Theses Doctoral

Understanding the Desistance of Formerly Violent Offenders: An Adult Learning Perspective

Eldaly, Shokry

Scholars and policymakers alike have recognized mass incarceration and criminal recidivism as two of the most profound challenges American society faces. For more than half a century, the United States has been the world’s most prominent incarcerator, boasting the highest incarceration rate and the third-highest recidivism rate, with analysts projecting that U.S. incarceration will grow exponentially in the near future. The U.S. has more instances of lethal crime than any of its developed peers. Violent crime makes up a more significant percentage of criminal activity than property, drug, and public order crimes combined. Thus, individual states’ social, judicial, and policing policies have a greater impact on U.S. incarceration rates than the actions or challenges faced by any of its federal entities. Both localized and national efforts to reduce incarceration and re-offense rates through literacy initiatives, education pipelines, harsher sentencing, and the development of reentry programs have rendered statistically insignificant results. Despite the resources afforded by the nation’s wealth; decades of scholarship and activism dedicated to exposing its inherent racial inequities; and its proven inability to act as a catalyst to social reform; the American carceral system remains a threat to the social welfare and economic health of the United States.

This qualitative study provides an adult learning perspective on the process by which a sample of previously violent offenders arrived at criminal desistance despite a statistical likelihood of re-offense. The participants consisted of thirty individuals (males, ages 22 to 49) previously convicted of and self-identifying as having committed violent felonies in New York State after being previously incarcerated for other violent crimes. This research’s primary data collection method was semi-structured interviews. Supportive methods included a pre-interview survey and interview participants’ use of an illustrative timeline tool as an interview discussion aid.

This research applies transformative learning and self-efficacy theories as a lens through which to examine four main points of inquiry as they occurred within participants’ recollection of their learning and desistance process: what experiences were fundamental to desistance; the role of self-perception and self-assessment in desistance; supports and hindrances to desistance; and supported recommendations for desistance education design.

Analysis of the findings revealed an emergent and substantiated four-phase process of desistance: (1) success separate from desistance as leading to new identity; (2) new identity as a catalyst to reappraisal and revision of needs and perspectives; (3) excavation and re-evaluation of formative experiences; and (4) conscious navigation of somatic responses.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Organization and Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Bitterman, Jeanne E.
Sealey-Ruiz, Yolanda
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
July 15, 2021