Key findings

  • Desistance should not be seen as a quick or easy process – it can take considerable time to change entrenched behaviours and the underlying problems. Three stages of desistance have been identified – primary, secondary and tertiary.
  • The role of probation is to assist and support individuals desist from crime – there are too many factors at play for probation to ‘cause’ desistance.
  • The research highlights the importance of both internal factors, e.g. what the individual believes in, and external/social factors, e.g. the supportiveness of those around the individual.
  • Desistance research also emphasises the need to:
    • adopt an individualised approach, recognising that the desistance journey is different for each individual
    • develop positive relationships – individuals are influenced to change by those whose advice they respect and whose support they value
    • recognise and build upon people’s strengths, rather than focusing solely on individuals’ deficits.


Desistance is the process of abstaining from crime by those with a previous pattern of offending. It is an ongoing process and often involves some false stops and starts. The desister is placed front and centre in the process of desistance, recognising that each individual’s experience is different – the process is influenced by an individual’s circumstances, the way they think, and what is important to them.

Desistance research takes success stories seriously. The research does not start with programmes and aggregated outcomes, but individual lives and personal trajectories. Recognising the individual as the agent of change, desistance research explores individuals’ social contexts, embedded social networks and subjective interpretations as keys to understanding long-term life change.

(Maruna and Mann, 2019)

Summary of the evidence

The process of desistance

Desistance theories accept that the process of desistance is neither a quick nor easy process, with the analogy of a journey being adopted to illustrate the complexities. It can take considerable time, potentially many years, to change entrenched behaviours and the underlying problems. Lapses and relapses should be expected and effectively managed.

Three stages of desistance

Desistance has been described as involving the following three stages:

Text reads 'Primary desistance: behaviour - the cessation of offending. Secondary desistance: identity - the adoption of a non-offending identity. Tertiary desistance: belonging - the recognition by others that one has changed, along with the development of a sense of belonging.'

Factors supportive of desistance

Desistance research has developed over recent decades, and the collated evidence suggests that people are more likely to desist when they have:

  • strong ties to family and community
  • employment that fulfils them
  • recognition of their worth from others
  • feelings of hope and self-efficacy
  • a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

General principles for supporting desistance

Increasing attention has been given within desistance studies to the implications for operational delivery. The term ‘assisted desistance’ has been used to describe the role that probation (and other agencies) can play, recognising that individuals can be supported to desist from crime but there are too many factors at play for an agency to ‘cause’ desistance.

The following principles have been identified:

  • respect individuality: since the process of giving up crime is different for each person, delivery needs to be properly individualised
  • build positive relationships: service users are most influenced to change by those whose advice they respect and whose support they value. Personal and professional relationships are key to change
  • recognise the significance of social context: desistance is related to the external/social aspects of a person’s life as well as to internal/psychological factors. Giving up crime requires new networks of support and opportunities in local communities
  • recognise and develop people’s strengths: promoting a range of protective factors and taking a strengths-based approach should be part of the supervision process. For example, strong and supportive family and intimate relationships can support individuals in their desistance journey.

A further principle is the need to respect and foster agency or self-determination. This means working with service users rather than on them. Service users tend to highlight the importance of real collaboration and co-production, and their engagement as ‘active collaborators’. There has been growing attention in recent years to the potential value of service user involvement in the review and development of probation services. Service users have reported that such involvement can facilitate self-efficacy, social benefits, professional development, and desistance from further offending, and allow them to have a positive impact both on other service users and on overall probation delivery.

Key principles for supporting desistance
Text reads 'Key principles for supporting desistance: individualising support for change, recognising and celebrating progress, working with and through relationships, respecting and fostering agency, recognising and developing people's strengths, building and sustaining hope, being realistic about the complexity and difficulty of the process and developing social as well as human capital.'
Inspection data

In our full round of probation inspections completed during 2018/2019, we examined over 3,000 cases with our inspectors identifying the most important strengths and protective factors for each individual service user. Those most frequently identified were family and relationships (40 per cent of cases) and motivation to change (36 per cent). Having a place within a (non-criminal) social group was relatively rarely identified – just six percent of cases.

The figure below illustrates that the mean number of strengths decreased as the likelihood of reoffending and risk of serious harm levels increased.

Likelihood of reoffending: low - 1.5, medium - 1.2, high/very high - 0.9. Risk of serious harm: low - 1.4, medium - 1.2 and high/very high - 1.1.

Key references

Farrall, S. (2002). Rethinking What Works with offenders: Probation, social context and desistance from crime. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

King, S. (2013). ‘Assisted desistance and experiences of probation supervision’. Probation Journal, 60(2), pp. 136–151.

Maruna, S. and Mann, R. (2019). Reconciling ‘Desistance’ and ‘What Works’, HM Inspectorate of Probation Academic Insights, 2019/01. Manchester: HM Inspectorate of Probation. (PDF, 794 kB)

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010). Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management. SCCJR Project Report, No.03/2010. Edinburgh: Scottish Consortium for Crime and Criminal Justice.

Rocque, M. (2017). Desistance from crime: new advances in theory and research. New York: Springer.

Ward, T. and Brown, M. (2004). ‘The Good Lives Model and conceptual issues in offender rehabilitation’, Psychology, Crime and Law, 10(3), pp. 243-257.

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Last updated: 18 December 2020