The Impact of Experience with the World of Crime and the Juvenile Justice System

by Géraldine Bugnon – july 2015


Géraldine Bugnon works as researcher at the CESDIP. She holds a PhD in sociology and is a post-doctoral student at the Centre Romand de Recherche en Criminologie (Université de Neuchâtel – Switzerland).


The sociology of deviant behaviour, like criminology, traditionally concerns itself essentially with the factors, motivations and forms through which people initiate offending. Since the 1970s, however, a number of studies have been devoted to the process of desistance from crime. Interest in this subject is clearly developing, at present, in the face of growing concern with security and the need to deal with the problem of “juvenile delinquency”. The present paper examines this subject, based on the life histories collected from young Brazilians engaged in offending, in order to discover how their experience with delinquency, and with the criminal justice system (in this case, with the juveniles’ socio-educational system) influences the way they desist from crime.


Scholarly writings advance a number of mechanisms to account for desisting from crime. The quantitative studies attempt to identify psychological, cognitive and social “factors” involved in desistance ; these studies usually assume that objective events have great impact on individual trajectories, and consider desistance as something static, an event that can be located at a specific time. Qualitative studies, based on the life histories of the actors themselves, are more interested in the meaning individuals ascribe to offending and the processes through which they attempt to pull themselves out of it. Over and beyond the variety of approaches, the existing literature agrees on a number of points.


First, desistance from crime is tied to a process of psychological and social maturation : the vast majority of youthful offenders actually cease their deviant behaviour around the age of 20 to 25, when they enter adult life. Getting steady employment and getting married are the two most significant kinds of events accounting for changes in the course of these trajectories, from a lifestyle structured by delinquency toward a more socially conformist one. The social and historical context also helps in accounting for the transition to adulthood : increasingly precarious employment due in particular to structural changes in the labour market in recent decades postpones this transition and makes it much more difficult, especially for underprivileged youths, and this lengthens their careers as offenders. Another crucial finding uncovered in studies on the subject is the non-linear, dynamic, complex nature of the desistance process. The sequences differ from one individual to another, with frequent hesitancies and relapsing.



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