Research into pathways to desistance from crime has emerged as a criminological field in its own right in recent years, and several commentators have shed light on the processes associated with this journey. Knowledge around these processes has become more comprehensive and detailed, and there is now significant breadth in our understandings of how and why individuals move away from crime. It is now widely accepted that desistance is a process whereby individuals gradually move away from a previous criminal lifestyle towards one characterised by pro-social attitudes and behaviours, and cemented with a new ‘non-offender’ identity. This gradual process is usually explained as entailing an initial decision, which may be prompted by a particular event or set of circumstances; an alteration in the way that the individual perceives themselves and their lifestyles; dedicated action to desist, and; the acquisition of a new, alternative, identity. Various social factors have been identified which may initiate or support the desistance process, with employment and family formation being particularly prominent in the existing literature. There are also a variety of subjective factors which have been shown to facilitate the process, such as motivation, determination, a positive outlook, confidence and a sense of ‘hope’, and the acquisition of an altered perspective of the self. Within the desistance literature these subjective factors are often taken to be indicative of human agency at work in the process of moving away from crime, yet this provides an incomplete and vague understanding of the role of agency. There remains a lack of an adequate conceptualisation of agency. Vaughan (2007) has suggested that Archer’s work on the ‘internal conversation’1 could provide an explanatory framework of agency in the desistance process, yet there has been limited empirical research which explicitly accounts for the role of agency. Where the desistance process has been examined the tendency has been to delineate between the two categorical phases of primary and secondary desistance, and to focus upon the latter. This distinction draws upon the work of Edwin Lemert (1951, 1967). Lemert (1951) argued that an ‘initial flirtation and experimentation with deviant behaviours’ could be identified as primary deviance, whereas secondary deviance would involve deviant acts becoming ‘incorporated as part of the “me” of the individual’ (1951: 11). Within the desistance
literature this has been adapted to suggest that a ‘flirtation’ with desistance, signalled by a lull in offending behaviour, could be defined as primary desistance. Secondary desistance, on the other hand, would follow that the assumption of a non-offending role would become incorporated as part of the ‘me’ of the individual, thereby indicating that the person had changed (Maruna et al., 2004: 19). This has meant that there has been relatively little attention paid towards the transitional phase of desistance, which means that our knowledge of the cognitions and understandings of individuals at the moment where they are between crime and conformity is necessarily limited. There is also a lack of focus on any adequate conceptualisation of agency, which entails that our understandings of how and why individuals make particular decisions about how they will act, of how they set goals and objectives, and of how they set out to achieve them, is also restricted. The work of Emirbayer and Mische (1998) offers a framework for understanding how individuals utilise agency within particular social contexts in order to identify certain goals or objectives, and to determine particular courses of action in order to achieve them. This chapter begins to examine the early transitions towards desistance by exploring the participants’ reflective accounts of their decisions to desist. In doing so it draws attention towards the social and personal factors associated with the onset of desistance, and the psychological impact of making a decision to desist. The accounts are examined in order to determine the relevance of human agency to these early decisions to desist, and the nature of agency is examined by considering the temporal orientation demonstrated by individuals within these reflective accounts.