Crime and Desistance: Probing How Probationers’ Thoughts on Crime May Inform Their Conduct

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NIJ on 7/20/2021

The ways that people on probation tend to think about crime can offer important clues about whether they will resume or reject a criminal life. A number of past studies have examined how the cognitions of people on probation relate to recidivism, that is, a return to criminal activity. Less of the research has looked at links between cognition and desistance, that is, refraining from crime going forward. [1]

No consensus definition of “desistance” exists in the literature. Among other widely recognized meanings, desistance has been defined to be long-term abstinence from crime [2] or the gradual slowing down of offending.[3] It can refer to the act of refraining from crime or the process of becoming, or remaining, crime-free.

A recent study supported by the National Institute of Justice has generated novel findings on the cognitions people on probation informing desistance, including insight into:

  • Their beliefs motivating a desire to desist from crime.
  • The tendency of their thoughts on desistance to evolve over time — or remain static.
  • Differences between their own thinking regarding desistance and their community supervision officers’ perceptions regarding those cognitions.

Taken together, the two main segments of the study yielded insights on the nature and prevalence of desistance cognitions. The study team called for caution, however, in reaching any firm conclusions on the significance of those cognitions.

Some major implications of the results, according to the researchers, are:

  • People on probation who are motivated to desist but fear that they will be thwarted by outside factors are at greater risk to recidivate.
  • Community corrections agencies should commit to helping them capitalize on their desistance cognitions.
  • Agencies should not be overly confident that they can identify their core beliefs driving desistance and know how to enhance those beliefs.