Book review: Offending and Desistance
by Beth Weaver (2016)
Reviewed by Peter Johnston - Director Research and Analysis, Department of Corrections
Dr Peter Johnston has been with the Department of Corrections for nearly 30 years. He started with the Psychological Service in Christchurch, as one of three psychologists who set up the first special treatment unit, Kia Marama, at Rolleston Prison in 1989. He then moved to the (then) Prison Service, where he was involved in setting up prisoner assessment centres and designing an end-to-end case management system. In his current role since 2004, he leads a team of ten staff who undertake research and evaluation, and conduct in-depth analysis of criminal justice data to shed light on trends and developments in the offender population, measure the impacts of rehabilitation, and to support strategy and policy initiatives.
The concept of desistance is growing in popularity amongst people working within, or researching, the correctional and criminal justice domain. Although a number of important texts were written in the early 2000s (perhaps foremost amongst which was Shadd Maruna’s “Making Good”), just in the last 10 years there has been a veritable tsunami of books on the topic. A recent addition to the literature is Beth Weaver’s “Offending and Desistance”.
After setting out her initial arguments about the nature of desistance, and her preferred frame within which to view the phenomenon, Dr Weaver “tells the stories” of half a dozen actual people, each of whom were at one time members of a violent Scottish street gang. Using their life courses (they were at time of the research all in their mid- to late-40s), she examines the utility of her theoretical concepts and principles for better understanding the phenomenon of desistance from crime. Her interest is particularly in the relational domain, both in terms of how the individuals see themselves in the context of relationships, and as the influence, direct or indirect, relationships have on their actions and life choices.
In the first half of the book, the author provides a useful overview of the primary theories of desistance, and gives a critical review of their evidential basis. She starts out with “individual and agentic theories”, which largely revolve around maturation; the idea that offenders “grow out of” offending as they get older. Related to this is the rational choice perspective within which the desisting offender is seen as undergoing a reappraisal of the costs and benefits of crime.
She then moves onto “social and structural” theories, including social learning and differential association, where the key dynamic centres on patterns of association –especially breaking links with old associates. Also in this context are discussed the key relationship dynamics with influence in this area: marriage, parenthood, employment and “getting religion”. “Interactionist theories” are then examined, which tend to focus on more complex patterns of influence, between relationship changes and self-perception and personal cognitions.
Finally, there is a brief overview of situational perspectives (sometimes known as the “geographical cure” – leaving town and setting up home elsewhere) and, last but not least, is examined the role of correctional practitioners – especially probation officers – in promoting desistance. Like many desistance writers, Ms Weaver is not especially persuaded on this point. She appears to believe that, at best, “in some cases” probation supervision can “sow the seeds of change”, but that most offenders are “agents of their own change process”.
This latter perception infuses the majority of the second half of her book. In the second half, she tells the stories of the various gang members, who at the time of interviewing were somewhere along the path to desistance from full-time involvement in crime. The stories of six key individuals are set out in successive chapters, with verbatim quotes interspersed with extensive commentary, as the details of their “lives in progress” are interpreted against Ms Weaver’s preferred theoretical frameworks.
This is a hard read, and not for the faint-hearted. Its dense academic style leaves little scope for drawing inferences and deductions as to what practical applications might occur for the field. Some parts of the book border on the incomprehensible; an example on p26 is typical:
While social bond and social roles are referred to as enablements or constraints in identity formation and change, in its somewhat instrumental, resource based formulation, the elision of the relational in Côté’s identity capital thesis (and, therefore, Healy’s 2013 application of this in a desistance context) is arguably a significant shortcoming, not least in its neglect to attend to how social relations motivate, enable, or constrain decision-making and action and contribute to identity formation and change.
Having read and re-read this sentence more than 10 times, but without success in grasping what the author is trying to say, I am left wondering why it is necessary for anyone to write sentences like that.
Later in the book, the verbatim accounts of her research subjects are juxtaposed in ways that are unintentionally hilarious. For example, take this ripe quote from “Jed”, who was trying to go straight but had several old arrest warrants hanging over him (p 148):
I went down to London and started working the next day. I thought ‘F**king hell, it’s f**king knackering’, and I was thinking, ‘I wonder if I should just hand myself in, and go back to jail’ – cos it’s a lot better in jail than it is here, you know, working like a c**t!
This commentary is then “interpreted” by the author as demonstrating the following theoretical principle:
It is through this process that they deliberate on the social solutions they confront, through the lens of their ultimate concerns, which necessarily challenges the exteriority and constraint assumptions of informal control theories.
Errr … if you say so.
By the end of the book, I felt the author had not really made her case for the value and utility of the relational frame of desistance. The book is long, very dense, and overly theoretical. Disappointingly, little space is provided in the book to understand how practitioners can facilitate the contexts likely to foster desistance decisions. And, as noted above, it’s not for the faint-hearted.