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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Understanding desistance from sexual offending

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Perhaps their most important conclusion is the contention that probation practice should focus more on helping sex offenders move forward, away from a life of crime rather than continuously re-examining past offences.

Desistance and the age/crime curve

An interesting new article in the latest edition of the Probation Journal examines the much neglected area of desistance from sexual offending. The authors – Mark Farmer, Anne-Marie McAlinden and Shadd Maruna – base their findings on interviews with 32 individuals convicted of sexual offences against children.

There is a widespread consensus that criminality is a pattern of behaviour from which most individuals eventually desist. For non-sexual offenders this is illustrated by the ‘age/crime curve’ which broadly demonstrates that crime is mainly committed by people in their teens and twenties, after which offending rates decrease with age.

The authors argue that a similar phenomenon appears to be the case for sexual offenders as well, despite widespread beliefs about the nature of sexual offending. Although the age–sex crime curve peaks later and tails off less dramatically than the age–crime curve for non-sexual crime, sex offending also decreases with age, contradicting the perception that sex offenders’ risk levels are high, stable and linear.

They cite numerous studies which show that recidivism rates amongst sexual offenders are low, in fact, lower than recidivism rates for other forms of non-sexual crime. They arge that most people who have committed sexual offences, therefore, appear to desist from further sexual offending.

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Sexual offending against children

The authors explored “both the structural and the cognitive changes associated with desistance from sexual offending against children” by interviewing 32 offenders who had been convicted of these offences. All the offenders were currently under probation supervision and the group were split into two groups – one comprising those who appeared to be desisting from crime and the other who were “persisting” – having recently been identified as having committed a repeat sexual offence. Their goal was:

to better understand how they were able to desist from re-offending, exploring both the social context of their post-conviction lives and, in particular, their cognitive framing of this context.

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Preliminary findings

Although the findings from such a small study are inevitably tentative, they make for very interesting reading.

Much research into desistance from non-sexual crime describes a process of maturation characterised by development of social goods such as employment and relationships. These goods serve to give the desisting individual ‘social capital,’ a sense of belonging, a change in routine activities and something they are afraid to lose.

However, desistance for these sexual offenders seemed to be rather different.

On the whole they were not a group of people with significant histories of antisocial behaviour. In their narratives, they portrayed their offending and motivation for offending as situational and temporary. Unlike many non-sexual offenders, they did not portray their desistance as a result of ‘growing up’ or becoming more mature; instead, for the most part, desistance was portrayed as a self-initiated or rational choice about the pros and cons of what they were doing.

Many said that the shock of their arrest contributed to the choice they made about continuing with their crime. They also extolled the virtues of structured rehabilitation programmes, including probation supervision and sex offender treatment programmes, and they attributed their ability to maintain desistance to this help.

Finally, they had an optimistic set of plans for the future. Although employment and relationships were of primary importance, these factors did not seem to be related to their desistance in the way these things are traditionally understood in desistance research, in that there was not a linear relationship between obtaining these social goods and consequent desistance.

However, the level of “neutralisations” (a desistance term for how an offender justify his/her crimes in a way that preserves a positive self-image) employed by the sex offenders seemed to be related to shame about their offending and showed their attachment to the perceived moral values and social goods of society.

Indeed, most of the sex offenders who appeared to be desisting seemed to live conventional (that is, non-criminal) lifestyles involving, in particular, work and relationships.

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Implications

These emerging findings have a number of potential implications for current frameworks around sex offender risk assessment, management and treatment, and in particular for how professionals perceive and respond to ‘risks’ posed by sex offenders.

While the preponderance of current work has centred on ‘risk’ factors and examining why sex offenders re-offend, this study asks the more interesting question of why some sex offenders do not re-offend.

The authors argue that their findings tend to reinforce the importance and usefulness of rehabilitative programmes provided by probation and prison including accredited programme work in supporting narratives of change.

Perhaps their most important conclusion is the contention that probation practice should focus more on helping sex offenders move forward, away from a life of crime rather than continuously re-examining past offences:

The desisting narratives in this study which appear to be shaped by conventional lifestyles and planning for the future, also tend to support a move away from confessional, backward-looking approaches towards future-focused therapeutic interventions with sex offenders, with an emphasis on optimism and hope.

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2 Responses

  1. I read with interest Farmer et al.’s research concerning desistance from sexual offending and welcome this contribution to furthering our understanding of how those who have committed sexual harm may go on to lead positive, non-offending lives.

    There are many parallels between the key factors Farmer et al. identify within the desistance narratives and the objectives met by a Circle of Support and Accountability, in which a group of trained and supervised Volunteers meet on a regular basis with an individual who has caused sexual harm (known as the Core Member). The Volunteers perform the role of ‘critical friends’, much like the Probation Officers Farmer et al. refer to who were “concerned about them but were also firm and realistic” and “showed a particular interest in the individual”. Circles also support the Core Member to put the skills they have gained from sex offender treatment programmes into practice in their lives, and to create the realistic goals and plans for the future that Farmer et al. identify as a key feature of the desisting group.

    In their conclusion, Farmer et al. support a move towards “future-focused therapeutic interventions with sex offenders, with an emphasis on optimism and hope”. Circles UK believes that the strengths-based approach offered by Circles of Support and Accountability works effectively alongside such interventions to support those who have caused sexual harm to safely integrate back into the community and lead responsible, productive and accountable lives.

    Liz Brown, CEO, CIrcles UK

  2. Hi Liz
    Thanks very much for your comment. It’s good to see sex offending receiving some proper attention in terms of promoting desistance and keeping potential victims safe.
    Shadd Maruna has said that there will be additional learning to be published from this research in the near future.
    Best Wishes
    Russell

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