Monday, January 17, 2011

"Making Good"

I am currently reading a fascinating book called Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives, by Shadd Maruna. The book focuses on one element referred to as the “self-narrative”, defined as how individuals make sense of their lives. According to Maruna, “sustained desistance most likely requires a fundamental and intentional shift in a person’s sense of self.” His research set out to compare the self-narratives of those who persist in committing crimes, and those who have desisted from crime.

Some aspects of the author’s approach I find mistaken. For example, he does not attempt to understand or acknowledge that crime is the result of criminal thinking. In fact he shows open disdain at attempts to differentiate the psychology of criminals from the psychology of the law abiding, calling such views a belief in the “bogeyman” or “mark of Cain”. He argues that the “bogeyman” is a fascination of Americans, who prefer to think of criminals as irredeemably evil. They draw comfort from the fact that they have nothing in common with such monsters. Maruna, on the other hand, treats criminal activity as merely one form of addiction, a condition from which one can recover with work.

This emotional response to the study of criminal thinking seems to be based on a soft determinism. He describes reformed offenders as having an “exaggerated sense of control over the future and an inflated, almost missionary, sense of purpose in life.” Maruna refers to this as the “process of willful, cognitive distortion” or “making good”. The process is a distortion because the offender is rejecting the notion that he is doomed or fated to his situation, a fate Maruna himself calls “rational realism.” Persisting offenders
felt they had little chance of achieving success in the "straight" world’…[and] from what we know about the causes of criminal behavior, they might just be right.
Certainly if criminals are fated to be so because of their social circumstances, it is unfair to stigmatize them. Yet if the offender can change after shifting his “sense of self”, is this not proof that he is not fated and that the core of his condition is his thinking and not his environment? In fact while he presents a world that an ex offender cannot succeed in as “rational realism”, Maruna admits this view “probably does the individual a disservice”. If you can only succeed in life by rejecting your view of reality, you might want to rethink that view.

It is interesting, then, that an author with this outlook could offer such a promising idea as the “self-narrative”. And I agree with him that understanding how ex-convicts maintain their efforts to desist from crime would help greatly in rehabilitative efforts. It would also help to identify early the signs that a juvenile is headed down that path. I will write a follow-up post to review the results of his research.

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