Desistance and social marginalization

AuthorLawrence Deane,Larry Morrissette,Denis C. Bracken
Publication Date01 February 2009
Date01 February 2009
Desistance and social marginalization
The case of Canadian Aboriginal offenders
University of Manitoba, University of Manitoba and Ogijiita
Pimatiswin Kinamatwin Program, Winnipeg, Canada
This paper examines the issue of desistance by considering the
relationship between societal constraints and individual choices in the
process of moving away from crime. The question of the distribution
of those opportunities and resources to support desistance is raised
within the context of a specific population—Aboriginal peoples of
Canada. The impact of colonization resulting in economic and social
marginalization, high rates of incarceration, and the generational
transmission of trauma related to the experience of residential
schools are factors which are related both to individual choice and
external societal constraints. Structure, culture and biography are
factors which must be addressed in the case of members of a
marginalized population who wish to follow a path of desistance.
The opportunity to participate in a community-based program that
provides social capital in the form of marketable skills, connections to
the wider society and personal healing through the reacquisition
cultural traditions is seen as one way to overcome structural
constraints while at the same time supporting an individual decision
to desist from crime.
Key Words
Aboriginal offenders cultural teachings desistance offending
behaviour residential schools
Theoretical Criminology
© 2009 SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi and Singapore.
Vol. 13(1): 61–78; 1362–4806
DOI: 10.1177/1362480608100173
Theoretical considerations of the desistance process have recognized the rela-
tionship between agency and structure, between the individual and the soci-
ety in which she or he lives, with respect to the influence each may have on
moving away from crime. Much of current research has focused attention on
the interplay between the individual and her/his decision to desist, and the
availabilityof resources both internal andexternal, which support desistance.
Similarly, one might see the acquisition of social capital as a critical element
in the process of transition, as social capital can provide opportunities and
linkages to those aspects of society which can supporta decision to desist and
which may not be readily available to all. The issue of the acquisition of suf-
ficient socialcapital for it to be useful in a movement away from crime, raises
a number of issues about the availability of social capital and other supports
for desistance to, for example, members of marginalized groups. Can one
acquire sufficient social capital to assist in overcoming the structural con-
straints which for members of marginalized groups may operate as barriers
to successful desistance? Are the opportunities to desist, and access to
resources, first to recognize these as opportunities and second to take advan-
tage of them, available to all? If not, then how might they be distributed
across society? What aspects of an individual’s life history, personal circum-
stances and social conditions make available recognizable opportunities to
desist? What influence, if any, do racism, poverty, ethno-cultural group mem-
bership, etc. have on both the broader distribution of opportunities across
society, and the ability to recognize them as such as opportunities to desist?
What follows is an exploration of these themes as they apply to the posi-
tion of male gang members from an urban gang in the Canadian city of
Winnipeg. These young men are also Aboriginal, and as such they face both
the legacy of racism and colonialism as applied to Canadian Aboriginals vir-
tually since the time of European contact, and the issue of leaving aside a
criminal way of life that has been tied up in a supportive gang culture on the
street. In particular, this exploration will consider the impact of acquisition
(or re-acquisition) of traditional Aboriginal culture through a program
which also provides marketable skills as a way to move forward in a society
which either passively ignores or actively rejects this culture. Social capital
through skill development and active encouragement, along with Aboriginal
cultural teachings may provide enough support for change, almost in spite
of the impact of an implicitly racist society and the effects of colonialism.
‘Vitally, it is social capital that is necessary to encourage desistance’ as two
authors have recently stated (McNeill and Whyte, 2007: 54). The acquisi-
tion of traditional culture in this context occurs as ‘healing’ in the sense that
the damage done to individuals by the suppression of culture and tradition
within an overtly (or covertly) racist society necessitates a form of restora-
tion. By focussing on a marginalized population, it is perhaps possible to see
more clearly the interplay between structural constraints and opportunities,
along with individual motivation to desist from offending.
The more recent desistance literature has reflected ongoing debates on
the role of individual agency and of structural opportunities and constraints
Theoretical Criminology 13(1)

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