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Decreasing Criminality and Parole and Probation
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 04/17/2017

Power of family

A fascinating study by the University of Delaware funded by the National Institute of Justice of the US Department of Justice followed drug-related criminal offenders over the course of twenty years. Multiple interviews looked for life events that caused offenders to lessen or to stop their criminal activities.

The study, “Roads Diverge: Long-Term Patterns Of Relapse, Recidivism, And Desistence For A Cohort Of Drug Involved Offenders,” reemphasizes a point made by treatment providers for decades, offenders will not alter their behaviors until they are personally ready for change.

Or as it was said by many offenders I encountered throughout my career, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

The research isn’t encouraging as to the effectiveness of interventions, providing the inference that nothing works well until the offender is ready for change. See Crime in America-Nothing Works Well, for our assessment of the effectiveness of programs.

Major events like parenthood, a job or treatment seemed to have little impact except when the offenders deemed himself ready for change.

Parole and Probation

When I was a spokesperson for a federal parole and probation agency, I went on ride alongs for scheduled and surprise visits to offender’s homes. I met several older offenders who were consistently violated (an increase in supervision) for positive drug tests, principally marijuana.

These offenders were returned to court or the parole commission and their terms of supervision were often lengthened. I could never understand the rational for keeping an older offender on supervision for pot use when all other measures indicated that he had left his crime-committing days behind him.

The study indicated that while many of the offenders in the original cohort had engaged in property and violent crime when they were younger, recent arrest data indicated that the majority of offenses were for parole/probation violations regardless of race and gender.

Interviews revealed that parole was not only a failed deterrent for many respondents, but it was a direct impediment to successful reentry and long-term desistance.

Parole and probation agencies need to rethink the supervision needs of older offenders, and in many cases, suspend supervision entirely except for quarterly criminal history checks.

The Study


Research indicates that a large percentage of inmates released from prison back into their communities will be rearrested. Particularly vulnerable are those who have past histories of drug addiction.

Except for intensive experiences with long-term aftercare programming, there appears to be very few programs that significantly increase the probability of reintegrative success for ex-offenders attempting to become conforming members of society.

Unlike evaluation studies examining the efficacy of particular programs, the primary goal of this project was to increase our understanding about the mechanisms and processes of desistance from crime and drug use among current urban, largely minority and increasingly female criminal offenders.

Using a mixed methods research design, this research follows former drug-involved offenders for over 20 years post release from prison.


The project features a multi-method design and unfolded in two phases. The sample for this study originated from a previous sample used to evaluate the efficacy of Therapeutic Communities

In Phase I of the present study, official arrest records were obtained for the original 1,250 offenders through 2008 from both official Delaware and NCIC data sources.

From these data, race and gender specific offending trajectory models were estimated.

In Phase II used the trajectories as a sampling frame to select 304 respondents for in-depth interviews. The goal of the interviews was to examine the processes and mechanisms that led to persistence or desistance from crime and drugs.


Supporting the identity theory of desistance, interviews revealed that the vast majority of offenders who had successfully desisted from both crime and drug use first transformed their “offender identity” into a “non-offender working identity.”

This was true for both race and gender groups interviewed. This cognitive process was typically motivated by respondents realizing that if change did not occur, they would likely become what they feared, either dying an addict, dying in prison, dying alone, or some other horrible fate.

To behaviorally conform to their new “non-offender” identity, respondents used various tools including changing their “people and places” by seeking out noncriminal ties and staying away from locations that triggered their drug use or criminal behavior.

Although treatment usually did not result in immediate desistance for most, the vast majority who eventually “got clean” relied on the tools learned in treatment programs when they were ready to use them.

Religion also was cited as a tool by many that was used to establish pro-social support networks that reinforced their new identities.

Contrary to life-course theory, partnership and parenthood did not appear to be “turning points” for the majority of our respondents.

However, when they were ready to get clean, rekindling relationships with adult children or grandchildren was an extremely important factor for many of our respondents.

Similarly, while getting a good job upon release did not deter the majority of addicts from relapse upon release from prison, it is clear that finding stable employment that paid a living wage is extremely difficult for this sample of drug involved offenders and that deciding to get clean and/or maintaining a “non-offender” identity is more difficult when access to a meaningful quality of employment is beyond reach or nonexistent.


A recurring theme throughout the interviews was that a critical component of the desistance process is “being ready” to change.

They have argued that several things must occur before an offender is ready to leave their life of crime behind. First, offenders must make connections between the hardships and harms they are experiencing in their lives with their current identity and the kind of person they want to become.

Part of this also involves connecting previously unrelated events so that the hardships and failures they have had in the past are projected into the future and perceived as likely to occur again.

It is this new understanding that what were previously thought of as isolated and unique events are actually the logical and inevitable consequences of their current identity and will not go away until that identity is changed and intentional self-improvement begun. As such, cognitive-behavioral theory may be an effective intervention strategy to accelerate this self-discovery process.

Our research also confirms previous work that has placed female criminality within a larger context of a violent childhood and cycle of violent relationships. Female offenders in our sample were almost 10 times more likely to have been sexually victimized as children compared to their male counterparts and many of these women continued to experience violence at the hands of intimate partners through adulthood.

Many of these victims acknowledged the use of drugs and alcohol as a salve or escape from these traumas, which ultimately led to their addiction and incarceration. Because drug related crimes are the most common repeat offense for women, helping females heal from primary traumas would seem to go a long way to reducing recidivism, net of drug treatment programs.

Our results also have implications for the current War on Drugs, which continues to warehouse drug-addicted offenders in prison for increasingly long prison sentences.

While many of the offenders in the original cohort had engaged in property and violent crime when they were younger, recent arrest data indicated that the majority of offenses in recent years were for parole/probation violations regardless of race and gender.

Interviews revealed that parole was not only a failed deterrent for many respondents in our sample, but it was a direct impediment to successful reentry and long-term desistance.

Although intensive probation with random urine tests is extremely popular, respondents expressed continued frustration with the costs and energy associated with probationary supervision.

The respondents in our sample, especially those who were low-risk and nonviolent, articulated a great deal of frustration with the daily obligations connected with probation officer meetings including securing childcare, convenient and affordable public transportation, missing work, and even sleep for those working several jobs.

Many expressed the desire for incrementally decreasing supervision or meetings that were more regularly scheduled to help abate the stresses of intensive supervision. Many who gained employment in the service sector but failed to recover from their addiction were eventually sent back to prison for parole violations.

Again, we question whether sending individuals whose only crime is addiction back to prison is a cost-effective strategy for prevention and treatment for drug-involved offenders. In sum, we contend that rather than remain regarded as a matter of crime control, offender reentry must be recast as a critical public health issue. The costs of unsuccessful offender reentry, particularly for those with drug addictions, manifest in medical care expenses, the loss of future earning, public programming expenditures, homelessness, criminal justice resource disbursement, and decreases in collective quality of life measures.

Source: https://sites.sas.upenn.edu/kerrison/files/final.report.june_.2013.pdf

Reprinted with permission from http://crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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