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How Can Offenders Redefine Themselves To Stop New Crime?

Understanding desistance—the process of reducing or ending criminal behavior—involves considering the role of individuals’ cognitive transformations, says Peggy Giordano, a 2022 winner of the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, in a new article,

The article appears in Criminology & Public Policy, a publication of the American Society of Criminology. Giordano is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Bowling Green State University. She won the Stockholm Prize for research on the effectiveness of offender rehabilitation strategies.

“Researchers have developed methods to capture the process-related aspects of crime cessation,” Giordano says. “But it remains challenging to isolate the most important factors associated with a sustained period of desistance. It is difficult to fully understand desistance without paying attention to cognitive processes, such as attitudes and intentions.”

Giordano has studied hundreds of young Ohio offenders to learn why some stop reoffending while others continue.

She identified a pattern of cognitive transformation among those who stop offending. Giordano argues that such transformations serve as foundations for social development, including behavioral changes related to involvement in criminal behavior.

Cognitive shifts need not include a single “aha” moment, and not all shifts are related to criminal conduct.

Young peoples' efforts to redefine themselves are a first step that eventually results in an openness to changing lifestyle or behavior, and to catalysts that are concrete “hooks” for sustained behavioral change.

Social relationships and broader social contexts are also important. Significant others influence attitudes and behavior, and can be crucial in individuals’ efforts to redefine themselves.

“The most basic lesson from our research is that it is necessary to address the realities of desistance as a process,” says Giordano.

Programs with strategies for handling relapses are likely to have greater promise than zero-tolerance policies. Programs to deal with cognitive deficits that require correction will likely have limited effectiveness.

Giordano says programs should incorporate more information on how social interaction and communication in relationships affect thinking, behavior, and identity.

This differs from approaches that focus on individuals’ lack of skills and personality problems. Programs

should feature "strengths-based" approaches, focus on aspects of individuals’ lives other than their

crimes, and recognize the need for longer-term community support.

Supporting Giordano’s work have been the National Institute of Mental Health, the W. T. Grant Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U. S. Department of Justice, the National Science Foundation, and Bowling Green State University.


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