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The concept of desistance is one that is certainly difficult to define as it is a term that is neither self-evident nor straightforward, and it has therefore naturally presented itself historically as difficult to operationalise. The continuing considerable indecisiveness in regards to being able to construct a universally accepted definition of desistance is due to the numerous theoretical interpretations that exist and are in contention with one another. Each of these individual theoretical explanations of desistance has their own distinctive justifications and cohort of supporters. All perspectives claim to accurately assert the reasoning as to why an individual desists from offending, how that individual is able to do so and when that individual can be deemed to have permanently ceased from offending.

The earliest notable theoretical perspective upon desistance to gain prominence was developed by Adolphe Quetelet (1833) in the early 19th century and came to be known as the ontogenetic perspective. The theory proposed that desistance is attributable to a natural process of an individual maturing with age and growing out of crime. It stipulated that an individual’s involvement in criminal activity begins in the early teenage years, and then such behaviour will rise rapidly in both frequency and severity during late adolescence until decreasing progressively throughout adulthood (Quetelet, 1833). The reasoning put forth is twofold: first, individuals’ health naturally deteriorates with age, reducing the ability to engage in criminal activity; and, second, repeated experiences of the criminal justice process become tiresome and stressful, specifically incarceration.

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