Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Desistance and the “aging out” phenomenon

One of the most fascinating topics in crime is the “aging out” phenomenon. The number of offenders recorded across gender and race spikes in the early twenties, before sharply declining. (The example from UK data shown here is taken from a Cambridge article on the subject ) The number of offenses also decreases sharply, meaning that this curve cannot be explained only by a spike in one-time adolescent offenders; repeat offenders, responsible for the majority of criminal activity, also appear to begin desisting from crime at that time.

What during those early years is most responsible for turning individuals away from crime? There are many possible reasons, including:

1) Guilt. Remorse for the harm caused to others is a powerful motivator for change.
2) Lifestyle incentives. Career success and relationships are incompatible with criminal activity, which may create incentives for young adults to change their ways.
3) Perception of risk. Offenders may become more aware of the risk of personal injury, or physical aging may present limitations to the commission of crimes.
4) Increased skill. Over time, criminals may learn to avoid detection and capture, reducing recorded crime.
5) Incarceration. Offenders cannot commit crimes if they have been removed from society, and this may deter them from future offenses.

Item 4, if a significant factor, would imply that the age curve is inaccurate since it would not reflect a real desistance trend. However crime we cannot detect by definition cannot be factored into a measure of desistance, so this possibility is currently a dead-end.

Item 5 also has limited value for explaining desistance. 2009 prison inmate statistics reveal that 209,100 inmates were ages 20-24, dwarfing the 23,800 reported for ages 18-19. Assuming that these 20-24 year olds were not incarcerated for a first offense, this would help to account for a reduction in recorded crime from ages 18-24. Yet incapacitation is not “desistance”, and for some categories of crime imprisonment appears to have little if any deterrent effect. According to one BJS study, robbers, burglars, larcenists and motor vehicle thieves were the highest re-offenders at 70-75%. Overall, 67.5% of prisoners were rearrested within 3 years. While incarceration reduces crime for its duration, it cannot explain reduction over the life-course.

A valuable distinction that is frequently overlooked in literature is criminal activity and criminal psychology. Desistance is defined as the cessation of criminal activity, yet this can only be measured by reported crime. How, then, would you distinguish between a reformed criminal and a criminal biding his time? Neither are maintaining a criminal record, and both may be attending required therapy, reporting to work, and following their parole; yet one intends to re-offend. The most important indicators of criminal reform are psychological, not behavioral. For this reason I focus on the attitudes and thinking of offenders, and consider items 1-3 to be the best contenders for explaining desistance, and therefore the best areas for research.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Victims of crime and their recovery

Heaven's Rain

For this post I decided to focus not on criminal choices but on the choice of victims during their recovery. I recently attended a small premier for a movie based on a true story, titled “Heaven’s Rain”. A synopsis of the film can be found here.

For the survivors of violent crime, the greatest damage is psychological rather than physical. The film tells of siblings Brooks and Leslie Douglass, who were left for dead after their parents were murdered during a home robbery. The official site notes that Brooks “struggled through high school and college, repeatedly failing out, drinking heavily, and given to bouts of rage”. Leslie, “once a beauty queen with a beautiful voice, fought to put her life together as she dealt with recurring nightmares and struggled in relationships.”

How the victim responds to this suffering can determine whether happiness in their life will be possible, or whether they will remain consumed by grief, anger, and undeserved guilt. Brooks went to law school and became a Senator in Oklahoma. At the start of the film he is shown sponsoring a bill for victim’s rights. However in his private life he remains obsessed and miserable. The movie, influenced strongly by the Christian background of its creator Brooks Douglass himself, proposes forgiveness as the answer.

Letting go

The meaning and impact of forgiveness in the film, however, is not completely clear. In the climactic scene, Brooks forgives one of his two attackers during a visit to the prison. This follows a tense exchange in which he admits he is incapable of granting forgiveness, even knowing that his father would have done so in his place. He is visibly angry and grief-stricken, at one point giving the prisoner the keys to his handcuffs, as if daring him to start a physical confrontation. The scene culminates when he stands and announces that the anger and suffering need to end, suggesting that the decision to forgive was prompted less by the credo that one should “love the sinner” than by the need to heal.

Since we had the pleasure of a Q&A with Mr. Douglass at the premier, I did receive some elaboration. One audience member had asked what effect the death penalty has on crime victims. He said that with the execution of one of the attackers, Steven Hatch, he felt deep relief that he would never be brought again to relive the events of his parents’ death in court. It gave him final resolution. He also related a sense of betrayal when the shooter, Glen Ake, received a retrial and was sentenced to life imprisonment. My personal takeaway from these comments is that “forgiveness” used here does not relieve the criminal of culpability, but helps the victim to move past his suffering to live again.

His success in getting over the pain of his past gave Brooks Douglass a new life and inspired his sister’s own recovery. He not only started the movie project but acted in it as his own father, pursuing an old dream to make movies while finally telling his story and serving his passion for justice and victims’ rights.

Further thoughts

Although I started this post noting that my focus would be on victims during recovery, it also provides interesting food for thought on the behavior of criminals. Many criminals were at some point victims of violent crime or abuse by their own parents. And it would be grossly unfair to expect anyone, especially as vulnerable as a child or adolescent, to suffer violence without wanting to lash out in anger and pain.

As I discussed in a previous post, however, criminals do not appear to deal with victimization by attempting to overcome their feelings of anger; instead, this pain is embraced and used to excuse the harm they inflict on others. Real victimization mingles in their mind with imagined conspiracies, Jack Abbott's "hostile world". Child victimization alone is not a reliable predictor of crime in adulthood. However, perhaps how a child deals with trauma could be an indicator of that potential.