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.

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