Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) argue that self-control theory has strong implications for public policies about delinquency and crime. The focus on early-childhood socialization and on the family provides a clear public polity alternative to the influential criminal career focus on imprisonment and policing. Because major causes of crime originate in early childhood, there is considerable promise in programs that direct resources toward child care among high-risk populations. A large number of experimental studies focusing on parenting or child caregiver effects on delinquency and other problem behaviors now indicate strongly that such programs do indeed have important effects in reducing the level of delinquency.
Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, 1995; see also Gottfredson, 2006) and Moffitt et al. (2011, 2013) argue that the relative stability of self-control provides a good reason to look for the potential benefits of focusing on early childhood and the development of self-control for crime prevention policy. A burgeoning research literature based on relatively strong research designs now clearly supports the idea that substantial and lasting prevention effects can be achieved by affecting early-childhood experiences in ways designed to enhance socialization and monitoring. Greenwood’s (2006) careful review provides a classification of six types of effective programs, ranging from home visits by nurses to parent training (see also Eckenrode et al., 2001; Olds et al., 1998). Piquero and colleagues (2009, 2016) performed meta-analyses of studies of parenting undertaken with children under 5 years of age. In the 78 studies meeting their criteria for inclusion, and using self-report criteria for delinquency, they reported a mean effect size of .37. In a companion review, Piquero et al. (2010) focused on self-control training in random design studies (n = 34) that sought self-control improvement among young children. They concluded that not only was it possible to systematically alter self-control, but that these interventions reduced delinquency. Similarly, Heckman (2006) found an array of early-childhood education research to bolster his argument that family environments variously foster skills essential to crime and health, as well as school and workplace success. An economist, he argues strongly that the financial returns to society from early intervention greatly exceed those from later interventions, such as those available to the criminal justice system.
Gottfredson (2006) argued that these early-intervention studies that experimentally produce variation in socialization and monitoring experiences, coupled with good follow-up measures, are, in fact, properly seen as validity studies for self-control theories. These studies manipulate levels of self-control in experimental groups and contrast the outcomes with nonintervention groups selected at random. They show an effect on delinquency for the self- control changes, clearly supporting the theory and its emphasis on early family relationships.
Given the age, stability, and generality effects, it is clear that prevention focused on early intervention would be the more cost effective and consequential as a means of reducing the amount of crime than prevention focused on adult interventions such as policing and incarceration. The threat of severe future sanctions can have little effect on the behavior of those unlikely to know or care about them (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Gottfredson, 2011a, 2013). Research on policing is consistent with this expectation (Gottfredson, 2011a, 2013), as is the now widely agreed finding of a general lack of influence of long-term imprisonment on crime rates (Gottfredson, 2011a, 2013). On this point, the recent conclusions of a panel of the National Research Council are instructive: “one of our most important conclusions is that the incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is moderate at best.” The Research Council similarly critiques the use of incarceration for incapacitation: “because recidivism rates decline markedly with age and prisoners necessarily age as they serve their prison sentence, lengthy prison sentences are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation” (2014, p. 131). Given the consistency of these findings with the predictions of self-control theory, it is appropriate to view the findings of lack of severity effects and lack of incapacitation effects in criminal justice as providing validation for the theory.
Self-control theory is also consistent with much of the evidence about “situational crime prevention” (Clarke, 1995; Bennett, 1998). These policies seek to take advantage of the idea that some crime events can be reduced by lowering the attractiveness of the target to the offender (e.g., make cash less available) or by establishing obvious barriers to them (lighting, locks, observers). Because self-control theory does not see strong, unique motivations for most crimes and regards most crimes as adventitious acts focused on opportunities plainly in the environment, the plausibility of such crime-specific methods is consistent with the theory. In fact, the effectiveness of programs that make immediate sanctions clear can be regarded as validity studies for self-control predictions.
Contemporary Research on Age, Generality, and Stability Effects
In part owing to the conflicting expectations of general theory with the criminal career perspective (cf. Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1986, 1990, 2016 with Blumstein et al., 1986), a great deal of research interest has centered on depicting age, generality, and stability effects over the last several decades. This has resulted in a large empirical literature, using widely different methods, definitions, and samples. Several recent reviews in each of these areas have sought to summarize the literature on these topics in terms of the theory of self-control.
Results from the decades-long search for meaningful discrepancies from the now standard “age–crime curve,” particularly for “serious offenders” or for individuals whose high level of offending does not decline substantially with age, are compatible with the age-invariance hypothesis and its implications for theory and policy. For example, a recent report from the National Research Council of the National Academies on the causes and consequences of incarceration summarized the evidence:
The criminal career model assumes that the offending rate is constant over the course of the criminal career. However, large percentages of crimes are committed by young people, with rates peaking in the midteenage years for property offences and the late teenage years for violent offenses, followed by rapid declines . . . application of group-based trajectory modeling . . . show(s) that the offending trajectories of all identified groups decline sharply with age
(2014, p. 143).
In arguably the most important study of criminal careers to date, Laub and Sampson (2003, pp. 565–569) offer more specific information on this point: “[T]he classic age pattern (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1983) is replicated even within a population that was selected for their serious, persistent delinquent activity.” Laub and Sampson describe the pattern of crime with age for serious offenders in their data as “fractal” of the overall distribution. (See also results and discussion of Danish data in Kyvsgaard, 2003, Ch. 17.)
In some samples, however, interpretation of the age data for offenders is controversial, particularly studies employing statistical “trajectory” methods (see, e.g., Macmillan, 2008). Recent, independent reviews of this statistical taxonomy literature (which searches for different “trajectories” of offending as subjects age) do not find consistent support for meaningful differential distributions by age (e.g., Skardhamar, 2009, p. 874). Summarizing two decades of taxonomic research using trajectory methodology in an effort to find significant groups of serious offenders who deviate from the standard age distribution of offending, Erosheva, Matsueda, and Telesca (2014) concluded that
the estimated trajectory groups in criminology exhibit weakly unimodal shapes with some differences in the level and timing of offending. This finding is consistent with the age-invariance thesis proposed by Hirschi and Gottfredson (1983). Empirically identified trajectory groups do not reveal the life-course persistent group with a constant rate of offending that criminal career and dual taxonomy approaches predict.
(2014, p. 316).
The self-control thesis for age in self-control theory is that the effect of age on crime and analogous behaviors is invariant across social and cultural conditions and that it applies to all demographic groups. Stability and versatility effects can be derived from it, and it enables a general theory by showing that diverse acts spread over the life course have common causes. It has implications for social policy and research design. It implies that conceptually similar measures of self-control will have similar effects at different ages and that policies like incapacitation will not be effective ways to lower crime rates. It thus “organizes in a consistent way an enormously diverse body of criminological findings” (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1994, pp. 12–14). This diverse body of research to which age invariance pertains continues to suggest that it is the most tenable reading of the scientific research.
Generality or versatility continues to be regularly reported in research, even though some modest “specialization” in crime-type can be discovered statistically in large samples of recidivists (DeLisi, 2005). As summarized by Farrington (2003, p. 223), “offending is versatile rather than specialized . . . including heavy drinking, reckless driving, sexual promiscuity, bullying, and truancy.” An impressive body of empirical literature has extended the versatility finding well beyond the traditional definitions of crime and delinquency, to accidents, health and welfare behaviors (Cunha & Heckman, 2007; Heckman, 2006, 2007; Moffitt et al., 2011; Junger et al., 2001; Donovan et al.,1991). DeLisi and Piquero (2011, p. 291) put it this way: “There is a large stock of research on offense specialization and/or versatility (23 citations omitted). A main conclusion is that the preponderance of offenders, and by preponderance we mean virtually all offenders, are generalists” (see also DeLisi, 2005, p. 40).
The stability concept of self-control theory has also received research attention, with some scholars questioning the strength of the finding as a basis for self-control theory (e.g., Pratt, 2016). However, self-control theory is based on the well-substantiated observation of the substantial correlation over time between measures of early delinquency and subsequent offending. The relative stability of individual differences in crime, delinquency, and problem behaviors over the life-course is one of the most consistently reported findings in the field—although it is not by any means a perfect correlation (see the preceding discussion). The empirical observation is clearly substantial enough to indicate that a persistent individual characteristic or skill (self-control) is a major source. It is not, as Gottfredson and Hirschi repeatedly point out, a fact that implies that self-control is not caused, cannot change, can be measured by the same indicators at all points in life, or cannot be purposefully manipulated. The evidence remains substantial and consistent with the theory that self-control differences can be measured early in life and that these differences help predict later offending and movement into and out of many social, educational, and interpersonal roles throughout life.
The stability of the personal characteristic of self-control used by Gottfredson and Hirschi and the “lifelong impact of self-control” argued by Moffitt and colleagues (Moffitt et al., 2013 is inferred from the number of problem behaviors measured at different points in time. Researchers who report short-term instability in self-control typically use self-reported attitudinal or personality instruments that themselves have substantial unreliability. This unreliability is confounded with the “stability” of self-control and results in misleading estimates of stability. In any event, recent research does not alter Farrington’s claim that “there is marked continuity in offending and antisocial behaviors from childhood to teenage years to adulthood [citations omitted]. This means there is relative stability of ordering of people on some measure of antisocial behavior over time, and that people who commit relatively many offenses during one age range have a high probability of also committing relatively many offenses during another age range”(2003, p. 223).
The self-control crime theory is often viewed as the means of putting excessive responsibility on parents for the crimes of their children. However, these criticisms are often exaggerated; low self-control theory cannot serve a single justification for the delinquency problems. Recent statistics will prove the relevance of other important factors in crime and delinquency. Classical theories of crime are concentrated on various attributes of criminals, and view these attributes as the causes of crime and delinquency.
Classic theory explains crime in terms of social location, social bonds, or subculture membership and emphasizes the deterrents for crime as the major determinant” (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). The self-control theory of crime initially views criminal behavior from a different perspective. Social factors are pushed to the background, while the inner personality motives to commit crimes become crucial. In order to understand whether the discussed criticism is relevant in terms of self-control theory, it will be useful to view the theory through the prism of its separate elements.
First, the self-control theory of crime is directly linked to the human inability to delay gratification (Belliston, 2004). This means, that people with low self-control are characterized by the desire to have everything “here and now”, and these desires motivate the person at committing the crime. In this aspect, it is easy to criticize parents (especially, single parents) in that they are not capable of bringing up their children in accordance with the social standards. However, this criticism becomes irrelevant when the statistics is analyzed.
The assumption that single parents solely contribute into the development of the low self-control is wrong. On the contrary, “studies have shown repeatedly a consistent relationship between juvenile delinquency and large family size, marital disharmony, alcohol abuse in parents and overall social deprivation” (Belliston, 2004). The number of delinquency acts in New York has decreased for an eighth since 1999 (Higgins, 2006), and this decrease is not caused by the constant decrease of single families, as one could expect.
These tendencies and the motives of juvenile crimes and delinquency do not totally depend upon family relations, but are also linked to external social conditions, in which delinquent criminals exist. Second, “crime is a situation which represents easy or simple desire gratification” (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). This means that the reasons of crime and delinquency lay much deeper, than critics assume. The intensity of juvenile crimes directly depends on the social, economic, and cultural factors.
Numerous researches have shown that the number of juvenile crimes increase during the periods of economic declines and social instability (Belliston, 2004; Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). These unfavorable factors significantly decrease the opportunities, in which young criminals could be gratified for their actions; as a result, they seek immediate reward, which is available only through committing a crime.
If low self-control is caused by the parents’ inefficiency, this means that the problem is not in parents, but in the broader social context, which deprives single parents of an opportunity to earn and to provide their children with immediate gratitude. “The causes of and conditions for juvenile crime are usually found at each level of the social structure, including society as a whole, social institutions, social groups and organizations, and interpersonal relations” (Wright, 1999). The roots of low self-control should be viewed in a broader social context.
Those with low-self control view crime as an exciting and attractive venture. These views are not always formed under the parents’ impact, but under the impact of social conditions, in which young people find themselves. The discussed social conditions include social inequality, the lack of equal opportunities, and the direct influence of media on the youth’s conscience. New York is characterized by the significant gaps between social layers (Higgins, 2006). 24% of “socially disadvantaged” New York residents recognize their ability and willingness to commit a crime (Wright, 1999).
Certainly, ineffective parents significantly contribute into the underdevelopment of self-control. Simultaneously, parents’ inefficiency is also rooted in the discussed social issues. This is why it might be appropriate to criticize parents for the children’s low self-control, but this criticism should also imply other social causes of low self-control. It is difficult to argue with the statement that “low self-control is produced in families where there is little attachment between parent and child, in families where parents fail to recognize deviant behavior, or when parents recognize deviant behavior and fail to correct it” (Wright, 1999).
The major problem is that the criticism of the low self-control theory is usually limited by blaming parents. This is initially wrong approach, because the reasons of the discussed parents’ failures and weak family attachments should be properly identified. As a result, the researchers will not observe the roots of juvenile crime only in parents’ failures. While the delinquency rates in New York have decreased 14% compared to 2005 (Higgins, 2006), these changes were not caused by the social improvements in New York families.
Broad implementation of effective policing strategies is the explanation to the discussed decrease of crime rates. Higgins (2006) refers to the results of the crime theories’ study. The results of his research show that low self-control theory links the causes of crime to family bonds, learning, or imitation. Thus, the external factors in the form of mass media or social bonds outside family also impact crime causation. The impact of family bonds is not as essential in the city as it is in rural areas.
An interesting research was conducted by Wright (1999); its results show that “areas with more urbanized population have higher registered crime rates than do those with strong rural lifestyles and communities. This may be attributable to the differences in social control and social cohesion”. Thus, parents’ inefficiency cannot serve the major delinquency motive in New York. The role of family bonds in large cities similar to New York is not as significant as to determine higher crime rates among youth.
Large cities similar to New York shift social emphases, and do not refer to family as the primary institution of socialization. According to the recent statistics, 74% of juvenile crime in New York is committed by “socially disadvantaged” subjects (Higgins, 2006). This is why it is at least improper to assume that the causes of low self-control, and as a result high crime rates, are limited by weak family bonds and the parents’ inefficiency. Conclusion The majority of crime theories are regularly subjected to sound criticism.
In many instances, such criticism creates new perspectives in researching the causes and motives of juvenile crimes. In case with the self-control theory of crime, the criticism of family bonds and single parents’ inefficiency represents the limited view upon the causes of juvenile crime. It will be more objective and correct to state that low self-control is caused by the combination of external social instability and family problems. However, it is difficult to deny that low self-control is the determining factor in delinquency, as “self-control is unlikely to be produced in adulthood” (Wright, 1999).