A Social Support Theory of Desistance



Following Cullen’s spirit when setting forth his version of social support theory, this article shows the value of social support as an organizing concept for life-course theory. Specifically, this article describes four different pathways through which social support matters for desistance. First, social support is a constitutive part of adults’ social bonds that operate as resources that make change possible in individuals’ lives. Second, social support can promote and help sustain a cognitive transformation that encourages desistance. Third, socially supportive interventions are better equipped to promote desistance, whereas punishment-oriented interventions (those lacking and undermining social supports) are criminogenic. Finally, social support can help former inmates navigate the many stressors they encounter upon release and contribute to sustaining their desistance.


This article reaffirms the value of social support as a fundamental factor in the desistance process. A social support theory of desistance could help integrate much of the criminological research on desistance. Furthermore, putting social support at the center of the discussion of the desistance process would help consolidate a policy agenda that not only reaffirms rehabilitation but also promotes a broader set of policies aimed at constructing a more fair and supportive society. In doing so, it will move the debate away from individuals and make governmental institutions and society as a whole acknowledge their responsibility in the crime problem and their role in promoting desistance.

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Chouhy, C., Cullen, F.T. & Lee, H. A Social Support Theory of Desistance. J Dev Life Course Criminology (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40865-020-00146-4

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  • Social support
  • Desistance
  • Social bonds
  • Cognitive transformation
  • Rehabilitation
  • Re-entry