Desistance from Crime: An Examination of Delinquent Youth in Hong Kong


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date4 Sep 2020


In the past two decades, desistance from crime has become a fashionable topic in criminological research around the globe. Many studies have explored adults’ desistance experiences, but few have focused on desistance among delinquent youth. Apparently, youth delinquency is a common problem confronting many modern societies. As one of the most vibrant cities in the world, Hong Kong has experienced an increase in youth delinquency from 1975 to 2000. However, theories and research for explaining youth desistance in non-Western societies are rare. It is therefore unclear whether the knowledge generated from previous desistance studies is applicable to Chinese societies, such as Hong Kong. The aim of the study is to extend the current knowledge pertaining to desistance theory by examining pathways of youth desistance in Hong Kong, based on the life course and social capital perspectives.

So far, there is no one means to measure or conceptualise the concept of desistance. Having drawn on all the relevant theoretical concepts pertaining to desistance from the life course and cognitive transformation theories, the present study employed an integrated approach to desistance (see Bottoms & Shapland, 2011), with the belief that individual identity and social networks are important factors for predicting changes in desistance. In particular, the role of social capital intersects with and helps create turning points in an individual offender’s life course, and it is believed to be a key contributory factor in the study of youth desistance. For example, bonding appropriate social capital with family and friendships could provide a sense of belonging, and bridging the relevant social capital could create links for individuals to build relationships with others. These social networks are not only important for providing emotional support to young people, they are also essential for creating the opportunities, choices, and power that individuals need to desist. Given the sensitive nature of the current research, the study adopted a qualitative approach and invited 30 delinquent youth and 30 delinquents’ parents to give in-depth interviews about their desistance experiences. 

The present study confirmed that desistance from crime is not just the permanent cessation of criminal activity; rather, it is a process of acquiring virtues and new social identities, and developing new social ties. Consistent with previous literature, the present study discovered that family support plays a significant role in youth desistance. There are three main forms of social capital that are closely associated with youth desistance in Chinese society: the revival of reciprocal family bonding, the presence of a prosocial role model, and religious bonding. Revived reciprocal family bonding is linked to the concept of reciprocal filial piety, which is the most influential form of social capital, compared to the study’s other research variables. It helps delinquent youth free themselves from the vicious cycle of negative labelling, thus enabling desisters to reclaim positive statuses that are far removed from their illicit pasts. The present study concluded that the presence of appropriate social capital seems to have the power to bridge and link desisters’ social bonds. The majority of delinquent youth appear to have poor parent–child attachments or dysfunctional familial relationships. This study’s findings suggested that social capital plays a key role in effectively bridging the gap between parents and delinquents, so that desisted youth can restore their relationships with significant others in society. This can certainly help boost a revival of their reciprocal family bonds, and in turn, a revival of other social bonds. Reciprocal filial piety is found to have a beneficial impact on motivating desisters to liberate themselves from criminal lifestyles. Furthermore, the present study also found that a prosocial role model for desistance and religious bonding could consolidate an individual’s commitment to desistance and to themselves becoming a social capital source that can redirect other delinquent youth into a more conventional life. Based on the current findings, the researcher constructed an interactive model that illustrates Chinese youth desistance characteristics. The model depicts seven stages of desistance, reflecting the desistance process that is operational among youth delinquents in Hong Kong.

    Research areas

  • Desistance, Youth Delinquency