Desistance from Sexual Offending Across the Life Course

Danielle Arlanda Harris, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University

Research Grant, 2013

Desistance refers to the slowing down or stopping of offending. Although the term is relatively new to those who study sexual aggression, the phenomenon has been a staple of criminological research for two centuries (Laws & Ward, 2011). Crime is a “young man’s game,” and the observation of natural desistance or aging out (when one stops committing crime as they get older) is a key component of the criminal career. One reason desistance is such a new concept for people who have committed sexual offenses is the strong assumption of inevitable recidivism (Willis, Levenson & Ward, 2010). There is a persistent belief among many practitioners, policymakers, and members of the public that sex offenders seldom, if ever, stop and that when they are released from custody, recidivism (or “failure”) is the expected result.

This notion has considerable implications for policy and practice and adds to the growing argument for instituting an "expiry date" for offenses.

This study challenged these long-held assumptions by examining the post-release behavior of more than 500 men convicted of sexual offenses, incarcerated, and released from a purpose built facility for sexually dangerous persons in the Northeastern United States. A subsample of 27 men were ultimately located, contacted, and interviewed. Sixteen of those men were living offense-free lives in the community (and many had done for almost 20 years). The remaining 11 men had been returned to custody and will likely never be released. The most interesting finding in this study was that the majority of the men who were returned to prison had reoffended within just months of their release. This notion has considerable implications for policy and practice and adds to the growing argument for instituting an “expiry date” for offenses, the issuing of “certificates of rehabilitation” after a certain period of time, or an automatic reduction in risk scores over time.

Our results have also contributed to a better theoretical understanding of this phenomenon in men convicted of sexual offenses. Four specific styles of desistance were discovered: “aging out,” “resignation/risk,” “recovery/routine,” and “resilience/redemption.” These distinct styles emerged through thematic and content analysis and are currently being written and organized into a book.

  1. Harris, Danielle A. (2015). Desistance from sexual offending: Behavioral change without cognitive transformation. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1-22, Online first, DOI: 10.1177/0886260515596537.

  2. Harris, Danielle A. and Cudmore, Rebecca. (2015). Desistance from sexual offending.  Oxford Handbook Online: Criminology and Criminal Justice, Crime Prevention, Gender, Sex, and Crime, 1-12. DOI:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935383.013.77 

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