Understanding Desistance from Sexual Offending
Project Commenced: 01/06/2013
Project Completion Date: 30/09/2016
Professor Anne-Marie McAlinden
Other staff or partners
Prof Shadd Maruna, Dr Mark Farmer
To date research into desistance from crime has focused almost exclusively on the general antisocial offender and there has been little published research into desistance specifically from sexual offending. This 40-month study addressed this specific gap in the literature - it set out to use some of the techniques that have been used to examine desistance amongst offenders in general within the specific problem field of desistance from sexual offending.
The research design involved interviewing and comparing the life stories of a sample of 'persisting' sex offenders and a sample of 'desisting' individuals. The sub-sample of 'persisting' offenders was used for comparison purposes and consisted of 10-15 individuals under probation supervision. This group was determined by the presence of more than one conviction for a sexual offence against a child and was further refined by including only those offenders where the most recent sexual offence is within 12 months from the date of the research. This is because other research (e.g. Healy 2010) shows desistance from crime to be an iterative process that develops over time. By interviewing persistent sex offenders relatively close to the date of their most recent offence we were able to better understand their experience of 'persistence'. The 'desisting' sub sample consisted of 25-30 individuals who were convicted of committing a sexual offence against a child a minimum of 3 years previously and living crime free in the community under licence for at least 2 years, but who were still under the supervision of the probation service. Sub-samples were matched on a case-by-case basis as closely as possible on key variables known to be related to recidivism (e.g., age, conviction type, numbers of previous convictions).
The active group was selected from those offenders currently attending sex offender treatment in one or more of the probation trusts covered by the Regional Sex Offender Unit (RSOU). The RSOU was run by Mark Farmer and provides sex offender treatment for five of the probation trusts in the Midlands of England. This gave a potential sample group of over 400 individuals.
The data collection method was semi-structured intensive interviews with the two groups. A broadly phenomenological approach was adopted to identify the way participants understand their lives and particularly how they have experienced life events that have led to offending, and its persistence or otherwise. The formulation of theory followed a grounded theory methodology.
This is a novel approach with sexual offenders because although qualitative research has been used widely with non-sexual offenders (see above) there is little research using this methodology with sexual offenders. This methodology was chosen because there is a general lack of qualitative research with sex offenders, and what research there is has uncovered a rich source of data that has so far eluded more quantitative methods.
The results were used to inform sex offender assessment and treatment approaches in probation and prisons, as well as to advance the knowledge in the academic field.
ESRC - Grant Ref: ES/K006061/1
See four articles and a journal special issue from the project and project conference available at: