Desistance and Sentencing: A Review of Research

By Dr Annie Bunce


• Desistance is the cessation of offending by those with previous patterns of criminal behaviour. Desistance is a gradual, non-linear process, not simply a one-off event. This paper reviews research on the desistance process and considers the implications of key findings for the sentencing process.


• Research into offending over the life course has produced one of the most robust findings relevant to desistance: the age-crime curve. This shows a steep increase in offending over the teenage years, which typically peaks between the late teens and early 20s, then rapidly decreases, flattening into a slower decline. Most people eventually desist from crime.


• This finding has led to a focus upon the role of maturation in the desistance process. Studies have documented a relationship between the development of psychosocial maturity (a combination of psychological and sociological factors) and the rate of criminal offending.


• Research also clearly shows that multiple and interacting individual and structural factors combine to facilitate or impede desistance. Studies have demonstrated the potential for criminal justice interventions to function as turning points. At the same time, involvement in the criminal justice system can reduce the likelihood of desistance for some offenders.


• Findings from desistance research have implications for many aspects of sentencing, most notably: approaches to young adult offenders; maturity; criminal records; pre-sentence reports; alternatives to custody; mitigation at sentencing, and strengths-based sentencing.


• Desistance research is becoming more deeply embedded in criminal justice, including in sentencing policy and practice in England and Wales. The reform and rehabilitation of offenders is one of the five statutory purposes of sentencing.


• Further work is needed to demonstrate how desistance research can be applied to court processes, as desistance in this context is comparatively underexplored to that of prisons and probation.


Desistance and Sentencing: A Review of Research is available here.