522112 research-article2014

IJOXXX10.1177/0306624X14522112International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative CriminologyHallett and McCoy


Religiously Motivated Desistance: An Exploratory Study

International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 2015, Vol. 59(8) 855­–872 © The Author(s) 2014 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0306624X14522112 ijo.sagepub.com

Michael Hallett1 and J. Stephen McCoy2

Abstract This article examines the life-history narratives of 25 successful ex-offenders professing Christianity as the source of their desistance. Unstructured in-depth life-history interviews from adult male desisters affirm use of a “feared self” and “cognitive shifts” regarding perceptions of illegal behavior. “Condemnation scripts” and “redemption narratives,” however, differ radically from those uncovered in previous research. Stories of behavior change and identity transformation achieved through private religious practice and energetic church membership dominate the narratives. Findings suggest there are diverse phenomenologies of desistance and that by more narrowly tailoring research to explore subjectivities in the desistance process, important discrepancies in perceptions of agency and structure are revealed. Three prominent desistance paradigms—Making Good, Cognitive Transformation, and Identity Theory—are used to examine the narratives. Keywords desistance, spirituality, control theory, religion

A large number of respondents within the sample make at least some reference to God . . . Some narratives were almost completely dominated by such references. Consistent with our perspective, these experiences linked to cognitive as well as associated behavioral changes. Giordano, Cernkovich, and Rudolph (2002, p. 1036)

1University 2Prisoners

of North Florida, Jacksonville, FL, USA of Christ, Jacksonville, FL, USA

Corresponding Author: Michael Hallett, University of North Florida, 1 UNF Drive, Jacksonville, FL 32224, USA. Email: [email protected]

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Introduction While many ex-offenders find it impossible to overcome society’s dogged and often totalizing definition of them as irredeemable, successful desisters frequently espouse spirituality and religion as a source of positive behavior change and re-conceptualized self-identity (Adorjan & Chui, 2012; Giordano et al., 2002; Giordano, Longmore, Schroeder, & Seffrin, 2008; Maruna, 2001; Paternoster & Bushway, 2009; Schroeder & Frana, 2009). Religious spirituality has been found to be a highly salient resource for many successful desisters, especially under conditions of low emotional support and weak informal social control (Giordano et al., 2002; Kerley, Copes, Tewksbury, & Dabney, 2011). Phenomenological analyses of the desistance process reveal that religion and spirituality frequently help offenders construct stories of change that become vital to an altered sense of self (Giordano et al., 2002, p. 1018; Maruna, 2001; Paternoster & Bushway, 2009). More importantly, religiosity seems to help desisters undertake preliminary agentic moves that, while often not outwardly visible to family members or justice officials, are the beginnings of an evolving self-narrative that is both pro-social and provides a redemptive path (Giordano et al., 2002; Maruna & Remsden, 2004; Schroeder & Frana, 2009; Jang & Johnson, 2005).1 Specifically, life-history narratives highlight agentic moves that draw on stories of change emphasizing the ways religious practice and spirituality provide emotional, cognitive and linguistic resources utilized by desisters in their daily lives (Adorjan & Chui, 2012; Giordano et al., 2002; Schroeder & Frana, 2009; Terry, 2003; Shover, 1996; for the centrality of narratives, see also Denzin, 1987). As Giordano et al. (2002) summarize the issue: Thus, in addition to its relative accessibility, religion seems to have potential as a mechanism for desistance because many core concerns within religious communities and the Bible relate directly to offenders’ problem areas. Even more importantly, religious teachings can provide a clear blueprint for how to proceed as a changed individual. (Giordano et al., 2008, p. 116; see also Goodwin, 2001).

For purposes of this study, Giordano et al.’s (2008) conceptualization of religiosity as inclusive of both corporate religious participation and private spirituality as two dimensions of religiosity is used. While some view spirituality and religion as entirely separate concepts (e.g., Fetzer Institute National Institute on Aging Working Group, 2003), criminologists exploring addiction and criminal desistance have not treated them as mutually exclusive (Adorjan & Chui, 2012; Farrall & Bowling, 1999; Giordano et al., 2002; Giordano et al., 2008; King, 2012; Maruna & Remsden, 2004; Maruna, Wilson, & Curran, 2006; Ronel, Frid, & Timor, 2013; Schroeder & Frana, 2009).2 This article explores the desistance narratives of 25 adult male ex-offenders who attribute their success to Christianity, using lenses of three prominent theories of desistance for analysis: “Making Good,” “Cognitive Transformation,” and “Identity Theory” (Giordano et al., 2002; Maruna, 2001; Paternoster & Bushway, 2009). The

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research utilizes a Symbolic Interactionist theoretical framework to explore specific linguistic and cognitive elements of Christianity that desisters biographically associate with their own desistance (see Giordano et al., 2002; Giordano et al., 2008). All 25 respondents reported being both active churchgoers and deeply spiritual, stressing the importance of both church communities as well as private devotional practice in effectuating their desistance.

Agency Versus Structure in Criminal Desistance Research: “Making Good,” “Cognitive Transformation,” and “Identity Theory” While much of criminal desistance research is focused on life-course perspectives and Control Theory, recent scholarship stresses a more interactionist approach (Giordano et al., 2002; King, 2012; Sampson & Laub, 1993, 2003; Schroeder & Frana, 2009). From a strict control perspective, life events such as securing a job or getting married are understood as turning points that inhibit deviance “by providing a stake in conformity as well as the informal social controls needed to promote and maintain a state of non-offending” (Bakken, Gunter, & Visher, 2013, p. 2). Johnson and Jang (2011) offer a detailed summary of the predicted control effects of religiosity on crime, arguing that fear of supernatural sanctions (“hellfire”) and strong social bonds promote conventional behavior (see also Akers, 2010; Cochran & Akers, 1989; Hirschi & Stark, 1969). Control Theory interpretations of criminal desistance, however, tend to depict “passive desisters” who are “changed by events” yet not consciously participating in their own desistance as a result of any particular change of heart. As Knepper (2003) points out about religion and Control Theory, “From this perspective, faith is merely a proxy for one or another social process” (pp. 339, 340). Thus, as Paternoster and Bushway (2009) characterize desisters from the perspective of Control Theory: “They react and respond but do not act or create,” resulting in a kind of “accidental desistance” (p. 1148). Subsequent phenomenological accounts of the desistance process, however, reveal levels of human agency not accounted for by Control Theory (Giordano et al., 2002; Giordano et al., 2008; King, 2012; Schroeder & Frana, 2009). Recent scholarship exploring the meaning of desistance for actual desisters emphasizes a more complex interaction between agency and structure that is only now being fully investigated. “The findings of such studies imply that desistance cannot be attributed solely to the existence of social attachments acting as external forces which determine the individual’s behavior. Rather, what matters is what these ties mean to offenders” (Weaver & McNeill, 2007, p. 5, emphasis added). As Giordano and colleagues (2002) also note, while high levels of religiosity are certainly compatible with Control Theory, religiosity also accounts for important “up front agentic moves” taken by offenders “who manage to change their life direction even in the absence of traditional frameworks of support and resources like those provided by a spouse or a good job” (p. 992). In sum, while Control Theory tends to view the propensity for offending as fixed, with external forces of social control limiting behavior, interviews with actual

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desisters reveal such controls only partially capture the meaning of desistance for them. Indeed, given that marriage proposals and job applications presumably involve some agency on the part of “applicants,” strict control-based interpretations of desistance have proven un-compelling to many scholars, likely revealing marriage and employment “to be correlated with, although not necessarily causal of, desistance” (Weaver & McNeill, 2007, p. 4).3

Identity Theory In contrast to Control Theory, Paternoster and Bushway (2009) offer a deeply elaborated “Identity Theory” of desistance, locating responsibility for behavior change in the volitional choice making power of offenders themselves. Identity Theory has much in common with Giordano et al.’s emphasis on “cognitive shifts” while also highlighting the importance of personal agency in “structural” events such as marriage and employment. They write: 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. (pp. 1108-1109)

Thus, for Identity Theory, desistance is a highly volitional process of weighing out the costs of maintaining a transgressive working identity against being “the kind of person one wishes to be—and more importantly, not be—in the future” (p. 1105). The decision to stop offending comes after a “crystallization of discontent,” in which “previously isolated dissatisfactions” become linked in the conscious mind of the offender, resulting in “a distinct change in how offenders think about ‘who they are’” (p. 99). Paternoster and Bushway use the notion of a “feared-self”—an image of what the person does not want to become—as a motivator for “intentional self-change” (pp. 1106-1107). Desistance comes about only after the costs of a transgressive working self are linked together, with the threat of a negative feared self engulfing one’s identity: “Because of the crystallization of discontent and the accumulation of dissatisfactions, this change in identity is motivated at first by ‘avoidant motives’ of not becoming the feared self” (Paternoster & Bushway, 2009, p. 99). In sum, for Paternoster and Bushway, desistance comes about due to the active cognitive agency of desisters thinking about their futures, weighing out costs and benefits of deviance against a future self, and ultimately making a clean break with the past. Three markers of identity change highlighted by Paternoster and Bushway are (a) crystallization of discontent, (b) changes in institutional/social relationships, and (c) a “break from the past” as key markers in redefining self (see also Young, 2011).

Making Good In his book Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives, Maruna (2001) presents extensive life-history interviews exploring the phenomenology of

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desistance from more than one hundred ex-offenders, many but not all of whom identified religious conversion as a source of their desistance. Maruna summarizes his model of desistance in Making Good as follows: Although each story is of course unique, the self-narratives of the desisting sample feature a number of key plot devices with striking regularity . . . The redemption script begins by establishing the goodness and conventionality of the narrator—a victim of society who gets involved with crime and drugs to achieve some sort of power over otherwise bleak circumstances. This deviance eventually becomes its own trap, however, as the narrator becomes ensnared in the vicious cycle of crime and imprisonment. Yet with the help of some outside force, someone who “believed in” the ex-offender, the narrator is able to accomplish what he or she was “always meant to do.” Newly empowered, he or she now also seeks to “give something back” to society as a display of gratitude. This process might be characterized as “making good.” (p. 87)

Thus, for Maruna, the cognitive transformation essential for desistance is not a change in identity from “bad” to “good,” but reassertion of a fundamentally positive identity that existed all along—yet that, in the minds of successful desisters, was corrupted by external forces inducing them to offend. “Making good, in this framework, is not a matter of being resocialized or cured,” writes Maruna, “but a process of freeing one’s ‘real me’ from these external constraints . . . This process of self-discovery results from empowerment by ‘some outside source’” (Maruna, 2001, p. 95). Importantly, for Maruna’s successful desisters, construction of a “redemption script” becomes key to the cessation of offending, even as this script may involve “willful, cognitive distortion” of the culpability of the ex-offender for their previous criminality. “I describe this process of willful, cognitive distortion as ‘making good’” (Maruna, 2001, p. 9).

No Agency in “Making Good?” While Maruna does an excellent job of telling readers what to expect from desisting offenders, he offers very little by way of how, why and under what conditions one should expect such desistance.4 In suggesting that “each story is of course unique,” Maruna’s account fails to offer much in the way of phenomenological detail about the desistance process itself—lumping religion, new romantic partners, and drug treatment together into one somewhat tautological “generative” category “X.” As Maruna (2001) states, “Several desisting interviewees used some variation of the following theme: ‘If it weren’t for X (organization, new philosophy or religion, some special individual, God, etc.), I would still be involved with crime’—as their explanation of desisting” (p. 96).5 Maruna addresses this lack of specificity regarding the how of desistance—as opposed to the what of it—as a by-product of the state-of-the-art of applied corrections, noting, “Leslie Wilkins once described the field of corrections as ‘applied mythology.’ By this, he meant that very little of what is done in the name of offender treatment is based on grounded evidence about how people change” (p. 111).

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International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 59(8)

In Maruna’s paradigm, then, making good involves a particular story, a redemption script, that features regular characteristics of the narrator being a victim of society caught in a cycle of crime and punishment, yet saved by redemptive forces not of his own making and that facilitate cognitive distortion of his own deviance. Persistent offenders, on the other hand, maintain “condemnation scripts” asserting their experience as victims of society trapped in deviant lifestyles while lacking the personal wherewithal to overcome their circumstances (pp. 74-75, 76).6

Cognitive Transformations and “Hooks for Change” More recent phenomenological explorations of criminal desistance are pushing the field forward, however, offering more finely tuned and detailed accounts of the desistance process (see Calverly, 2013; King, 2012; Weaver, 2012). These accounts affirm a role for both agency and structure, while highlighting complex nuances in perceptions among and between desisters of different racial and gender backgrounds (Calverly, 2013; Giordano et al., 2002). Marked differences in the “inner logic and inner experience” of desisters show important variations in the subjectivity of desistance, highlighting the need for more narrowly focused scholarship (Denzin, 1987, p. xi). Maruna’s account ignores subjective interpretations of agency and structure by using the mere fact of desistance as evidence of making good. Unfortunately, this glosses over distinctions in the subjectivities of desistance that may be important for successful treatment, similar to differences uncovered between races in phenomenological research exploring recovery from alcoholism (see Denzin, 1987). As Giordano et al. (2002) put the challenge, “A key point here is that the identity transformation potential presented by the various hooks for change needs to be distinguished conceptually from its qualities of control” (p. 1002). In other words, what one ex-offender may view as a structural barrier another may experience as a sociological asset (see also Calverly, 2013). Giordano et al. turn to Symbolic Interactionism as an appropriate theoretical base for conducting more detailed research, using in-depth life-history interviews as a means of accessing subjective accounts of desistance and spirituality (Giordano et al., 2002; Giordano et al., 2008). Drawing on the work of George Herbert Mead, Giordano et al. detail a nuanced process of “cognitive transformation” among desisters, varied by gender and race, that is also more “agentic” and self-directed than implied by Control Theory accounts of the desistance process (Giordano et al., 2002; Giordano et al., 2008).7 While subjective pathways to desistance vary greatly according to Giordano and her team (2002), “our fundamental premise is that the various cognitive transformations not only relate to one another, but also inspire and direct behavior” (p. 1002). Four cognitive shifts identified by Giordano et al.’s model of cognitive transformation are (a) openness to change, (b) exposure to hooks, (c) envisioning of a “replacement self,” and (d) acquiring negative views of former deviance (pp. 1000-1002). As Giordano and colleagues point out, variations in the subjectivities of cognitive transformation also characterize the research.8

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Method Qualitative methods are frequently used for the purpose of inductively advancing knowledge about poorly understood social phenomena or hidden populations (Guba & Lincoln, 1994; Maruna, 2001; Maruna, 2000). Maruna (2001) notes that “[p]henomenological criminology is an attempt to understand criminal decision making through an examination of the offender’s self-project—the self-image they are hoping to uphold and their strategies for creating meaning in their lives” (p. 33). This article examines life-history narratives of 25 adult male ex-offenders who self-attribute Christianity as the source of their criminal desistance.9 Life-history interviews are frequent sources of qualitative data for criminologists exploring subjective accounts of criminal desistance (see Denzin, 1987; Irwin, 2009, 1970; Terry, 2003). Using phenomenological methods, the purpose of this project is to explore the self-projects and meanings of desistance for religiously motivated desisters and to contrast these accounts with three prominent theories of desistance. Participants were recruited through a snowball sampling process facilitated by a network of church volunteers active in prison visitation and offender reentry programming in a large Florida city. Average length of desistance for respondents was 8.7 years, while average age was 47. Seven respondents were African American and 18 were White/Caucasian. Six of the men were convicted of murder (4) or attempted murder (2); 3 were convicted of non-violent sex crimes and the remainder for property and drug crimes resulting from what respondents described as problems with addiction. Sixteen were non-denominational Protestants, 4 were Catholic, and 5 Southern Baptist. Desistance is defined as no arrests or incarcerations (in either jail or prison) for a minimum of at least 2 years prior to the date of the interview. Participation was totally voluntary and no financial incentives were provided.10 In open-ended fashion, respondents were invited to share in-depth life histories recounting the story of their criminal desistance as it relates to their religious faith. To acquire authentic recountings of the self-projects of respondents uninfluenced by reactivity to promptings regarding theories of desistance, absolutely no attempt was made during interviews to structure responses by citing elements from the three theories. Interviews generally lasted about 1 hr and were conducted in a discrete private dining area of a local chain restaurant during non-peak hours. Interviews were recorded and transcribed. While space constraints limit ability to fully explore the narratives here, excerpts below contain elements of statements from 10 of the 25 respondents. As in all phenomenological research, a limitation of this study is that narrative reflections of respondents depict subjective assessments that are not generalizable. Nevertheless, in-depth inquiries exploring subjective perceptions of agency and structure among successful ex-offenders continue to reveal markedly contrasting depictions of the meaning of desistance. As such, this article argues that more phenomenological research is necessary for the development of a broader set of theoretical perspectives (see also Calverly, 2013; Ronel et al., 2013; Weaver, 2012; Weaver & McNeill, 2007).

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Table 1.  Elements of Three Theories of Desistance. Cognitive transformations Giordano, Cernkovich, and Rudolph (2002)

Identity theory Paternoster and Bushway (2009)

Making good Maruna (2001)

Openness to Change? Exposure to “hooks for change”? Envision Replacement Self? New View of Deviant Behavior?

Crystallization of Discontent? Change Soc/Inst Relations? ID change?/Break from Past?

At least three elements present? 19

At least two elements present? 23

Redemption Narrative (Criminal Identity = Basically Good Self Victim of Society & Bad Circumstances?) Yes? 0

Findings/Coding Summary—Three Perspectives on Desistance Using the rubric in Table 1 above, each narrative was reviewed and coded according to its “basic fit” with each perspective on desistance. To be included in the final analysis as representative of a particular model, narratives had to contain evidence of a majority of the model’s elements as determined separately by two reviewers. For a particular narrative to be considered indicative of “cognitive transformation,” three of the four elements of Cognitive Transformation theory had to be present. For a narrative to be considered indicative of “Identity Theory,” at least two of three elements of the theory had to be present. Finally, with regard to “Making Good,” in cases where narratives indicated the respondent using “willful cognitive distortion” to define themselves as basically good yet saved by “outside forces” requiring no personal agency, the theory of “Making Good” was affirmed (see Maruna, 2001, p. 87).

Cognitive Transformation Theory Respondent narratives demonstrated high fidelity to Giordano et al.’s model of Cognitive Transformation. A strong majority of narratives collected for this research (19 or ~75%) contained at least three elements of “cognitive transformation” as defined by the elements above—articulating openness to change, exposure to hooks, elaborate replacement selves, and revised views of deviant behavior. Nearly all respondents for this research (23 or 92%) had been “exposed to hooks” of religion in prison, through Bible study programs and prison evangelism while regularly participating in ongoing religious education and private devotional study. As converts to Christianity, respondents offered clear articulations of a “replacement self” distinct from their past criminal selves and defining themselves as “born again” or “new men in Christ.” Fourteen of the 25 narratives (56%) were rated as having all four elements of Cognitive Transformation present. All 25 narratives were rated as containing at least some elements of both “Cognitive Transformation” and “Identity Theory.” Consistent references to a sense of personal “brokenness” as the impetus for change and negative views of past selves also characterized the narratives (see Table 2).

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New View of Deviant Behavior

Envisioned Replacement Self

Exposure to Hooks

Openness to Change

Respondent 14: “If it wasn’t for pastor Steve and the chapel and starting that dorm out there and those guys coming out there to teach us the Good News and showing us different ways that we could live and be productive—we wouldn’t be where we are now. I would have probably gotten out of prison and went right back to my home town, did something stupid, and got locked right back up. Cause I had no guidance. And that’s what it was, it was pretty much guidance for people. You know you can lock someone up and throw away the key, but what’s that going to do, if they don’t have somebody that loves them, they’re just going to get upset and they’re going to stew, and when they get out they’re going to do something even worse. It was God’s love throughout all this. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I would have died. I know I would have died. For sure . . .I think about Psalms 51 when David said ‘Create in me a clean heart.’” Respondent 4: “But in all my struggles, the studying I was doing on Wednesday nights, we had Bible study and a class, Bridge Builders, you know a very, very key element in not only my faith but in realizing where my anger stemmed from, and my addiction to alcohol and the drugs. It just proved that there is a cycle, that cycle of insanity, you keep on doing the same thing over and over again expecting something to be different, expecting different results. You know, it was, it was helping me, it forced me, it was helping me, if you wanted to really focus on your problems, to look within yourself, to say what created this, what started this and it stemmed back a lot into my teenaged years of anger and the bridges that I burned with people by being a liar and deceitful, and it was really crushing.” Respondent 9: “Romans chapter 1 talks about the power that raised Christ from the dead. And what that power made Christ the son of god and Paul tells us that same power is in us. So, could I have done this without faith? Probably. Plenty of people do, . . . but is my faith a crutch? No. But it is the driving force to make me want to do better. So yes I would say I am much different now. Because I have something real, I have hope. I have the hope of eternal life—if I keep on keeping on. If I don’t neglect the salvation that was given to me at such a huge cost, then I have the hope of eternal life. Before I had no hope. I thought I did, but no. You know the ‘96 me was very selfish, very self-centered. I didn’t care. Very obnoxious.” Respondent 24: “I talk about Jesus. I wouldn’t have done that eight years ago. I mean, quoting scripture and telling people that they need to be saved? That they need to go find Jesus Christ? Because I laughed at those people’s faces. You know? They’re crazy! Leave me alone, you old Bible Thumpers. But now I am one of those Bible thumpers and I love it. You know? And that is my biggest change, is knowing that people see me differently. Those people that I wronged in the past. My father-in-law, you know he didn’t want me and (Sophia) to get married. He despised the fact. He was sure I would be a repeat offender. “He’s gonna go back to drinking heavily. Violence. Doing his drugs.” So. But—he’s one of my best friends now! You know? (tears up) And it’s just because of the faith that I have and knowing, that, you know, I’m doing this for me. I’m changing my life for me and for my family. And you can either be on board or not. Because I’m not going to change. I am not. It just wasn’t a fad you know. This is who we are. Christians. This is how we are going to behave. And this is what we are gonna do.”

Table 2.  Affirmations of Cognitive Transformation.


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Identity Theory While Paternoster and Bushway suggest fear of negative labels prompts successful desisters to make “avoidant” moves toward conventional behavior, our respondents expressed “feared self” identities had become fully realized aspects of their lives, with great repetition. Respondents described crushing moments of brokenness, marked breaks with the past, and new identities in being “born again” or finding a “new self in Jesus.” Through emotional support provided by church volunteers and daily religious practice, however, acceptance of the feared self was described as the catalyst for change. That is, rather than pursuing “avoidant motives” or attempts to deny or prevent full realization of the “feared self,” these religiously motivated desisters came to embrace their “feared selves” as a touchstone for behavior change. Respondents also reported making sharp breaks with past associates after religious conversion, while choosing to seek out and maintain close ties to church members in order to “hold themselves accountable.” Finally, while “brokenness” was often described as a volitional turning point in the journey toward desistance, these religiously motivated desisters also stressed that their new identities were dependent upon the support of church communities and daily private spirituality for growth and development. In contrast to Paternoster and Bushway’s account, however, these respondents came to embrace their “feared selves” rather than avoid them, both as a turning point and as a useful resource in narrative recountings of their “new selves” (see Table 3).

“Making Good”/Redemption Narratives Finally, religiously motivated desisters offered redemption narratives that contrasted markedly with those uncovered by Maruna (2001). While all respondents achieved “making good” in the sense of non-offending for an extended period, they were reticent about describing themselves as such, even persisting in their self-descriptions as “sinners” long after criminal desistance had been achieved. In contrast to the redemption scripts offered by Maruna’s Liverpool Desistance Study respondents, these men saw their best hope for redemption through full acknowledgment of their sinful natures and repentance through spiritual practice and devotion to their “church families.” They remained circumspect regarding any certainty they would never return to prison, noting this as a possibility best defended against by staying “close to God,” through prayer and strong ties to spiritual advisors and church. In contrast to Maruna’s desisters, then, rather than asserting their long-standing basic goodness and victimization by society, these successful desisters referenced characterizations of “stinking thinking” as evidence of cognitive shifts while staying reticent about their chances for permanent desistance. Not a single respondent in these interviews characterized themselves as a victim of society—which many arguably were—but instead articulated both their criminal histories and their desistance itself as products of their own volition. The importance of both social support and personal responsibility were nevertheless stressed as essential for sustaining agentic moves away from offending, with no sharp distinctions between community versus private

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Respondent 7: “Hey look, Mike, I’ve lived a life of pain and misery. And this here, what I’m telling you, is not the half of it. I can’t remember it all, can’t recount it all. I ain’t got time today. My daughter used to tell me I hate your fucking guts and spit at me (tears up; unable to continue). Today she’ll tell me I’m the love of her life (sobbing) . . . So I’m home again in 2007. It’s Christmas. I’ve got no presents for anyone. Went to Christmas service. I told my daughter I was going to try to give her her dad back. And I tell you, I got in that relationship with God. I pray every day. I help other people.” (cries) Change in Social and Institutional Respondent 11: “Before I went to jail and everything I’d smoke weed or whatever and I was like, now, I Relationships don’t want to be around that stuff ever again. So when I finally got out on my own God blessed me with my car, I had an apartment, I would always try to find a friend my age to hang out with. SO I would be working . . . but you know whenever I’d be working I’d find somebody my age and be like, “Hey you want to hang out? OK cool.” So it’d be like Friday night or whatever and I’d go to hang out with them. Well I went to hang out with this one guy and he had some friend over, and he was like man I’ll be right back. So I was sitting on the porch or whatever and then they come out and they’re smoking a joint. I’m like, man I have got to go . . . I can’t be friends with you. Man I know as soon as I hang around somebody like that I’m going to breathe that stuff in and take a drug test and go back to jail. But man it seemed like everybody I’d try to make friends with were all smoking weed.” Break from the Past Respondent 3: “When I got my bond revoked, man I was broken. I was very fearful of what was going to happen. You know, I was wondering how I was going to get myself out of this. I had always gotten myself out of any trouble I had been in, like a cat—seriously. I was very worried. Very anxious . . . So this woman I was with, who I just married before prison (together 8 years), pregnant with my child, says to me—I can’t offer you anything more than a friendship. And there’s no way in hell I’m ever going to bring our child into that prison. And I mean, I’m already busted at that point and um, that was it for me. I was like, Ohhhhh. And I mean, that was it: I turned around and just went into my room. And I was on the top bunk, two man cell, and hopped up there—and they’ve got those little narrow windows. And I’m feeling really dark at this point and I’m starting to weep and cry at this point. And I started to cry out to God: I’m like, God, please help me. Cause I have completely ruined my life. You know I’m 29 years old, I’m facing 10 years in prison, my wife is leaving me, I’m never going to see my kid, he’s going to be calling someone else daddy. You know everything, it was just the weight of my sin was crushing me. And I did, I cried out to God.”

Crystallization of Discontent

Table 3.  Affirmations of Identity Theory.


International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 59(8)

Table 4.  Making Good? Always basically good Respondent 20: “I wasn’t a good person. The way I see myself now person, liberated by I wasn’t a good person back then. I mean I would do good things outside forces? for people. But when I started drinking man I wasn’t a good person to be around . . . What made me the bad person was that old sinful nature I was born with. That made me the bad person, you know, and I recognize now that it was just that sinful nature. That made me who I was . . . When you flip the script from being that old bad-natured person, you accept your life in Christ. You see what I learned in my walk with Christ is that he say he’ll come in here and live with you, Christ will sit with you. He said he’ll be with you. He said no matter what, no matter where He will be with you and I believe that. And I had to accept that. When I began to accept that and believe that in my heart, and not just in my heart I had to put that in my head and my mind. You know I had to think this. I had to sleep this. I had to eat this. I had to believe this. I had to plant this right here (pointing to his heart). Just like I planted all that foolishness. God then began to renew my mind like He said in Romans He said, he’ll give you a new mind; he’ll renew your mind. So, you know He had to renew my mind, get me on the right track of thinking, you know. Instead of that stinkin’ thinkin.’”

spiritual resources being offered. As opposed to desistance being achieved through either personal willpower or social capital, both positive choice making and social capital acquired through useful friendships were attributed to “God working” in respondents’ lives11 (see Table 4).

“I Need Community to Succeed”: Agentic Social Control and Redemptive Choice Making As noted, narratives highlighted agentic moves away from offending that respondents asserted were important to desistance, referencing both private religiosity and church membership as resources for behavior change. Put another way, these desisters made no sharp distinctions between the social capital benefits of their faith lives and its spiritual benefits, often conflating the two, but placing great value on both. Scripture was frequently referenced as a vital cognitive and linguistic resource for successful desisters; however, immersion in scripture was described as facilitated by a larger social network of prison volunteers and church members. Respondents described jealously guarding their “church time” and actively cultivating “accountability” through social bonds acquired through church. In sum, in marked contrast to strict Control Theory accounts of criminal desistance, these religiously motivated desisters repeatedly affirmed the importance of both personal agency and social support in the desistance process (see Table 5).

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Hallett and McCoy Table 5.  Agency and Community in Criminal Desistance Narratives.

Respondent 2: “You know, for me, Christianity is as much about my decision to follow Christ as it is about community. I cannot follow Christ without community. You know, without the support of other Christians. I cannot do it outside of community. It is impossible. This idea that I just have to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ— which is what I had been taught my whole life—I do not see that taught in scripture. And I know that, together, with me, with community, with the faith that I have in Christ, because of the word of God, together, we can go through my journey. But I could-not-doit without that community, without that accountability . . . You know I could immediately think of 150 people that I would just disappoint, shatter, upset, cause great pain to if I went back to prison for car theft, DUI or anything else. And I don’t want to hurt them! They’re in my corner. They’re rooting for me. I succeed they succeed. I don’t succeed? Part of them is going to prison if I go back to prison.” Respondent 9: “My go-to scripture every time that I’m having some sort of doubt, or just bogged down, is Isaiah 53. It paints the crucifixion perfectly and the pain, that love, and the pain that He endured. Every single time that He got stricken and beat. It’s like—that’s for me. He didn’t open His mouth. No deceit was found in his mouth. You know, and then seeing Saul, Saul to Paul. Ah. Daniel. I really like going to James, too, James is a good book for me—because of the taming of the tongue, and ah, the way to conduct yourself. Romans. Ah man, there are so many. But you know, really, my ultimate favorite is the book of Isaiah and Isaiah 53 that gives me strength. Just to realize that, this was done for you. This was done for you, so fight the good fight. Control yourself. And you know, and then reading Romans. Romans 6. The power and the blood. Being washed in the blood of Christ. Love. 1 Corinthians. I love reading about Love and the way that love is supposed to be. You know. To be patient, to be kind and enduring. If you’re not serving God or even others out of love, genuine love, then in my opinion it’s sinful because it’s not true love— it’s not the truth. Because, are you serving in a manner that is pleasing or are you doing it begrudgingly? . . . I know that I’ve done a lot of maturing and I only want to get better.” Respondent 13: “I would say that I have a daily set of practices. To me prayer is essentially talking to God. I will hold sometimes audible conversations with God. But also just mental. In talking it out, it helps me to see what I did wrong and how I can correct it. And it might be something simple: you know. Lord, I am tired. But it’s just a continual awareness. It might be just driving over the ***** bridge and watching the sun come up and thanking god that I get to see that. I don’t know sometimes it’s just a subconscious commune; I don’t go into deep meditation. I’m sure I could do better. I mean I fail every day. Sometimes every minute.”

Conclusion: The Bad Self and Multiple Pathways of Desistance Criminologists use life-history interviews to gain perspectives on social problems unavailable through prepared surveys or statistical analysis (Gilligan & Lee, 2004; Presser, 2010). This project examined desistance narratives of 25 adult male ex-offenders who attribute conversion to Christianity as the source of their behavior change. Respondents were encouraged to describe their “self-projects” in their own words, with narratives subsequently examined in reference to three prominent theories

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International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 59(8)

of desistance: Making Good, Identity Theory, and Cognitive Transformation. Findings largely affirm these three theories, but also add to them in important ways. First, while respondents offered characterizations of having “made good” in their lives, accounts differed markedly from those captured by Maruna. While Maruna’s desisters used willful cognitive distortion that emphasized offenders’ basic goodness amid no real change of heart that might explain their desistance, this study uncovered desisters’ use of highly negative characterizations of self as catalysts for change. Narratives emphasized the importance of painful self-confrontations and outwardly making sharp demarcations between “old selves” and “new selves” as key to desistance.12 Narratives also contrast greatly with Control Theory accounts that de-emphasize the importance of personal agency in the desistance process (Maruna, 2001; Sampson & Laub, 1993). For these religiously motivated desisters, the importance of both personal responsibility and social support was articulated as essential for sustaining agentic moves away from criminal behavior. Respondents stressed the necessity of both “doing their part” and “feeding themselves” spiritually, while also stressing the importance of strong social bonds and church membership. Second, while Paternoster and Bushway’s (2009) Identity Theory argues an explicit decision to break with the past is prelude to criminal desistance, such decision making comes about only after the perceived costs of continued deviance prompt “avoidant motives” that prevent successful desisters from “becoming their feared self” (p. 1126). Respondents in this research, however, described painful confrontations with their feared selves as pivotal to both identity change and desistance. Full embrace and recognition of the “feared self,” in fact, comprised much of the spiritual work and social networking described as useful for achieving desistance. Religiously motivated desisters, in fact, highlighted the importance of their “feared self” as a resource for identity change, holding it in sharp contrast to their “new self in Jesus.” Identity change in this context was described, not as a Herculean struggle against temptations of the past, but instead as a resource for building on and embellishing their new Christian identity and behavior change. Finally, while respondents demonstrated high fidelity to Giordano et al.’s rubric for “cognitive transformation”—repeatedly articulating openness to change, exposure to hooks, replacement selves, and revised views of deviant behavior—desistance here was not simply described as the result of respondents individualistically strapping on their “spiritual bootstraps” in isolation from social support acquired through prison volunteers and church membership. While Giordano et al. (2002) seek to “emphasize the actor’s own role in creatively and selectively appropriating elements of the environment” for successful desistance, these respondents stressed the importance of social support for both cognitive transformation and religiosity (p. 1016). These narratives militate against any suggestion that abandoning ex-offenders to their “spiritual bootstraps” would achieve very much in the way of desistance, without also emphasizing the meaningful social support that generally accompanies mature faith practice. As these narratives reveal, pathways to desistance involve highly subjective assessments of agency and structure amid radically differing explanations for success. Emerging research highlights subjectivities in the desistance process and foregrounds

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Hallett and McCoy

the importance of phenomenological research in criminology. Helping ex-offenders develop narrative re-definitions of self that honor their subjective experiences should be a central goal for criminal justice practitioners. Calverly (2013), for example, recently published an ethnographic study of desistance among minority ethnic offenders in London, revealing that Indian verses Bangladeshi desisters had much more collective involvement in their desistance as compared with Black and dual heritage offenders’ desistance, which he describes as “a much more individualistic endeavor” (p. 184).13 Desistance research is arguably still in its infancy, and as such, phenomenological inquiry should continue apace with renewed energy and focus. Acknowledgments Thanks first to Peggy Giordano. Thanks also to Byron Johnson, Sung Joon Jang, Hal Pepinsky, John Johnson, Shadd Maruna, Alision Liebling and Pastor Daryl Townsend.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Notes   1. “Agentic Moves” refer to self-directed actions taken within a specific context. “To be an agent is to intentionally make things happen by one’s actions. Agency embodies the endowments, belief systems, self-regulatory capabilities and distributed structures and functions through which personal influence is exercised, rather than residing as a discrete entity in a particular place. The core features of agency enable people to play a part in their selfdevelopment, adaptation, and self-renewal with changing times” (Bandura, 2001, p. 2).   2. A piece by Topalli, Brezina, and Bernhardt (2013) also notes a sometimes “paradoxical relationship” between religion and criminality, using in-depth interviews exploring religious views of Atlanta street-offenders. Here, respondents suggest using religion to justify violence toward enemies to “give them punishment for Jesus” and using religion as a technique of neutralization to absolve their own criminality.   3. As Giordano, Cernkovich, and Rudolph (2002) summarize it, “Social control is thus essentially a theory of constraint that is focused on the long haul. In our view, this provides an important but incomplete accounting of change processes . . . ” (p. 992).  4. Paternoster and Bushway (2009) view desistance quite differently: “Unlike Maruna, who argues that offenders do not change their identities as part of the process of desisting from crime but simply reinterpret their past as somehow both consistent with and as a necessary prelude to the pro-social person that they think they are, our view is that there is a distinct change in how offenders think about ‘who they are’.” (Paternoster & Bushway, 2009, pp. 99, 1-146).   5. By “tautological” I mean a series of self-reinforcing statements that cannot be disproved because they depend on the assumption that they are already correct: Desistance is evidence of the cause of desistance.

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International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 59(8)

  6. Paternoster and Bushway (2009) also note the lack of agency prevalent in Making Good’s characterization of the desistance process: “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. 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” (Paternoster & Bushway, 2009, p. 1108).   7. Giordano’s team states, “In emphasizing cognitive and identity transformations and the actor’s own role in the transformation process, our perspective seems most compatible with the basic tenets of symbolic interaction. This more ‘agentic’ view of desistance balances some of the exteriority and constraint assumptions implicit in a control approach” (Giordano et al., 2002, p. 992).   8. Arguably all the key elements of Control Theory (attachment, commitment, involvement, belief) are themselves highly subjective internalized states of awareness best explored phenomenologically (see Schroeder & Frana, 2009).   9. Numerous documentations of non-Christian religious practice as supportive of offender desistance also exist in the literature. One excellent recent piece explores the transformative power of Vipassana for inmates (see Ronel, Frid, & Timor, 2013). See also Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2012 publication exploring the wide diversity of religious practice in American prisons, “Religion in Prisons: A 50 State Survey of Prison Chaplains” (http:// www.pewforum.org/2012/03/22/prison-chaplains-exec/). 10. With permission of respondents, criminal history checks were conducted to confirm reports of desistance, facilitated by Florida’s broad public records laws. No conflict of interest exists on the part of the researchers in conducting this research and respondent participation was fully voluntary. No compensation was offered for participation. No conflict of interest exists among the authors. All recruitment documents, consent forms, and research protocols gained full approval through the Institutional Review Board at the University of North Florida, IRB package number 423804-2. 11. For example, when provided a car and a job by a fellow church member, one respondent credited this to the power of prayer and “God working” in his life. 12. Death or “laying aside of the old self and putting on the new self” through baptism and conversion is a frequent metaphorical self-narrative among practicing Christians. See, for example, Ephesians 4:22-24. 13. Writes Calverly: “My analysis reveals that ethnic differences in terms of family and community, in particular, had implications for processes of desistance. These differences were responsible for shaping the environment where desistance took place and the means and opportunities available to do so. This, in turn, determined the understanding individual desisters gave to their decisions and actions” (Calverly, 2013, p. 184).

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Religiously Motivated Desistance: An Exploratory Study.

This article examines the life-history narratives of 25 successful ex-offenders professing Christianity as the source of their desistance. Unstructure...
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