some argue that as a person matures, becomes gainfully employed, and has started a family, that they become more invested in social ties which deters them from furthering a criminal career.

Another argument, is that desistance has nothing to do, per se, with social ties, but more about less opportunities to commit offenses because people because they're are too busy with responsibilities to engage in problematic behaviors.

Life circumstances can also be a powerful variable that can discourage criminal behavior. At some point a change in the offender's swayed the pendulum in a more positive direction. Perhaps someone in the community took an interest in them and offered to be a mentor and friend, and maybe even gave the offender a job or the opportunity to for further education. Something happened to intervene and the offender ceased committing crimes. For example, let's say a teacher becomes interested in a troubled student and gets them involved in school projects and helping out their peers on various assignments. This can lead to the student no longer hanging out with a set of friends who might reinforce criminal behaviors. This can also redirect the student to more socially appropriate activities that are reinforced by social ties.

For some people, it's theorized that desistance is the result of a simple cost/benefit analysis. Will committing a particular crime cost the person social standing, family relationships, wealth, or other things that the individual considers salient? If so, the behavior may cease. However, it's important to note that desistance in this context can be temporary. What if the benefit is greater than the cost later on for a different crime? Then what? The individual may resume committing offenses.

Another reason desistance may happen has to do with a rational choice to stop. For some, the revolving door of recidivism (which means the tendency to repeat criminal behavior) becomes too much, for others the pain they cause loved ones may be a factor. Regardless, they're using their own self-autonomy to make the choice, not because of someone is making it for them. They are finding a purpose that replaces their desire to commit crimes.

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