Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Disengagement from Involvement in Organised Crime: Processes and Risks

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Disengagement from Involvement in Organised Crime: Processes and Risks

Article excerpt

The study of criminal careers is critical to the understanding of offenders' involvement in crime (DeLisi & Piquero 2011). Unfortunately, relatively little is known about the pathways individuals take into participation in organised crime and how they may later disengage from their involvement (Smith 2014; Thompson et al. 2014). Life-course criminology and the crime desistance literature examine theories of persistence and desistance through adolescence and into adulthood but do so primarily through the lens of street and volume crime (eg Kazemian & Maruna 2009; Laub & Sampson 2001; Maruna 2001). Disengagement from organised crime is less well understood (Kleemans & de Poot 2008; Vere van Koppen et al. 2010a). Understanding how and why people seek to leave organised crime groups can potentially lead to the development of improved processes and interventions to support those who no longer wish to participate in serious criminal activities.

A note on terminology

At the outset it is necessary to distinguish between various terms used in the literature to describe the transition from organised crime.


The permanent termination of offending, known by some as desistance, is considered to be the point at which an offender rejects criminal behaviour for an ongoing prosocial lifestyle. 'Desistance' has a variety of meanings but generally refers to the complete cessation of criminal offending (Kazemian 2007). It has also been defined as the process leading to the termination of offending (Laub & Sampson 2001). Desistance does not, however, always entail a complete departure from crime, as offenders may undergo lengthy periods of law-abiding behaviour prior to reoffending, either permanently or sporadically. It has been said that true desistance only comes with death (Tonry, Ohlin & Farrington 2012). In this case, desistance is a measure of criminality and not a measure of belonging to or leaving an organised crime group. Theoretically, an individual may belong to an organised crime group but, after time, desist from offending while maintaining an association with criminal elements.


A more accurate term to describe the process of rejecting a criminal lifestyle is 'disengagement'. This has been described as the process of separating, or changing behaviour, identity or performance. The process may be passive, in that the individual matures and adopts more prosocial norms, or an active rejection of the group. Disengagement is the process of undergoing personal change, leaving a group and formally transitioning from current member to ex-member (Gjelsvik & Bjørgo 2012; Sweeten, Pyrooz & Piquero 2013).

The process of disengaging may involve hesitation and uncertainty, the time in which individuals may demonstrate dual identities as they attempt to leave yet are drawn back (Decker, Pyrooz & Moule 2014; Kazemian 2007). Where the network is familial or geographically based (eg a neighbourhood), individuals may believe they have left the group, but they still maintain regular contact with relatives and friends who are in the group (Pyrooz & Decker 2011). Alternatively, where the association has been fluid and informal, individuals may not consider themselves to have been a member at all. While selfidentification is key to disengagement, the perception of membership status may not be as definitive for others. For example, law enforcement or rival gangs may not acknowledge or recognise disengagement and continue to treat the individual as a member of the organisation (Decker, Pyrooz & Moule 2014).


'Disassociation' describes the quality of being withdrawn from association with organised criminal groups. This may not necessarily result in denunciation of the criminal lifestyle or a change in behaviour, but it may indicate some form of detachment from the group or its activities. The state of having disassociated from organised crime is, however, a complex distinction to make (Campbell & Hansen 2012; Decker, Pyrooz & Moule 2014). …

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