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A major developmental theory of crime which attempts to explain crime across the lifespan is the age graded theory. The age-graded theory was introduced by Robert Sampson and John Laub in the 1990s (Sampson & Laub, 1999). It is primarily based on data collected in the 1930s through the 1960s by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck (Glueck & Glueck, 1950). The aim of this theory is not to explain why people commit crimes but why people do not (Sampson & Laub, 1999). The theory’s basic claim is that, among offenders, strong social bonds stemming from a variety of life events can predict desistance from criminal offending in adulthood (Sampson & Laub, 1999). Overall, this theory is very strong and provides a number of valuable contributions to this area. In reaching this position, a critical analysis of this theory is undertaken by analysing its main strengths and limitations. There will also be discussion concerning the implications of the theory for the prevention of crime.
The principal assertion of the age graded theory is that there are certain life events which can become turning points that allow previously deviant youth to change trajectory and give up their life of crime (Sampson & Laub, 1999). These life events include getting married, finding employment, and entering military service (Sampson & Laub, 1999). The strength of this proposition, and hence its value, will be measured by assessing the foundational basis and accuracy of each life event and its claim to be able to decrease or even eliminate recidivism.
Firstly, this theory suggests that stable employment is a key life event which can assist an individual to become a law-abiding citizen (Sampson & Laub, 1999). This is primarily because the social controls of the workplace, such as punctualality and staying on task, encourage conformity and workers are likely to experience close and frequent contact with conventional others which allows them to appreciate the benefits of a conventional life and how one should interact with other law-abiding citizens (Sampson & Laub, 1999; Warr, 1998). Another important aspect of employment is that it limits the amount of time that the worker can spend with their delinquent peers or become involved in situations that may lead to criminal behaviour (Sampson & Laub, 1999; Warr, 1998). There has been a good deal of empirical research testing this notion. For example, John Irwin interviewed several parolees from California’s prison system and found that a good job was an important mechanism to terminating crime (Irwin, 1970). Similarly, Dietrich Reitzes found that among a sample of male parolees, the 104 men who were labeled as non-recidivists were more likely than the 46 recidivists to have steady employment in better jobs (Reitzes, 1955). However, Christopher Uggen’s recent study on the connection between employment and recidivism cast some doubt on the accuracy of this proposition (Uggen, 2000). His research does confirm that there is a relationship between employment and recidivism but not to the extent that Robert Sampson and John Laub suggest (Uggen, 2000). However, some academics and researchers have asserted that the information provided by Uggen’s study may be inaccurate due to the sampling methods which were used (Farrington, 2005). Nevertheless, the majority of empirical research gives validation to this proposition (Farrington, 2005).
Secondly, this theory postulates that marriage is a key life event which can act as a key mechanism in the desistance process (Sampson & Laub, 1999). Much like prolonged employment, successful marriages have the potential to increase stature and self-worth and also promote conformity to societal norms (Sampson & Laub, 1999; Farrington, 2005; Warr, 1998). This life event is also likely to reduce contact with former accomplices and thus reduce the opportunities to engage in crime (Sampson & Laub, 1999; Farrington, 2005; Warr, 1998). However, in order for marriage to assist an individual to desist from crime it must be a successful and happy marriage (Sampson & Laub, 1999; Warr, 1998). There has also been a lot of empirical research testing this point. For example, Thomas Meisenhelder found that positive interpersonal relationships, such as successful marriages, were an important component in terminating criminal activity among the interviewed parolees (Meisenhelder, 1977). Similarly, John Irwin discovered that a good relationship with a woman was a crucial component to successful desistance (Irwin, 1970). The vast majority of the empirical research on this point corroborates this proposition (Farrington, 2005).
It is worth noting at this point that according to some academics in this area, such as Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, many offenders actually convert these institutions (ie marriage and employment) into sources of satisfaction consistent with their previous criminal behaviour (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). That is, they begin to engage in domestic abuse and workplace crime (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). However, empirical research has shown that it is more likely than not that a quality marriage or stable employment will have a positive impact on an offender’s life (Farrington, 2005).
Thirdly, this theory suggests that entering the military is a key life event which can reduce the likelihood of recidivism (Sampson & Laub, 1999). That is primarily because the military promotes compliance with authority and societal norms (Sampson & Laub, 1999; Farrington, 2005; Warr, 1998). Just like employment and marriage, the military also reduces the amount of time that can be spent with other delinquents (Sampson & Laub, 1999; Farrington, 2005; Warr, 1998). While there is not as much empirical research testing this notion than there is for the first two points, the research that has been carried out has produced similar results (Farrington, 2005; Warr, 1998). For example, in a recent study conducted by Leana Bouffard and John Laub it was found that military service was positively and significantly related to desistance from crime (Bouffard & Laub, 2004). The vast majority of empirical research gives validation to this proposition.
Thus, there is corroborating evidence of Robert Sampson and John Laub’s conclusions from independent researchers with respect to these three binding life events. Accordingly, given the practical use of this finding, the strength and value that this particular research provided the field of criminology in understanding crime across the lifespan was very significant.
Based on the conclusions of these three binding life events Robert Sampson and John Laub hypothesised that an individual is essentially more likely to commit criminal acts during adulthood when traditional social links to society are nonexistent or weakened (Sampson & Laub, 1999). More specifically, it was suggested that, informal social controls, which stem from the social relations between individuals and institutions are characterized as a form of social capital or social investment and societal bonds, such as marriage and employment, create social capital and interdependent systems of obligation that make the commission of crime too costly, which ultimately leads to desistance (Sampson & Laub, 1999). The independent research which was used to corroborate Robert Sampson and John Laub’s conclusions with respect to the three binding life events also supports this finding (Farrington, 2005). Accordingly, this is also a valuable contribution in understanding crime across the lifespan.
Another contribution that Robert Sampson and John Laub made was their findings in regards to the effects of incarceration (Sampson & Laub, 1999). They investigated the indirect role of incarceration on future crime and found that long-term incarceration negatively impacts one’s propensity to commit crime because employment and other life opportunities are cut off to a large degree from those who have been convicted (Sampson & Laub, 1999). That is, the life event of incarnation was found to preclude desistance from crime due to the deterioration of social bonds (Sampson & Laub, 1999). This finding is supported by independent empirical research. For example, Gresham Sykes analysed the effects of depriving an individual from their liberty and their autonomy and found that the oppressive environment of prison is such that it generally has a negative influence on one’s future experiences (Sykes, 1958).
Another contribution that Robert Sampson and John Laub made was their research concerning the notion of human agency (Sampson & Laub, 1999). They discovered that some people freely choose a life of crime simply because they find it seductive and rewarding despite having full knowledge of the negative consequences that arise from imprisonment (Sampson & Laub, 1999). There is little empirical research testing this notion but the research that has been carried out generally supports this finding (Farrington, 2005). For example, Katz found that some of the life criminals he interviewed simply insisted on a criminal lifestyle, not out of impulsivity or lack of knowledge of the negative consequences, but rather because of an enjoyment of crime itself (Katz, 1998). A study conducted by Sherman produced a similar supportive finding (Sherman, 1993).
Another contribution that Robert Sampson and John Laub made was their finding that almost all consistent offenders will desist from crime by the age of 70 regardless of the level of social capital they had managed to accumulate (Sampson & Laub, 1999). That finding was based on the original delinquent sample collected by Sheldon and Glueck and is generally supported by independent empirical research (Farrington, 2005).
Finally, this theory recognises that typologies of offender trajectory groups are limiting when it comes to meaningful inferences about the developmental causes of crime (Sampson & Laub, 2005). This consideration has been firmly supported by modern empirical research (Sampson & Laub, 2005). Accordingly, this theory is more beneficial and accurate than a lot of other developmental theories that have a distinct focus on specific trajectory groups (Farrington, 2005).
Overall, the age graded theory is very strong. However, there are two main limitations to this theory. Firstly, there are some important issues that were raised by this theory that were not fully addressed (Farrington, 2005; Shover, 1996; Shanahan, 2000). For instance, the theory does not explain why obtaining employment, a successful marriage, or joining the military has a positive impact on some offenders and not on others (Shanahan, 2000). Similarly, it is unclear why those that are positively affected are able to maintain stable careers and marriages (Farrington, 2005; Shover, 1996). Furthermore, it is unclear whether social capital actually changes the offender’s mentality or simply limits the opportunities of committing crime (Farrington, 2005; Shover, 1996). These are all important issues that this theory fails to fully address and as such the theory is not as comprehensive as it could be (Farrington, 2005). However, this limitation is not peculiar to this theory in that all developmental theories fail to address some of the issues that they raise (Farrington, 2005). Secondly, this theory has a strong emphasis on the process of desisting and assumes-that risk factors-such as low IQ, difficult temperament, and-broken home only have indirect effects-on offending via their influence-on the ease or difficulty-with which bonding and socialisation-take place and as such there is no-incorporation of their effects in this-theory (Walsh & Ellis, 2007). This is a limitation of this theory because empirical research has clearly shown that risk factors of this nature, especially poverty, can have a major influence on whether or not an individual becomes involved in criminal activities in of themselves (Farrington, 2005). Indeed, other highly regarded developmental theories such as Agnew’s super traits theory and Farrington’s ICAP theory strongly emphasise the importance of risk factors in understanding crime across the lifespan (Walsh & Ellis, 2007). Because of this assumption this theory provides very little information on what causes people to enter a life of crime, other than bonding strength, to begin with (Farrington, 2005; Walsh & Ellis, 2007). This factor slightly limits the usefulness and accuracy of the theory (Farrington, 2005).
This theory has some major implications for the prevention of crime. First-and-foremost, the key finding that a-high level of social capital is associated with-lower levels of offending-and controlling-criminal propensity shows that strategies-relating to desistance from-crime should have a strong-emphasis on the cultivation of social-ties among offenders (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). That is because, according to-this theory, crime is the result-of weakened relationships-with traditional facets of-society (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). In-light of this point, incarceration-is certainly not a productive-criminal justice policy in-terms of reducing-future offending (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). That is because-imprisoning offenders-may disrupt social bonds and produce-family and economic disruption which-is the opposite of what these-findings advocate (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). However, there are a number-of correctional programs that are-congruent with this theory such as day reporting centres, residential-community programs, and home-confinement (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). These programs-are sufficiently secure to satisfy the-needs of the public and-they also allow offenders to maintain and create social bonds to family, employment, and the community-generally (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). An increased-use of restorative justice programs-would also be-appropriate (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). Restorative justice-programs involve the offender, victim, and-the community in a search for-solutions, which-promotes reconciliation and restoration-of relationships (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). The main-objectives of restorative justice are-reparation of harm done to-victims, recognition-by the offender of harm done, and-reconciliation among victim, offender, and community (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). This-type of intervention-allows social bonds to-be-preserved (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). Thus, all-these programs-concur with the-notion that deterrence-is not achieved through-increased sanction severity-but rather through-a focus on cultivating social-bonds across multiple-areas of-life. Finally, it is also important-that individuals are assisted-in continuing to develop-their social bonds over-time (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000). Thus, specific programs-that continually create-and foster-social ties will be the most-successful in maintaining non-offending over the-life course (Bazemore, 2000; Laub & Leana, 2000).
In conclusion, the age graded theory provides valuable and accurate information concerning the process of desistance in adulthood. In particular, the finding that a high level of social capital is associated with an increased likelihood of desistance is extremely useful which can be used to assist a greater number of individuals to desist from crime in adulthood. In order to put this finding into practice it is clear that there should be less emphasis on incarcerating criminals and more emphasis on correctional programs such as day reporting centres and restorative justice. However, it is important that future research be undertaken in order to address the issues that were left unanswered by this theory so that a greater understanding of the desistance process can be acquired.