Early Interventions: More Self-Control, Less Crime?

Young Wang, University of New Haven

The purpose of this paper is to inform and advise policy makers and administrators about criminological knowledge regarding early interventions, their ability to improve self-control, and potential reduction in involvement with the criminal justice system. Topics assessed include funded research within criminal justice, criminological theory, best practices within education, and relevant experimental designs. Policy implications and research recommendations revolve around the need for randomized controlled trials of sufficient scope, which capture true differences in delinquency between youth who receive the intervention and those who do not. Cost-benefit analyses are recommended as the ultimate goal.

The fundamental issues in need of assessment revolve around the following questions. First, what role can research funding agencies provide in encouraging the search for meaningful, lasting solutions to crime? Should schools attempt to introduce early interventions in high-crime neighborhoods? How should such programs be implemented? Who will ensure the programs are effective and implemented properly? Finally, when should society expect such interventions to be the default solution considered for crime?

 

Background

Early intervention programs seek to prevent at-risk youth from growing up to be troubled or criminal adults. Thinking by the numbers, once someone enters the adult criminal justice system, what are the chances of returning (i.e., recidivating)? If this likelihood is about 50% or higher, as research generally suggests, then why do grants for reentry programs continue to cling to such lofty goals as a “50% decrease” in 5-year recidivism, as is the case with Second Chance Act RFPs (e.g., see BJA, 2018, p.6)? Put in perspective, as an example, this means going from 66% to 33% recidivism. Neither practitioners nor academics can consider this feasible on a large scale, despite being specific, measurable, relevant, and time-based.

Thus, there exists a need to evaluate whether intervening at a much earlier point in time (e.g., before age 10) might be the cost-effective and a “win-win” solution to the root causes of crime, thereby satisfying both liberals and conservatives. The essential fact remains that crime as a whole peaks in adolescence and then declines with age. This is possibly because the population of individuals with the lowest self-control, the potential serious and chronic offenders, changes their delinquent, criminal, and deviant behaviors over time (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1983; Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). This is regardless of whether one finds a job or partner, since such bonds are byproducts of aging, which are neither necessary nor sufficient for ending formal involvement with the system (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1995; Sampson & Laub, 1995; Cohen & Villa, 1996; Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2008). One notes, as well, it is not fundamentally feasible to incapacitate all, or even most, offenders until their natural aging out of crime occurs.

What is possible is to attempt to reduce initial childhood misbehavior, which in turn would reduce involvement in delinquency, thereby decreasing involvement in crime. Effectively, attempting to flatten the imposing peak in crime around late adolescence of early adulthood allows nature to do the rest. Drawing upon the teaching ideology and practice of mastery learning, there is a need for parents and educators to teach children mastery of basic social skills relating to self-control, self-regulation, and peer-to-peer character building.

Teachers would need to assist with this before attempting to “move on” to more advanced concepts or abstract intellectual pursuits. 

The guiding principle of teaching for mastery is that teachers are guides and mentors, not lecturers. Teachers must address, not ignore, large variation or differences between good, mediocre, and bad students (Bloom, 1968). Education research suggests mastery learning is better than conventional classroom models at not only enabling children and youth to retain material, but also in reducing the gap between the highest and lowest performers, without slowing down the highest performers (Guskey & Gates, 1986; Davis & Sorrell, 1995). Furthermore, mastery-learning programs not only increase ability to learn and acceptance of personal responsibility, but also increase job satisfaction for teachers. Administrators would not be forcing teachers to follow some arbitrary timeline based on questionable standards of “good enough,” which pass a student along as the next problem to be dealt with by the next teacher.

Such conventional practices may play a role in ultimately producing a best-case scenario of the “jack of all trades, master of none,” and a worst-case scenario of complete social failure (illustrated through antisocial, delinquent, and criminal behavior). Society must ponder several difficult questions, such as why we often do not trust an 18-year-old with carrying a handgun, moderating alcohol consumption, or with any number of relatively basic responsibilities. How can we expect this same individual to be “well-rounded” enough to read, write, and do math at a level far beyond anything their parents have likely encountered? Or to vote on political issues? Does trying to teach everything result in teaching nothing at all?

Hirschi & Gottfredson (2008) deny self-control is dependent on situation, since variation in situations cannot explain stability in crime (i.e., criminal behavior predicting criminal behavior). Criticisms of self-control theory allegedly result from the pursuit of statistical significance amongst additional variables, and speculating when necessary to explain any relationships found (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2008). This ultimately justifies the critic’s favored perspective and the need for additional research on such positions. Self-control theory does not seek to explain the relationship between crime and demographic differences in age, sex, race, and class, since no theory consistently explains away these variables. Likewise, a single exception or specific crime event, real or hypothetical, cannot falsify a theory. Why keep dividing crime into smaller arbitrary categories when in general, the same individuals commit them?

Other theories often ignore individual differences in criminality and assume such a concept is archaic and fundamentally false. Researchers are challenged to measure opportunity objectively, so individuals with low self-control fundamentally perceive more opportunity for crime and experience more burden from social structure (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2008). Self-control is the individual’s ability to see long-term consequences of choices. Even if perceived opportunity varies by category of crime, the theory still successfully sought and found the common theme across all crime. Means or conditions favorable to crime are not causal, whether they be access (e.g., to a gang, a gun, a car, drugs), state of being (e.g., young, male, strong, mobile), or lack of certain characteristics (e.g., stable marriage, employment, academic success, incarceration, laws criminalizing an act).

The motive for all choices is the satisfaction of universal human desires, some uneasiness, or the pursuit of happiness. Crime, however, has unique long-term consequences. There are stable differences between individuals in their ability to see long-term consequences, regardless of whether such differences are genetic or learned. Age and sex are observable composite variables of countless unobservable physiological, psychological, and social components. The effect of something unobservable on crime disappears when controlling for the corresponding observable (e.g., IQ, when controlling for academic performance, since IQ is part of academic performance). Age and gender are only causal if the individual sees their age or gender as favorable to crime, or a particular crime (e.g., robbery being viewed as masculine). Similarly, having a muscular body or a father with multiple criminal convictions is only causal if the individual sees these as favorable to crime (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2008). The authors concede biological transmission could be a more plausible explanation of crime if the individual does not know about the convictions of his biological father, and there are numerous potential underlying unobservable traits. However, there is a need to rule out the explanation that kids do what they know their parents do.

 

Political Interests

Liberals should note that self-control theory predicts policies targeting poverty cannot directly cause reductions in crime. The class one is born into only becomes causal if the individual sees their social class, poor academic performance, or lack of potential for various aspirations as being favorable to crime. Conservatives should note that the system not incarcerating enough people, lack of policing, or the lag between one’s first contribution to the dark figure of crime and one’s fist official incarceration are likewise not causal. These become causal only if the individual sees freedom to roam open streets as being favorable to crime (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2008). More broadly, the authors note that since the whims of legislators and regulatory agencies often define white-collar crime, finding its causes often embarrasses criminology by reducing it to politics. Issues such as income inequality, inflation, and harm to workers are not crimes which criminologists are well suited to address with constructivist worldviews, absent hard evidence and data. For common and unsophisticated fraud, white-collar offenders may have lower levels of self-control relative to their non-offending colleagues, despite having higher levels than what street offenders have. A similar rationale applies to crimes of the State, where political leaders fail to see any negative consequences for their actions. In any event, the benefits are clear if an intervention can successfully increase self-control and ultimately reduce crime in general.

 

Pre-Existing Policies

Self-control theory views violent offenders, whether rapists or robbers, as simply offenders. Some scholars, notably Hirschi and Gottfredson (2008), argue behavioral measures of self-control are the preferred measurement to quantify an offender’s higher propensity for crime. This is because behaviors are the basis for attitudes toward personality traits (i.e., being impulsive, insensitive, physical, risk-taking, shortsighted, nonverbal). Thus, scales of relatively common behavior or misbehavior (e.g., being well prepared for exams, doing homework on time, driving without a license, being late for important appointments) are preferred to the more commonly used attitudinal surveys or personality inventories (Marcus, 2003). Tautology is not a problem if it predicts relatively uncommon and more serious crimes. All theories should seek to maximize predictive ability in order to advance criminology towards a parsimonious science governed by universal laws.

While criminology generally has not embraced policy implications of self-control, one landmark study not only used an experimental design targeting the development of social skills in children with a behavioral measure of self-control, but also involves collaboration between parents and the school (Na & Paternoster, 2012). The data came from the John Hopkins University Prevention Intervention Research Center, from an intervention in 1993, when the subjects entered the first grade (around age six). This study used a high-risk, predominately Black sample from Baltimore, Maryland. Most of the subjects also qualified under a proxy measure for poverty (i.e., for a free or reduced price school lunch). The experiment randomly drew three first grade classrooms from nine schools to receive the intervention, and three classrooms to serve as the control group. Regular meetings on parental training served as the intervention. The meetings included the child’s teacher along with a school psychologist or social worker (Na & Paternoster, 2012). The parental training addressed how to monitor, recognize, and punish bad behavior (Na & Paternoster, 2012). Thus, this social skills-based intervention targeted the basis for self-control formation, namely effective parenting (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990).

Another notable study using behavioral measures of self-control focused on relaxation training for kindergarteners to fifth graders, involving deep breathing and internally vocalizing the same three themes of questions: “Where am I,” What am I doing,” and “What should I be doing” (Lakes & Hoyt, 2004). Interestingly, this was part of a three-month long martial arts based intervention (i.e., Tae Kwan Do), which naturally fits the concept of mastery learning (i.e., mastery of fundamentals before stacking on additional skills; belts or ranks based on skill and not on arbitrary blocks of time). In contrast, the control group received traditional physical education as usual. The martial arts instructor was from the private sector and had previous commercial success with teaching children.

From a policy perspective, the school board conceivably would need to weigh the current climate of zero tolerance for violence with the potential benefits of a “new” form of positive leadership training (Lakes & Hoyt, 2004). Again, consistent with Hirschi and Gottfredson (2008), martial arts are not bad, as they are a means enabling crime only if the individual sees martial arts as enabling crime. Individuals who have the self-control to see the negative long-term consequences of poor choices (i.e., what martial arts training historically seeks to cultivate) are less likely to misuse violence or force. Such an approach may be more favorable than attempting to send kids the message “all violence is bad,” since it is unlikely such a message will actually reduce violence in the long term.

Meta-analyses of studies using true experiments/randomized controlled trials, including those described above, generally find positive effects of early (i.e., before age 10) intervention programs on various measures of self-control (Piquero et al., 2010; Piquero et al., 2016). More importantly, researchers find positive effects on delinquency, in terms of what are arguably also overlapping with behavioral measures of self-control. In other words, studies do not go far enough in considering official records for arrest, intake, adjudicated delinquency, and sentencing. To illustrate, the Lakes and Hoyt (2004) study used independent observers to measure how well children performed on an obstacle course (Response to Challenge Scale), and teachers to measure problem behaviors (Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire). These studies cannot contribute substantially to an understanding of delinquency, since both outcome measures are really of self-control, and it is misleading to have them contribute to “delinquency effect sizes.” This is especially problematic because websites such as CrimeSolutions.gov proceed to use the language of such early intervention programs as “Effective” for “Crime & Delinquency- Multiple crime/offense types,” their highest seal of approval (CrimeSolutions.gov, n.d.).

 

Policy Options

There are three clear options based on the literature:

  1. Ignore the possibility of implementing early intervention programs entirely.
  2. Introduce early intervention pilot programs for research purposes. Randomized control trials would seek to determine the effect of a standardized program, with measures of both self-control and delinquency.
  3. Implement early intervention programs in high-risk elementary schools. Funding will provide for teacher and parental training and for outside resources (child psychologists, martial arts instructors, researchers, etc.).

Option 1:

Ignore the possibility of implementing early interventions entirely.

Advantages

Disadvantages

No additional money spent

No potential benefits from programs

Ability to wait until more research is published supporting self-control as a general theory of crime

No extra help for teachers

No administrative difficulties and complaints from parents and teachers

Other unrelated solutions to crime may dominate public opinion

Option 2:

Introduce pilot early intervention programs for research purposes. Randomized control trials would seek to determine the effect of a standardized program, with standardized measures of self-control and delinquency.

Advantages

Disadvantages

Evaluation of effects by criminologists who seek to understand crime

Little is known about the best way to conduct such a proper experimental design aimed at preventing delinquency

An innovative and exciting task for researchers to attempt to make a positive societal impact

Privacy issues related to obtaining true measures of delinquency

Generate data, which can help better explain crime and criminality, potentially leading to a dominant parsimonious explanation of offending which legitimizes criminology as a science

Possible resistance from school administrators

The experimental subjects involved receive extra help which can lead to positive outcomes later in life

Costs of outside resources and training

Option 3:

Implement early intervention programs in high-risk elementary schools. Funding will provide for teacher and parental training and for outside resources (child psychologists, martial arts instructors, researchers, etc.).

Advantages

Disadvantages

Proactive action taken to prevent crime and other undesirable outcomes

Expense of paying for outside resources

Children may have an improved educational experience

Potential logistical issues in obtaining parent/caregiver collaboration

Teachers receive extra training and opportunity to reach out to parents

No clear standard program


Policy Recommendations

Based on literature and consideration of potential advantages and disadvantages, it makes the most sense initially to go with Option 2 and fill the knowledge gap before widespread implementation of any program. Studies currently do not have the longer-term follow-up or scope to determine whether a self-control based intervention can reduce more serious, official offending by adulthood. Similarly, as evidenced above, what an intervention actually contains does vary considerably from study to study. There is a need for some standardized curriculum on how to teach self-control, and how to measure when a child has reached some mastery standard of self-control. This necessitates a clear and consistent way to measure self-control. Other issues relate to findings of how the positive effects of interventions are significantly smaller, statistically, for lower-income, non-white, and male populations (Piquero et al., 2016).

As discussed previously, these findings may not have practical significance since income, race, and gender are complex composite variables. Specifically, they capture how an individual sees their position as being more or less conducive towards a particular way of acting. Such a dilemma could be resolved practically by seeing whether an intervention can reduce high-cost offending (i.e., in terms of taxpayer dollars paid out to the system). This research would be comparing a sample drawn from a high-risk population of low-income, minority males with a sample from the same population, which does not receive the intervention. The desired population would be large and high-risk, meaning we reasonably could expect the sample to be big enough to capture a large amount of formally sanctioned, serious offending throughout the follow-up period. From there, an economic cost-benefit analysis assessing the costs of the intervention compared to the savings on crime victimization and justice system processing will be preferable over solely impact evaluation.

With respect to the specific intervention, the logical starting point is to have teachers trained to facilitate parental training, beginning in kindergarten. The desirable length of the intervention would be until third grade, the age of 8, or three years, in order to allow parent/caregivers and teachers/instructors enough time to adapt the best practices to each child. Consistent with mastery learning, children need to demonstrate mastery of a high level of self-control before other subjects receive more attention. In essence, it may be necessary for certain subjects, such as reading and math, to receive lower priority temporarily during this period for children who do not quickly demonstrate the more essential, crime relevant skill of self-control. This would allow for the intervention to have a meaningful impact on delinquency.

 

Annotated Bibliography

Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment, 1, 2.

This paper provides commentary on the theory of mastery learning. Mastery learning criticizes traditional instruction for holding instruction time constant, allowing achievement levels to vary considerably. It argues the educational system should hold a high level of achievement as a constant, while allowing time to vary.

 

Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance (2018). Second Chance Act Statewide Adult Recidivism Reduction Strategic Plan Implementation Program FY 2018 Competitive Grant Announcement (OMB No. 1121-0329). Retrieved from https://bja.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh186/files/media/document/BJA-2018-13636.PDF

This grant announcement is an example of how the hopes of funding agencies, or society in general, are not well aligned with what is achievable with even the best-designed reentry program.

 

National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Crime Solutions (n.d.). Practice Profile Early Self-Control Improvement Programs for Children. Retrieved from https://www.crimesolutions.gov/PracticeDetails.aspx?ID=85

This webpage is a less technical summary of the meta-analysis performed by Piquero et al. (2016, 2010). One caution remains; there may not be enough research support, absent true measures of delinquency, to conclude the practice of early self-control improvement programs currently is “effective” for “Crime & Delinquency – Multiple crime/offense types.”

 

Cohen, L. E., & Vila, B. J. (1996). Self-Control and Social Control: An Exposition of the Gottfredson-Hirschi/Sampson-Laub Debate. Studies on crime and crime prevention5(2), 125-150.

This peer-reviewed article summarizes a central and ongoing debate between criminologists on whether low self-control or lack of social bonds is the better explanation of crime. Concludes self-control might explain the more serious sociopathic offenders, while social bonds explain relatively less serious, but still potential felony offenders who use crime to offset competitive disadvantage in a capitalistic society.

 

Davis, D., & Sorrell, J. (1995). Mastery learning in public schools. Educational psychology interactive. Retrieved from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/files/mastlear.html

This paper summarizes the history of mastery learning and reviews the literature for potential effectiveness with respect to achievement, attitudes, and retention.

 

Gottfredson, M. & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford

University Press.

This book is one of the most widely cited and influential texts within criminology. It is the original theoretical outline of how the concept of low self-control leads to crime and analogous acts. Of practical importance is the recognition of how parents can alter the relative levels of self-control in children before the age of eight. They do not entirely discount the potential role of schools, but express little faith in the ability of teachers to improve self-control, given the restraints and demands of the profession.

 

Hirschi, T., & Gottfredson, M. (1983). Age and the explanation of crime. American journal of sociology89(3), 552-584.

This peer reviewed article set the stage for the authors’ later self-control theory by arguing the relationship between age and crime does not vary, or is invariant, across different social conditions. While career criminals tend to have an earlier age of onset of first offense, this age is useless in predicting who will become a career criminal since one cannot predict a 12-year-old delinquent as being fundamentally more criminal (and in need of an intervention) than a 17-year-old delinquent. They argue against the use of longitudinal research over time as being too expensive and unnecessary for establishing what causes crime.

 

Hirschi, T. & Gottfredson, M.R. (1995). Control theory and the life-course perspective. Studies on Crime and Crime Prevention, 4(2), 131-142.

This peer-reviewed article is an example of the argument against social bonds across the life-course as having a causal effect on crime, independent of self-control.

 

Hirschi, T. & Gottfredson, M.R. (2008). 15 - Critiquing the critics: The authors respond. In E. Goode (Ed.), Out of control: Assessing the general theory of crime (pp. 217–232). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

This book chapter by the authors who originally introduced self-control theory to criminology provides their final word in response to various criticisms. The authors admit they have tautologically defined self-control as relating to crime, but note self-control improves upon the concept of criminality, the propensity to commit crime, or even upon conscience since it emphasizes choice (i.e., the individual’s ability to see the long-term consequences of choices).

 

Guskey, T. R., & Gates, S. L. (1986). Synthesis of research on the effects of mastery learning in elementary and secondary classrooms. Educational leadership43(8), 73.

This peer-reviewed article summarizes research on mastery learning and finds positive outcomes. The authors note the need for future research on long-term consequences and on how mastery learning changes classroom climate and interactions.

 

Lakes, K. D., & Hoyt, W. T. (2004). Promoting self-regulation through school-based martial arts training. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology25(3), 283-302.

This randomized control trial is an example of the type of peer-reviewed study used in Piquero et al.’s (2010, 2016) meta-analysis on the effect of early intervention programs on self-control and delinquency. One should note such a study does not directly measure delinquency in the common use of the term. However, researchers still use the study to generate an effect size for delinquency and an effect size for self-control.

 

Marcus, B. (2003). An empirical examination of the construct validity of two alternative self-control measures. Educational and Psychological Measurement63(4), 674-706.

Hirschi and Gottfredson (2008) cite this peer-reviewed article as one of the few demonstrating a true understanding of self-control theory as it relates to the need for behavioral measures. The author introduces the Retrospective Behavioral Self-Control scale and includes the actual questions as an appendix. This scale has the potential to standardize how researchers should measure self-control in future studies.

 

Na, C., & Paternoster, R. (2012). Can self‐control change substantially over time? Rethinking the relationship between self‐and social control. Criminology50(2), 427-462.

This is an example of one of the peer-reviewed articles added by Piquero et al. (2016) to the earlier Piquero et al. (2010) meta-analysis on the effects of early interventions to improve self-control. This study is used to generate an effect size for self-control, but not delinquency.

 

Piquero, A. R., Jennings, W. G., & Farrington, D. P. (2010). On the malleability of self‐control: Theoretical and policy implications regarding a general theory of crime. Justice Quarterly27(6), 803-834.

This is a landmark peer-reviewed meta-analysis drawing from articles largely outside of criminology noted the overall positive effects of various early intervention programs at improving self-control and behavioral outcomes. One should note this article sets a precedent for using delinquency and behavioral outcomes interchangeably, which has the potential to mislead the lay reader into assuming researchers actually considered true measures of delinquency within this body of literature.

 

Piquero, A. R., Jennings, W. G., Farrington, D. P., Diamond, B., & Gonzalez, J. M. R. (2016). A meta-analysis update on the effectiveness of early self-control improvement programs to improve self-control and reduce delinquency. Journal of Experimental Criminology12(2), 249-264.

This meta-analysis updates the previous Piquero et al. (2010) meta-analysis with articles that have been published since. One should note this meta-analysis serves as the basis of the CrimeSolutions.gov practice profile and pay particular attention to how researchers have measured delinquency, before interpreting the observed positive effects. While the meta-analysis suggests shorter interventions with smaller sample sizes may be more effective, there remains no standardized intervention, measure of self-control, or measure of delinquency.

 

Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (1995). Understanding variability in lives through time: Contributions of life-course criminology. Studies on Crime & Crime Prevention, 4(2), 143-158.

This peer-reviewed article is an example of the argument in favor of social bonds across the life-course as having a causal effect on crime, independent of self-control.

 

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