Session: Using Desistance Theory to Guide Criminal Justice Research: Informing Micro and Macro-Level Social Change (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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138 Using Desistance Theory to Guide Criminal Justice Research: Informing Micro and Macro-Level Social Change

Thursday, January 21, 2021: 1:15 PM-2:15 PM
Cluster: Crime and Criminal Justice
Sujeeta Menon, LMSW, University of Houston, Peter Trietler, MSW, Rutgers University-Newark and Stacey Barrenger, PhD, New York University
Although the goals, values, and approaches of the criminal justice and social work professions have come into conflict, there is a positive and gradual acceptance of social work practice within correctional settings, including juvenile justice institutions, courts, correctional facilities, and re-entry organizations. This interest has grown with the increase in individuals leaving and re-entering in the era of mass incarceration.

As concerns about the impact of mass incarceration on individuals and communities grow, interest in both Smart Decarceration and Abolitionist approaches are coming to light within social work with the aim of reforming the criminal justice system. While these approaches are grounded in social work values, we also need to develop and apply similarly grounded theories to the research that support decarceration or abolition of criminal justice policies and practices. Desistance theories within criminal justice can provide a way to reconceptualize criminal justice research within social work.

Desistance theories explain the process by which a person discontinues criminal behavior, and scholarship in this area has developed a rich theoretical foundation. Some of these theories include the identity and interactionist theories of desistance ,age-graded theory of informal social control, and cognitive transformation theory. Centering these theories in social work scholarship will inform evidence-based policies and practices that contribute to criminal justice reform.

In this roundtable session, presenters will discuss desistance theories and their application to social work research and practice. The panelists will illustrate the application of desistance theories to their work addressing community reintegration among returning citizens. Drawing from desistance theories, the first panelist will present a conceptual framework for youth exiting the juvenile justice system. The second panelist will discuss common elements of the related processes of desistance from crime and recovery from substance use and mental health disorders. Drawing from an integrated theory, the presenter will review the potential role of peer-based interventions in the criminal justice system. The third panelist will show how desistance theories can inform research design, specifically the outcomes being measured. Instead of focusing solely on recidivism as an outcome of interest, other behaviors and indicators of desistance can be used to inform intervention research. Panelists will then facilitate a discussion with attendees about the potential gaps in desistance knowledge with a goal of identifying areas ripe for future criminal justice research. For example, important questions remain about how desistance processes differ based on a person's race, ethnicity, culture, and experiences. We will also explore the extent to which individual-level interventions can be effective in the context of punitive criminal justice policies and widespread stigma against formerly incarcerated individuals and the potential of desistance-informed research to simultaneously inform interventions and policies. The overall goal of this roundtable is to engage in a dialogue about the value of desistance theories in social work research and practice related to criminal justice.

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