Desistance From Crime: A Study of Ex-Inmates' Desistance Narratives

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Spring 1-1-2004


Campus Only

Submission Type


Degree Name



Clinical Psychology


McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Constance Fischer

Committee Member

Michael Sipiora

Committee Member

Suzanne Barnard


criminal life stories, desistance from crime, ex-convicts' autobiographies, forensic rehabilitation, non-recidivism, self-narrative


This dissertation investigates the importance of narrative in desistance from crime. The researcher interviewed five men with criminal histories: two men (desisters) had desisted from crime for 13 and 30 years, respectively; three men (recidivists) had recently violated conditions of their probation or parole. A sixth man discontinued his participation in the research. Narratives were investigated from a human science approach to forensic psychology using an existential phenomenological method developed at Duquesne University, and were compared to studies of desistance conducted by Shadd Maruna.

This study found that desistance from crime corresponds with a change of narrative, redefining identity and self-understanding. A desistance narrative must be internally cogent and believable to others as well as to the desister himself. Desistance narratives often follow a pattern, and include particular themes. Initially, one is corrupted by environmental factors, and becomes ensnared in a criminal lifestyle. One experiences a crisis of meaning, questions one's conduct, and begins to appreciate the influence of others who espouse prosocial values. An outside force helps one change; one internalizes the change, develops a prosocial lifestyle, and may become hypermoral.

Desisters interpret their experiences with a broader perspective that allows them to navigate difficult life circumstances without resorting to criminal activities. Having developed significant relationships, they carry societal and familial responsibilities, regret their criminality, and empathize with their victims. The possibility of recidivating no longer worries them: their focus is on everyday activities like paying bills.

Recidivists in this study were found not to have a coherent focus on who they want to be, what they want to achieve, or what this would entail. They do not appear to have the self-confidence to navigate difficult life situations, and do not seek help from others when they need it. They do not claim responsibility for their actions, and they have not developed strategies to change problematic behaviors.





This document is currently not available here.