Sex Roles

pp 1–21 | Cite as

Narrative Identity Development and Desistance from Illegal Behavior among Substance-Using Female Offenders: Implications for Narrative Therapy and Creating Opportunity

  • Merry MorashEmail author
  • Rebecca Stone
  • Kayla Hoskins
  • Deborah A. Kashy
  • Jennifer E. Cobbina
Original Article


According to narrative identity theory, to desist from breaking the law, offenders must fashion a prosocial identity through a process of redemption by “making good” of past negative events. To improve understanding of women offenders’ redemption, analyses were conducted of the life stories and the identity change those stories revealed for 118 U.S. women with histories of multiple criminal convictions. Women most often described redemption from illegal activity and substance misuse, distress and trauma, and the challenges of giving birth and parenting. They rarely described redemption in educational and employment settings. The numbers and types of accounts of redemption did not explain desistance. However, qualitative analyses showed important differences in the redemption accounts of women who did and did not desist. Persisters’ stories of redemption tended to lack coherence and revealed tendencies to minimize both the negative effects of illegal behavior and the connection of illegal behavior to identities. Desisters’ accounts emphasized women’s strong motivations to change and their efforts to distance their current from their prior selves, steer internal change, and identify valuable prosocial qualities in themselves. Promising treatment interventions include support for women’s development of coherent life stories and autonomy support to increase motivation to change. Findings also suggest the need for policy change to increase both employment opportunities for women offenders and programs that provide employment and education that promote prosocial identity development.


Identity formation Female criminal offenders Narrative therapy Substance use Mixed methods research 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

There are no potential financial or non-financial conflicts of interest related to the research and publication relevant to this article. The university IRB approved the protocol that was followed to conduct the research. Written informed consent was obtained from study participants.

Supplementary material

11199_2019_1090_MOESM1_ESM.docx (19 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 19 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Criminal JusticeMichigan State UniversityE. LansingUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologySuffolk UniversityBostonUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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