Theories of Desistance from Crime and the Norwegian Penal System

by Hannah Dickens

decorative image: stop sign image.

This paper analyzes leading theories of desistance from, or the cessation of, criminal behavior. Informal social control theory argues that specific life events and aspects of social structure are the major factors that lead to desistance. In contrast, theories of cognitive change suggest that changes in one’s thought patterns and perceptions of one’s own identity are more crucial to the desistance process than structural opportunities.  Other theories present a synthesis of both the structural and the cognitive viewpoints.  Though vastly different in their mechanisms of change, these theories are each supported by extensive research.  After describing these theories, I present the Norwegian penal system as a model of how insights from these theories can be successfully applied in corrections. I argue that specific aspects of the Norwegian Penal system, including those that remove structural barriers to cognitive change, maintain individuals’ bonds to their communities, present 
individuals with pro-social opportunities within their communities, and are consistent with theories of desistance. These aspects have been highly successful in promoting desistance, as evidenced by Norway’s low recidivism rates. Finally, practical limitations involved with implementing similar practices in U.S. prison systems are discussed along with measures that several state prison systems have taken to move towards more evidence-based approaches.

Keywords: criminal justice, criminal behavior, corrections, reform

The vast majority of people who engage in criminal behavior eventually stop (McNeill, Farrall, Lightowler, & Maruna, 2012; Maruna, 2001). This observation has led many criminologists to ask why and how people stop engaging in criminal behavior and how corrections systems can better promote desistance. The first goal of this paper is to compare several leading theories that conceptualize desistance from crime, and its causes, in different ways. The second goal is to describe how the Norwegian prison system -internationally known for its success in lowering crime rates and reintegrating people back into their communities- exemplifies how corrections systems might successfully promote desistance in line with these theories (Sterbenz, 2014).

Theories of Desistance

In their book Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70, Laub and Sampson (2003) explain desistance using informal social control theory. The goal of this theory is to, “link social history and social structure to the unfolding of human lives” (Laub & Sampson, 2003, p. 33). According to Laub and Sampson, Informal Social Control Theory differs from other theories of desistance because it focuses on external factors influencing a person’s behavior rather than on individual traits that predispose a person to engage in or desist from criminal behavior. Laub and Sampson tested their theory using a longitudinal study with the goal of identifying the specific “mechanisms” that underlie desistance from criminal behavior.

In their study, Laub and Sampson (2003) examined the relationships between patterns of criminal behavior and the occurrences of major life events over a 55-year period in a sample of men from Boston, Massachusetts. They found that certain life events, referred to as “turning points,” play significant roles in facilitating and maintaining desistance (Laub & Sampson, 2003). According to Abbott (1997), turning points are “consequential shifts that redirect a process” (p. 101). While many life events can “redirect” behavior, Laub and Sampson found three specific turning points that are significantly associated with desistance: marriage, employment, and military service.

All three of these turning points contribute to the desistance process by prompting changes in an individual’s routine activities and removing the individual from delinquent peer groups, both of which significantly reduce the opportunities that the individual has to participate in criminal behavior. It was found that marriage has the largest impact on desistance, reducing the likelihood that an individual will engage in criminal behavior by 36% (Laub & Sampson, 2003). This is primarily due to the fact that marriage increases the individual’s bond to a conventional other (spouse), thereby creating a relationship that the individual does not want to jeopardize by engaging in criminal behavior. Employment changes routine activities through established work hours, which decreases time and opportunities for the individual to engage in crime. Additionally, the financial stability that results from steady employment contributes to desistance because it decreases pressure for an individual to generate income through illegal means (Agnew, 2014).

In addition to changing routine activities and providing financial stability, military service promotes desistance by teaching life skills and meeting individuals’ basic needs. During their time in the military, the men interviewed by Laub and Sampson (2003) described learning valuable skills such as self-discipline, anger management techniques, and the value in helping others. Desisting individuals found all of the learned skills useful in their future employment and relationships. The military was also an attractive turning point for many individuals in the study because it provided them with food, shelter, and income (Laub & Sampson, 2003). Finally the G.I. Bill, a law that provided World War II veterans with resources that helped them transition back into civilian life (Goldsmith, 2013), helped many men reintegrate back into their communities and continue their process of desistance by providing job training and housing after serving in the military.

decorative image: military helmets.

The people involved with these turning points, specifically spouses, employers, and military superiors, play a key role in promoting desistance by exerting informal social control on individuals who had previously been involved in criminal behavior (Laub & Sampson, 2003). Social control is defined as “the mechanisms through which a society is able to regulate and direct the behavior of its members” (Kurlychek, 2014). As opposed to being exerted by a larger social institution, informal social control is exerted by one’s friends or family (Kurlychek, 2014).  Examples of this informal social control reported in Laub and Sampson’s (2003) study include employers’ willingness to behave as “strict fathers” and keep their employees “in line,” as well as wives adopting “zero-tolerance” policies towards criminal behavior. According to Laub and Sampson, the fact that the men in their sample were subject to significant monitoring and supervision greatly contributed to their ability to desist from criminal behavior.

Overall, Laub and Sampson (2003) argue that, while most individuals deliberately choose to engage in turning points, such as getting married or finding a job, they do not do so with a conscious intent to desist from crime. Instead, individuals “desist by default” by engaging in a turning point and only realizing many years later that they had ceased to participate in criminal behavior as a result. The practical implications of this concept are that individuals do not need to have a desire to stop committing crimes in order to desist. Instead, they simply need to be presented with the right structural opportunities. Although “desistance by default” is consistent with many of the interviews from Laub and Sampson’s study, it fails to explain why some of the individuals in the study engaged in turning points but failed to desist from criminal behavior. In order to explain this discrepancy, other researchers have developed theories of desistance focusing on cognitive, rather than structural, factors associated with desistance.

In his book Making Good, Shadd Maruna (2001) highlights the importance of cognitive and identity change as contributions to the desistance process. Specifically, Maruna examines “criminal decision making through an examination of the offender’s self-project…the ends they aim to achieve, and their strategies for creating meaning in their lives” (Maruna, 2001, p. 33). Although Maruna acknowledges that turning points contribute to desistance, he argues that the impacts of turning points are highly variable because such events “are all purposeful, ongoing social interactions with no fixed natures” (p. 21). Therefore, instead of designing a study to identify structural factors (e.g., jobs) that contribute to desistance, Maruna focused on identifying cognitive patterns associated with creating a “single, composite portrait of the desisting self” (p. 51) by interviewing two groups: people desisting from criminal behavior and people persisting in criminal behavior.

Maruna (2001) found several key differences that characterize the interviews of individuals in the persisting group, referred to as “condemnation scripts,” and the interviews of individuals in the desisting group, referred to as “redemption scripts.” Redemption scripts were five times more likely to contain agentic themes, such as those relating to achievement, responsibility, and empowerment, compared to condemnation scripts. Furthermore, redemption scripts were characterized by a sense of optimism about and feelings of being in control of one’s own future. Specifically, redemption scripts highlighted desisting individuals’ desires to give back to their communities and help others. These aspects contrast significantly with condemnation scripts, which were imbued with senses of helplessness and hopelessness. The significant differences between the two types of scripts support the claim that cognitive changes occur as part of the desistance process.

While Maruna’s (2001) redemption scripts contain a variety of elements that give insight to the cognitive patterns of desisting individuals, the most notable aspect of the redemption scripts is the concept the concept of the “true self.” During interviews, Maruna found that desisting individuals had established that there was a good person, or “true self,” with good qualities that had existed inside of them throughout their entire lives. Many individuals in the desistance group “proved” the existence of their “true self” by emphasizing good qualities, such as loyalty, perseverance, and intelligence, that they employed while engaging in criminal behaviors. It was also found that these individuals rely on the good qualities and talents associated with the “true self” to assure themselves that they will be just as successful in desisting as they were in participating in criminal behavior. The “true self” is the most important theme of the redemption scripts because it highlights a distinct cognitive and identity change that is necessary for desistance. It is also the only theme that can be clearly understood as a mechanism, rather than a result, of change, as individuals actively use the concept to encourage themselves as they engage in non-deviant activities associated with desistance.

The theories presented by Maruna (2001) and Laub and Sampson (2003) emphasize two different causal mechanisms involved in the desistance process. Maruna argues that cognitive change prompts individuals to actively choose desistance, while Laub and Sampson argue that one can “desist by default” by simply interacting with turning points. Giordano, Cernkovich, and Rudolph (2014) successfully synthesize both the concepts of cognitive change and turning points into one theory of desistance. According to this theory, cognitive changes and agentic choices are mechanisms that allow an individual to take advantage of turning points, referred to in this theory as “hooks for change.” These “hooks” then contribute to more cognitive changes, such as changes in the offender’s identity and the ways in which he or she views criminal behavior.

According to Giordano et al. (2014), there are four “cognitive shifts” that are “fundamental to the transformation process” (p. 554). The first involves the individual experiencing “an increased recognition of the desirability of changing” (Giordano et al., 2014, p. 555). This idea echoes Maruna’s (2001) belief that individuals make conscious choices to desist from criminal behavior. The second cognitive shift involves the individual becoming open to the specific “hooks for change,” such as marriage or employment, that are present in his or her life. This idea echoes Laub and Sampson’s (2003) emphasis on human agency with regards to choosing to engage with turning points. After this, an individual engages in a third cognitive shift, in which he or she establishes a “replacement self.” This “replacement self,” is similar to the “true self” described in Maruna’s theory. Finally, the fourth cognitive shift involves a change in how the individual views deviant behaviors. While undergoing this shift, the individual ceases to view criminal behaviors as, “positive, viable, or even personally relevant” (Giordano et al., 2014, p. 556).

In addition to explaining cognitive shifts that occur in an individual who is desisting from criminal behavior, Giordano et. al (2014) emphasize the reciprocal nature of the relationship between the individual and his or her environment. This element of the theory creates a connection between the cognitive and structural elements discussed by Maruna (2001), Laub, and Sampson (2003). Giordano et. al argue that individuals’ attitudes towards change, which are cognitive elements, can influence whether or not they pursue available hooks for change, which are structural elements. Furthermore, hooks for change can be integral in the formation of the “replacement self,” a cognitive element. This theory provides a stronger explanation of desistance from crime than either Laub and Sampson’s or Maruna’s theories alone. The emphasis that Giordano et al. place on the reciprocal relationship can explain why certain individuals in Laub and Sampson’s study stated that turning points, such as marriage and employment, “backfired” for them, while still highlighting the importance of turning points in the process of desistance, which Maruna fails to do in his argument.

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The Norwegian Penal System

 In light of the research showing the impact of both structural turning points and cognitive change on the desistance process, the question arises of what can be done to better promote desistance through corrections. In answer to this question, we look to the Norwegian penal system. Internationally known for having “the world’s most humane prison,” (Benko, 2015) Norway’s prison system centers around the “principle of normality,” which states that the only right taken away from prisoners while they are incarcerated is their freedom (Norwegian Correctional Service, n.d.). The goal of the principle of normality is to “fight institutionalization” and to reintegrate individuals who commit crime back into the community as quickly and easily as possible (Stranberg, 2010).  There are several unique aspects of the Norwegian prison system that promote desistance and the general well-being of communities, including short prison sentences, an emphasis on regionalism, the use of an “import model” of services provided for incarcerated individuals, and a “reintegration guarantee.” All of these elements are consistent with the theories discussed above and provide excellent examples of how corrections can better promote desistance.

A key component to the success of the Norwegian criminal justice system involves its short prison sentences and low incarceration rates. According to the Norwegian Correctional Service (n.d.), 90% of prison sentences in Norway are less than 12 months in length, with the average sentence lasting only eight months. This is a stark contrast to the average length of a prison stay in the U.S., which is 30 months for new court commitments (Clear, 2014). Furthermore, the rate of incarceration in Norway is nine times lower than it is in the U.S (World Prison Brief, n.d.). Shorter periods of incarceration promote desistance by allowing individuals to maintain better connections with their families and communities. This is consistent with Laub and Sampson’s (2003) finding that marriage, a very close family tie, is the “turning point” with the greatest impact on desistance. Short prison sentences also allow individuals more time to pursue employment, another turning point shown by Laub and Sampson to promote desistance.

Incarcerated individuals’ ties to their communities are also maintained by the geographic distribution of prisons in Norway. Throughout Norway, there is a large number of small prisons, each containing around 70 cells (Norwegian Correctional Service, n.d.). The purpose of this design is to have a prison near every community so that individuals who are incarcerated can stay close to their families and communities. This contrasts significantly with the U.S. prison system, in which 84.3% of individuals are incarcerated over 50 miles away from their communities (Rabuy & Kopf, 2015).

The geographic distribution of Norway’s prisons allows individuals to take advantage of another unique aspect of the Norwegian system: the “import model” of services. Unlike many other prison systems, the Norwegian prison system does not have its own system of healthcare, employment, educational, or social services (Norwegian Correctional Service, n.d.). Rather, these services are “imported” from the communities that are close to the prisons using the same funds that are used to provide the services to non-incarcerated individuals (Norwegian Correctional Service, n.d.). The goal of the “import model” is to help incarcerated individuals establish relationships with service providers that can continue once the individuals re-enter their communities. This system removes structural barriers, such as inadequate access to housing and healthcare, that keep individuals from reintegrating into their communities and pursuing cognitive change as described by Maruna (2001) and Giordano et al. (2014). Furthermore, imported employment and education services allow individuals to begin the process of engaging in Laub and Sampson’s (2003) turning points while still incarcerated. The “import model” is not currently feasible in the United States, because incarcerated individuals are typically incarcerated far from home and would need to reestablish these relationships with service providers within their own communities once released from prison.

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Another key aspect of the Norwegian prison system is that it allows individuals to move from high to low-level security prisons, gradually reintegrating back into their communities as they serve their sentences. In Norway, inmates are put in prisons with the lowest level of security possible, based on how much of a threat they pose to others (Norwegian Correctional Service, n.d.). As their sentences progress, individuals are moved from their initial security prisons to lower security prisons, and then moved to halfway houses within their communities. Once in halfway houses, individuals can begin to take advantage of Norway’s “reintegration guarantee,” which promises incarcerated individuals “an offer of employment, education, suitable housing accommodation, some type of income, medical services, addiction treatment services and debt counseling” (Norwegian Correctional Service, n.d.). Ultimately, this progressive approach towards reintegration allows individuals the opportunity to move through Giordano et al.’s (2014) four cognitive changes by gradually providing them with accessible “hooks for change,” such as employment and education options as described by the reintegration guarantee, while still providing supervision, or indirect social control, in low security prisons and halfway houses (Stranberg, 2010; Sutter, 2012).

The Norwegian prison system’s unique approach to reintegrating individuals who have engaged in criminal behavior has succeeded in several notable ways. First, Norway’s recidivism rates are very low, with only 20% of individuals reoffending within 2 years of release (Norwegian Correctional Service, n.d.), which is significantly lower than the 67% recidivism rate in the U.S. (National Institute of Justice, 2014). Additionally, rates of violent crime are significantly lower in Norway than they are in the U.S. Specifically, Norway experiences seven times fewer homicides and 43% fewer rapes per million people than the U.S. (NationMaster, n.d.). Although these statistics may not be entirely attributable to the work of the Norwegian prison system, it is likely that the evidence-based practices that have been implemented in corrections have played a significant role in reducing crime and recidivism in Norway.


In summary, several leading theories of desistance indicate large roles for both structural turning points and cognitive change in the process of desistance. Sampson and Laub (2003) argue that individuals desist from crime by engaging in turning points such as marriage, employment, and military service. The authors also emphasize that individuals do not need to make a conscious decision to desist from crime in order to do so. Maruna (2001) takes the opposite stance, arguing that individuals consciously choose to desist from crime while undergoing cognitive and identity changes that drive the desistance process. Giordano et al. (2014) combine both of these arguments into a theory that emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between an individual and his or her environment. In this theory, cognitive changes influence the individual’s willingness to engage with turning points that are associated with desistance, while the turning points can result in cognitive changes that contribute to desistance.

 As described, the Norwegian prison system provides an excellent example of how these theories can be applied within corrections to successfully promote desistance. Although the Norwegian prison system cannot force cognitive changes to occur in incarcerated individuals, it provides individuals with access to many structural elements, such as healthcare, employment, and various ways of maintaining their bonds to their communities, that promote desistance and accompanying cognitive changes (Laub & Sampson, 2003). Individuals are then responsible for being open to these “hooks for change,” re-evaluating their perspectives on criminal behavior, and beginning to form non-deviant identities (Giordano et al., 2014). As a result of implementing a variety of evidence-based practices and removing many structural barriers that inhibit cognitive change from occurring, Norway experiences significantly lower rates of recidivism and violent crime than the U.S. (NationMaster, n.d.; National Institute of Justice, 2014; World Prison Brief, n.d.).

The Norwegian prison system is a model that the U.S. can look to when considering prison reform. As of 2013, five states have implemented aspects of Norway’s prison system, such as establishing halfway houses, reducing individuals’ time spent in solitary confinement, and renovating prisons so that they contain dormitories instead of cells (Chammah, 2017). Additionally, eight more states have toured European prisons, including those in Norway, over the past four years. Although there is much work to be done within the U.S. prison system, implementing evidence-based practices that have been shown to succeed in other nations is an important first step towards creating an environment that better promotes desistance and the health of communities.


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I would like to thank Dr. Sarah Shannon for her guidance on this project and Holly Roberts for her assistance in editing this paper.