Reentry, Desistance, and Identity Achievement

Published in: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research website (2021)

Posted on RAND.org on August 31, 2021

by Shawn D. Bushway

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This report is based on two foundational beliefs: Reentry policy needs to be based on a theoretical desistance model, and the empirical evidence supports a desistance model that involves movement toward a positive pro-social identity. The report presents two key observations based on these tenets. First, if people are participating in identity transformations while in prison, reentry policy should be structured to honor and support this process. Second, policymakers may be able to instigate or encourage identity transformation with a better understanding of the developmental processes involved in identity achievement.

This is not new science; identity achievement is a foundational idea in developmental psychology. What is new is the idea that we should try to build prisons that respect the developmental processes prisoners experience before they achieve positive pro-social identities. Central to this idea is that prisoners must have the chance to explore different opportunities, similar to how college students are given the freedom and encouragement to explore different ideas and manifestations of prospective adult identities. Much work needs to be done to fully develop this idea. The report concludes with a discussion of three key components of any new environment: respect, relationships, and learning.

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