Desistance from sexual offending: Life narratives of recidivism and redemption

Danielle Arlanda Harris

San Jose State University, CA United States,

Desistance refers to the de-escalation or cessation of offending. For two centuries it has been observed by criminologists as a natural human process for the majority of those who break the law but the field of research on sexual aggression has only recently begun to investigate this phenomenon. The widespread and persistent belief that sex offenders are destined to reoffend (Göbbels, et al., 2012; Harris & Cudmore, 2015; Laws & Ward, 2011; Willis, Levenson & Ward, 2010) has aided the development of an entire industry which is now consumed with the assessment of risk and the prediction of recidivism. To that end, a slew of legislation now exists that aims to control and manage the post-custody behaviors (not to mention the literal, day-to-day, physical movement) of (mostly) men convicted of sexual offenses (especially against children) (Harris, 2015).

The present study utilizes a large sample of men incarcerated or civilly committed for sexual offenses and released to the street in the 1990s. It is the first to explore the narrative differences (revealed during in-depth life history interviews) between the 11 men who reoffended sexually and are back in custody and the 60 men who continue to live offense-free lives in the community. The main focus is on understanding the specific experiences and local life circumstances that shaped each participant’s release. The characteristics of the participants are described and compared, and their differential life narratives of redemption and recidivism are explored.


Danielle Arlanda Harris is an Associate Professor in the Department of Justice Studies at San Jose State University and the Director of Research for The Art of Yoga Project. She recently received a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for an extensive follow up study of civilly committed sex offenders. She has presented at numerous international conferences including ATSA, ASC, and ACJS. Her research interests include many aspects of sexual offending and sexuality over the life course: specialization and versatility; the criminal career paradigm; desistance, and related public policy.


The society is devoted to promoting criminological study, research and practice in the region and bringing together persons engaged in all aspects of the field. The membership of the society reflects the diversity of persons involved in the field, including practitioners, academics, policy makers and students.

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