Desistance and the "feared self": toward an identity theory of criminal desistance.

Author:Paternoster, Ray

    Traditionally, criminological theorists have presumed that what they needed to explain was initiation into, and persistence in, criminal behavior. The central question, then, was, "Why do people start offending, and why do they continue offending?" Interest in the "career criminal" in the early 1980s changed all this as criminologists became concerned about dimensions of offending other than onset and persistence, such as the duration of offending over time, escalation from less serious to more serious offending, and the eventual termination of or desistance from crime. Once they recognized that desistance from crime might be an important and distinct dimension of the criminal career, criminologists scrambled for possible theoretical explanations that ranged from simple extensions of old theories (1) to new theories specifically designed to explain desistance. (2)

    In this Article, we present an identity theory of desistance that builds upon and complements the work of these other theories (3) by integrating a diverse body of literature in social psychology, behavioral economics, and collective movements in sociology. We draw upon a distinction between, on the one hand, one's current or working identity and, on the other, the kind of person that one wishes to be--and, more importantly, not be--in the future: one's possible self. (4) Offenders have working identities as persons who, among other things, have and will commit criminal acts. This working identity remains a locus of commitment as long as it is thought to be successful or, more specifically, as long as, on average, it nets more benefits than costs. Gradually, however, the working identity of "criminal offender" becomes less and less satisfying. The process is a measured one and only occurs when perceived failures and dissatisfactions within different domains of life become connected and when current failures become linked with anticipated future failures. These failures include a sense that being an offender is no longer financially beneficial, that it is too dangerous, that the perceived costs of imprisonment loom more likely and greater, and that the costs to one's social relationships are too dear.

    When these life dissatisfactions become linked to one's criminal identity, they are more likely to be projected into the future, and the person begins to think of his or her "self" as one who would like to change to be something else. This perceived sense of a future or possible self as a nonoffender coupled with the fear that without change one faces a bleak and highly undesirable future provides the initial motivation to break from crime. Movement toward the institutions that support and maintain desistance (legitimate employment or association with conventional others, for example) is unlikely to take place until the possible self as non-offender is contemplated and at least initially acted upon. Human agency, we believe, is expressed through this act of intentional self-change. (5) Further, this change in identity brings with it a change in one's preferences (for crime, drugs, "wild" peers) and one's orientation to the future, such that causal factors have a different impact on the person now than in the past. In understanding desistance as literally a "break with the past," something changes about the person, such as his or her identity and preferences, so that the causal processes moving behavior are different across the different time periods.

    Though similar in some ways to the work of Shadd Maruna, Stephen Farrall, and Peggy Giordano et al., (6) our theory both builds upon and extends their theories in important ways. Giordano et al.'s most recent symbolic interactionist approach heavily stresses the influence of social processes--social interactions, social experiences, socially derived emotions, and social influences--in developing both the motive to change through self-improvement and self-modification and the means to do so. (7) Relationships with conventional others, primarily romantic partners, plays a prominent role in their theory, which they admit "steers us away from a view of cognitive transformations as deriving from individualistic mental processes." (8) In the theory developed here, intentional self-change is understood to be more cognitive, internal, and individual, at least initially, with new social networks approached and mobilized subsequent to the emergence of the new, conventional identity. (9) While we think that the kinds of conventional social relationships and role-taking described by Giordano et al. (10) are important and necessary parts of the desistance process, we think that these are not accessed until after offenders first decide to change and then actually begin to change their sense of who they are. In addition, we place greater emphasis on the notion of the "feared self"--an image of what the person does not want to become as an initial source of motivation for intentional self-change among those with a "spoiled identity." (11) As we will discuss in more detail in Part V, our theory is fundamentally different from that of Giordano and her colleagues in 2007, (12) and more cognitive and individualistic than the work of Giordano and her colleagues in 2002. (13)

    Our view is more compatible with Farrall's (14) and Maruna's (15) position that "sustained desistance most likely requires a fundamental and intentional shift in a person' s sense of self." We agree wholeheartedly both that desistance requires a fundamental change in how a person views herself and her world and that it is intentional. Desistance, when it occurs, generally involves a deliberate act of self-change--a "break with the past" that occurs both in a metaphorical and, as we argue in Part IV, in an analytical sense as well. (16) There are, however, important differences between our theory and Maruna's. In Maruna's view, offenders who "make good" do not craft different, more conventional identities than those they had in the past to provide both the motivation and direction for change. (17) Rather, offenders who already have prosocial views of themselves in the present deliberately distort their pasts to make past criminal actions both explicable and consistent with their current favorable views of who they are and what they are "really like." For Maruna's offenders, "[D]esisting is framed as just another adventure consistent with their life-long personality, not as a change of heart. Again, this allows the individual to frame his or her desistance as a case of personality continuity rather than change." (18) The "upfront" work that the desisting offenders described in Maruna's theory do, then, is to change their understanding or interpretation of their criminal pasts, so that it is consistent with their current views of themselves as a "good" person. (19) This reinterpretation involves a "willful cognitive distortion" of the past to align it with the present and is the cognitive work described as "making good." (20) Desistance does not seem to require, as it does in our theory, the notion that the offender casts off his old identity in favor of a new one. (21) Moreover, this theory does not require, as ours does, a description of the process that leads to a disenchantment with crime or a criminal identity, the appeal of a new, conventional identity, nor how that new identity must be built up.

    Finally, our theory is decidedly different from that of Robert Sampson and John Laub. (22) Again, we will take up this issue in more detail in Part V, but it is necessary to point out here that Sampson and Laub take deliberate steps to separate themselves from any suggestion that identity change is necessary for desistance to occur and place far less emphasis than we do on the role of human agency in desistance. In their more structural theory of desistance, Sampson and Laub argue that behavioral change comes about as a result of one's involvement in conventional roles (such as stable worker or good husband), and therefore comes about more often than not without the person either planning or actively participating in it (desistance by default). (23) In Part V, we will more clearly point out the differences between our theory and Sampson and Laub's, and make clear our unique contribution to the understanding of desistance.

    Our theory of desistance casts the decision to quit crime as just that--a decision by an offender that she has "had enough" of crime and being a criminal and desires a change in what she does and who she is. In our view, desistance comes about as a result of the offender willfully changing his identity and both working toward something positive in the future and steering away from something feared. As we will describe it in this Article, this change in identity is slow and gradual. The movement toward accessing social supports (or "hooks") for change is just as tentative and inconsistent. (24) Deliberate self-change and desistance are not captured in a moment, nor are they events, but they constitute a process occurring over time. Moreover, since we think that desistance from crime involves important changes in a person's identity, tastes, values, and preferences, we are explicit that desistance is about both a change in the propensity to commit crime and its opportunity. (25) Finally, while the process of desistance is a gradual one, when the offender's identity has changed, she has, in a metaphorical sense, "broken with the past" in that things that once mattered now do not (or matter much less), and things that did not matter before now do (or matter a little more).

    As a second contribution, we very briefly present an analytical approach to illustrate and eventually test our ideas about desistance that further extends the current literature's focus on desistance as a process. The original understanding of desistance in the criminal career paradigm focused on desistance as a discrete event where one went from...

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