Desistance and Identity: Do Reflected Appraisals as a Delinquent Impede the Crime-Reducing Effects of the Adolescent-to-Adult Transition?

Date01 September 2020
Published date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Desistance and Identity:
Do Reflected Appraisals
as a Delinquent Impede
the Crime-Reducing Effects
of the Adolescent-to-Adult
Glenn D. Walters
Desistance from crime can occur at any age but is most likely to occur during the adolescence-to-
adult transition. The purpose of this study was to determine whether one facet of a criminal identity
(i.e., reflected appraisals as a delinquent) impedes future desistance in male youth making the
transition from adolescence to adulthood, controlling for family structure, social influence, low self-
control, prior delinquency, and age of delinquency onset. Longitudinal data furnished by 284
members of the Marion County Youth Study, all of whom were male and 98% of whom were White,
each with histories of delinquency, were subjected to binary logistic regression analysis and causal
mediation analysis. Results indicated that reflected appraisals correlated negatively with desistance
and successfully mediated the inverse relationship between number of prior delinquent contacts and
subsequent desistance from crime between the ages of 19 and 26. Considering the role reflected
appraisals appear to play in the development of a criminal identity, it is speculated that targeting
reflected appraisals as a delinquent should be of value in maximizing the number of juveniles who
desist from crime during the adolescence-to-adult transition.
reflected appraisals, juvenile delinquency, desistance from crime
Evidence of crime continuity is strong (Nagin & Paternoster, 2000; Walters, 2016a). Despite this, a
substantial portion of delinquen ts, even serious ones, do not go on t o become adult criminals.
Collating the results of a large-scale 14-year longitudinal study of youth in Montreal, Canada, Le
Blanc and Fr´echette (1989) determined that approximately 30–60%of juveniles arrested by the
Department of Criminal Justice, Kutztown University, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Glenn D. Walters, Department of Criminal Justice, Kutztown University, 361 Old Main, Kutztown, PA 19530, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(3) 303-318
ª2020 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819899133
police or convicted of a crime had a history of subsequent adult arrest. By the process of elimination,
40–70%had no adult arrests. And while some of these individuals may have committed crimes as an
adult and simply not got caught, many others could very well have desisted from crime as part of
the adolescent-to-adult transition. A little over a decade later, a review of longitudinal data from the
Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (CSDD) uncovered similar results. Only 45%of the
CSDD cohort members with a juvenile record were arrested between the ages of 25 and 32 (Far-
rington, 2003). Since then, Stouthamer-Loeber (2010) demonstrated that 52–57%of a group of
juvenile delinquents from the Pittsburgh Youth Study continued to offend during early adulthood
(ages 20–25), while only 16–19%offended between the ages of 26 and 30. These findings suggest
that there is both continuity and change in offending behavior as juvenile lawbreakers approach
adulthood. The purpose of the current investigation was to ascertain whether criminal identity in the
form of reflected appraisals of delin quency impedes desistance from crim inal offending at the
adolescent-to-adult transition.
Theories of Desistance
Although there is a large body of evidence indicating that early adult desistance from crime is a
common occurrence, less is known about the mechanisms by which youth desist from crime as they
enter adulthood. Several viable explanations nonetheless exist, one of which is Sampson and Laub’s
(1993) age-graded theory of informal social control. According to Laub and Sampson (2001),
desistance in early adulthood is often the result of turning points in a person’s life, two of which
are marriage and employment. In an effort to explain how turning points lead to desistance, Sampson
and Laub (2005) outlined ways in which marriage and/or employment could inhibit future offend-
ing: (1) by encouraging a “knifing off” of one’s criminal past, (2) by providing new avenues of social
support, (3) by expanding direct and indirect control and supervision, (4) by increasing involvement
in structured activities, and (5) by stimulating a transformation in identity. It is the last of these
possibilities that is featured in the current investigation. Others, such as Giordano et al. (2007) and
Maruna (2001) have tied desistance to a change in identity as well, but no theory has had as much
impact on theory and research in the field of desistance as Paternoster and Bushway’s (2009;
Bushway & Paternoster, 2011, 2013) identity theory of desistance (ITD).
The ITD holds that desistance is a gradual process that does not occur until the perceived costs of
crime begin to outweigh the perceived benefits. When this occurs, present failures inform future
failures, and an antisocial identi ty is gradually replaced by a prosoc ial identity (Paternoster &
Bushway, 2009). A major premise of ITD is that a change in identity from antisocial to prosocial
precedes a change in positive social relationships rather than the other way around (Bushway &
Paternoster, 2013). Various feared future selves of what one could become with continued involve-
ment in a criminal lifestyle then reinforce the new belief system (Bushway & Paternoster, 2011).
Working selves, possible selves, future selves, and human agency figure prominently in ITD.
Although ITD is new on the horizon, it has attracted a fair amount of empirical attention to date.
Whether qualitative (Bachman et al., 2016) or quantitative (Rocque et al., 2016) data are brought to
bear on the issue, studies indicate that transforming an offender identity into a prosocial identity is
followed by a significant drop in future offending. The human agency or choice features of ITD have
also received support in qualitative and quantitative studies (King, 2012; Paternoster et al., 2016;
Stone, 2016).
ITD has been studied almost exclusively in samples of adult inmates. In addition, it focuses
primarily on cognitive changes occurring over an extended period of time. Even so, there is no
reason why other cognitively based identity issues could not also play a role in the more normative
and rapid changes that promote desistance during the adolescent-to-adult transition. According to
ITD, the negative consequences of a criminal lifestyle accumulate over time to the point where the
304 Criminal Justice Review 45(3)

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