Drugs, Alcohol, and Crime

Examining Factors that Help Ex-Offenders Transform Their Lives

Erin Kerrison
Assistant Professor of Social Welfare, University of California at Berkeley

Key Findings

  • For adult offenders seeking to remove themselves from a life of crime, critical success factors are that the individual is intrinsically ready to change and undertakes a self-initiated identity transformation, which results in having a new self-concept as a non-offender.
  • Prosocial roles like employment and marriage are important factors in maintaining an individual’s new non-offender identity.


In the article, “Desistance for a Long-term Drug-Involved Sample of Adult Offenders: The Importance of Identity Transformation,” Kerrison examined the factors necessary for adult offenders to successfully remove themselves from a life of crime. Data for this study came from a longitudinal analysis of offenders who were released from the state of Delaware correctional system between the years 1990 and 1996. Participants, who were primarily male (79%) and African American (73%), were interviewed before their release from prison, and interviewed again at regular intervals over the next several years. The study looked at whether prosocial roles like employment and marriage were able to change an offender’s behavior and self-concept. Kerrison did not find that these conventional social roles were enough to cause the individual to change his or her offender identity, however, when respondents were ready to stay crime and drug free, rekindling relationships with family members was an extremely important factor in their lives. The study found that to sustain their new non-offender identities, respondents used various tools including changing their “people, places, and things” by seeking non-criminal associates and staying away from previous locations that triggered their drug use or criminal behavior. In looking at ways to reduce likelihood of recidivism, the authors suggest utilizing cognitive-behavioral therapy, which provides individuals with better cognitive skills to help aid them in their desire to live a crime-free life.

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