Harris, D. A., Pedneault, A., and Willis, G. (2017) The Pursuit of Primary Human Goods in Men Desisting From Sexual Offending. Sexual Abuse. iFirst.
The good lives model proposes at least 10 primary human goods that are thought to be common to all individuals which, when secured, contribute to enhanced well-being and life satisfaction. Prosocial attainment of primary human goods is thought to promote desistance from crime. However, individuals convicted of sexual offenses face significant obstacles upon their reentry into the community that likely undermine their ability to obtain such goods. The current study explored the pursuit and attainment of primary human goods in a U.S. sample of men convicted of sexual offenses. We interviewed 42 men released into the community to examine the extent to which they desired and pursued primary human goods. Results highlighted that participants valued many of the human goods outlined in the good lives model, but their means to achieve them were restricted considerably by their correctional status. “Interpersonal relationships” and “life/survival” emerged most frequently during the interviews and were identified as the two most important goods. We discuss the negative impact of recent policies on participants’ ability to pursue and attain human goods as well as the value of attending regular treatment in obtaining the goods of “knowledge” and “community.” Implications for policy and directions for future research are provided.
Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?
The idea for this article came from a series of conversations that I (DH) had with colleagues at a time when I was trying to make sense of the themes that had emerged from my desistance interviews. I was familiar with the main tenets of the Good Lives Model (GLM), and I observed a natural congruence between the optimism of that approach and what I had seen in the emerging literature on desistance from crime.
We (DH & AP) used the Life History Interview Protocol to interview men who had been convicted of sexual crimes, served time in custody, and then been released into the community. The interview questions included specific items about some of the PHGs (such as pursuit of mastery, spirituality, and relationships) but we noted during our analysis that many men also spoke of the severe limitations and challenges that they experienced in pursuing and achieving other PHGs. We decided to revisit the transcripts and look for mentions of the PHGs that emerged spontaneously to explore the extent to which the men wanted to pursue, had tried to attain, had successfully achieved, or had been restricted from pursuing them. The guiding hypothesis was that the pursuit and successful attainment of PHGs would facilitate what criminologists call “desistance from crime.”
What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?
One of the biggest hurdles was the need to legitimize qualitative methodologies in an area where quantitative approaches are far more typical. There are many reasons why desistance research lends itself to qualitative research and in-depth interviewing, but there is a clear bias against those findings (and approaches) by a field that has largely been built upon the meta-analyses of much larger samples. Desistance is best defined as a process, and is therefore not well understood using cross-sectional data or quantitative approaches at discrete points in time (e.g., risk assessment scores). Understanding desistance means understanding one’s life story; the details and nuances of which cannot be dichotomized without losing data quality. Exploring a life story means asking in-depth questions that sometimes yield meandering answers. It means asking for clarification on temporal variables, ensuring you’ve got the story straight, and honouring the longitudinal nature of how someone’s story has unfolded and continues to unfold. We felt the richness of those stories could only be authentically represented through qualitative methods. Above all else, the fact that we know so little about the life histories, offending trajectories, and transitions of these men (on an individual level) necessitates that we use a qualitative approach. For us, this early work on understanding the important phenomenon of desistance must occur within the “context of discovery.”
“Relationship status” is a good example of a variable that is better captured by a long quotation than by a spreadsheet. Marriage is usually a dichotomous variable - a simple yes/no. It might be operationalized as “legally married at the time of the index offense,” or “ever lived with a lover for two years.” But these simplistic distinctions offered only inadequate ways of describing our sample: Roy was married for 23 years but admits to cheating on his wife (and fathering children with other women) repeatedly; Jacob has had a few long-term, committed relationships with men, Rodney was married four times: twice happily, and twice dysfunctionally; Clay was married for a long time but frequently abused his wife. Quite frankly, after the interviews, there was too much detail to put in a table!
What do you believe to be the main things that you have learnt about desistance?
One of the most compelling findings to come from desistance research so far, is that for many or most of the samples we work with, desistance from sexual crime is as natural and widespread as it is from nonsexual crime. Most people who have engaged in these acts come to no longer do so. Understanding how and why that transition occurs (with, without, or in spite of the various interventions that we prescribe and enforce) is a research question that deserves more attention. Thinking about the positive elements of a person’s life, seeing them as more than the worst thing they have ever done (or more accurately—been caught for) is also an important lesson from this work. The realization that someone can do bad things and not be a bad person forever, or can do bad things and then not do them anymore challenges a lot of approaches (and assumptions) that are well-entrenched in this space. Finally, as we continue to examine the extent to which our participants are “successful” upon release, it is increasingly necessary and meaningful to look beyond “recidivism” and “risk factors” as the only variables of interest.
Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?
Although the men in our study experienced profound difficulties in pursuing and attaining PHGs, a key finding that emerged was that attending a treatment program provided a source of several PHGs, including a sense of belonging (“community”) and knowledge. In the context of increasingly restrictive policies and legislation it is easy to focus on challenges that our clients face and lose hope that they will ever live a better life. But if we lose hope, so will our clients. It is important that we frame treatment as an activity designed to assist clients to find meaning and purpose in their lives, rather than something they must do. By creating safe and supportive treatment environments where PHGs can be realised, practitioners can help facilitate and support the natural desistance process.