February Book of the Month

Desistance from sex offending: alternatives to throwing away the keys. New York: Guilford. 306 pages, $45. Reviewed by Karen Franklin.  This is also available in a “Kindle” version.

Desistance from Sex Offending: Alternatives toThrowing Away the Keys.

New York:

Reviewed by Karen Franklin, Ph.D., Alliant International University, San Francisco, CA,

USA. Email: mail@karenfranklin.com

If one set out to design an intervention program to encourage criminals to reoffend,

what would it look like? It should include the converse of what helps offenders

desist from crime. It should isolate offenders from prosocial influences and

opportunities for good jobs or relationships. It should remind them that they are

hopelessly flawed and will never succeed. In this way, it would encourage alienation

and helplessness, the  “condemnation script” that Maruna (2001) found among men

who persist in crime.

Paradoxically, these are the very ingredients of many government-sponsored treatment

programs for sex offenders. At the facility where anthropologist Lacombe (2008)

conducted ethnographic research, for example, the mantra was “once a sex offender,

always a sex offender.” Offenders were trained to vigilantly monitor their every thought

for hints of omnipresent risk. Their progress and potential for release depended on

confessing “deviant fantasies” that put them at risk of reoffending. Through a harrowing

indoctrination process, they were transformed from ordinary criminals into beings

entirely “consumed with sex.”

This dominant conception of sex offenders as uniquely dangerous and persistent

menaces is borne out neither by their recidivism rates, which are relatively low overall,

nor by social science knowledge about criminality. Indeed, the single most robust

finding of two centuries of criminological research is that desistance from crime is near

universal. As they age, criminals stop offending. This holds true across all eras,

cultures, and offender groups. Sex offenders are not exempt from this pattern. As their

libidos decline, they too settle down or burn out. Unfortunately, these truths have

difficulty filtering down into the muddy waters of the sex-offender industry.

After many decades in the sex-offender field, scholars D. Richard Laws and Tony Ward

say it is time for a new paradigm. In their book,

Desistance from Sex Offending:Alternatives to Throwing Away the Keys, they say that we must

acknowledge that much of what passes for treatment of sex offenders is intrusive,

dehumanizing, and more properly considered punishment than therapy.

A key aim of Desistance is to bridge the looming chasm between an insular, riskobsessed

fringe of forensic psychology and the field of criminology, with its theory of

criminal desistance. Their Good Lives Model (GLM), the authors hope, is just the model

to steer sex-offender rehabilitation in a more positive direction.

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Desistance draws heavily from the seminal work of Sampson & Laub (1993, 2003), who

conducted the most comprehensive longitudinal study of criminals. Following a group of

criminals from the ages of 10 to 70, they found that individual traits and childhood

experiences cannot accurately predict desistance. Rather, the key is seemingly random

“turning points,” such as landing a good job or finding a good partner.

Maruna’s (2001) classic study advanced Sampson and Laub’s work, highlighting the

role of individual agency in prosocial transformation. Maruna found that offenders who

went straight forged a new narrative for their lives. This prosocial “redemption script”

stood in contrast to the hopeless, alienated “condemnation script” of offenders who

persisted in crime.

The first half of Desistance provides an excellent, readable survey of the criminological

literature on desistance, the age-crime curve, and offender reintegration research. The

authors then offer up the Good Lives Model as a way to refocus treatment on exoffenders’

strengths rather than deficits. Instead of regarding people who have

committed sex offenses as “moral strangers” and “bearers of risk” who must be rigidly

controlled and monitored, they argue, we should engage with them as fellow human

beings who have taken a wrong turn.

A rehabilitation theory rather than a psychological one, GLM focuses less on therapy

than on the real-world needs of desisting offenders. These needs include finding

meaningful work, entering good relationships, and strengthening bonds with family and

community. Crime desistance occurs naturally once an offender is able to obtain his

“primary goods” through legal means, the theory posits. Thus, a respect for offenders’

autonomy leads to greater engagement and ultimately a safer community.

This humanist message is central to the emergent restorative justice movement of

which Good Lives is a part. This approach also resonates with what we know from

therapy outcome research. The therapeutic alliance, neglected in many correctional

settings, is a primary mechanism of therapeutic change. People respond positively

when others demonstrate care and a belief in their potential to turn their lives around.

An essential shortcoming of the dominant Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model from

Canada is its failure to take such basic principles of individual agency into account,

argue Laws and Ward. Developing historically in the wake of the infamous “nothing

works” era of the 1970s, RNR and other “evidence-based practices” elevate measurable

results over principles of social justice or human rights. With its deficit-driven language

of static and dynamic risk factors and criminogenic needs, RNR condemns ex-offenders

as dangerous objects to be managed and controlled.

Indeed, the entire psychometric risk-assessment industry is premised on the idea that

offenders, and not their environments, are the sole sites of risk. Such a

conceptualization, Laws and Ward point out, fails to appreciate both changes that occur

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outside of formal treatment, and also how correctional policies that isolate ex-offenders

can elevate risk by cutting off avenues for successful reintegration.

Rather than abandoning RNR, the authors suggest expanding it with Good Lives

principles. However, the idiographic, client-centered approach of the Good Lives Model

is in many ways antipathous to RNR’s nomothetic focus on actuarial risk and

homogenous interventions. Indeed, this contrast is a major appeal of Good Lives.

Within the ranks of those administering bureaucratic risk management under the guise

of “treatment,” we hear increasingly vocal whispers of disillusionment and

disenchantment. These programs dehumanize and alienate not only the offender but

also the clinician, who is reduced to nothing more than a technician mechanically

administering a one size-fits-all indoctrination program to the hopeless.

The powerful concluding section on ethics touches on this dual dehumanization

process. Inflicting unjustified punishment disguised as treatment, such as harsh and

confrontational challenges, is abusive and unethical (see also Ward, 2010). In contrast,

“treating offenders with respect and decency rather than as sources of contamination to

be quarantined (not cured) is likely to make us better people and lessen the risk that we

might acquire some of the vices we despise” (p. 283).

This is a trailblazing book, and essential reading for clinicians, researchers,

academicians, attorneys, and anyone interested in the application of desistance theory

to sex-offender rehabilitation. Although the movement is still in its infancy, and outcome

research is just starting to accumulate, professional interest is a sign that the reign of

penal harm may be losing steam, creating opportunities for progressive reforms (Cullen,

in press).

That’s the optimistic view. More pessimistically, the punitive orientation of sex-offender

treatment programs may be so deeply entrenched that it is impervious to change. If

only lip service is given to its theory of desistance, within the same old manualized and

pathologizing discourse of deviance, distortion, and crime cycles, the Good Lives Model

may end up co-opted as yet another manualized technique for “fixing” offenders

(Porporino, 2008).

Let us hope, instead, that we are indeed at a turning point in correctional rehabilitation.

If the spirit of reform truly catches on, we will be able to look back at the current

iatrogenic practices in the sex-offender treatment industry and laugh about their lunacy.

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