Predicting arrest in early adulthood: the relationship between internal and external sources of control.

Author:Bender, Kimberly
Position:RESEARCH NOTE - Report

The general theory of crime and life course theory are two competing criminological perspectives that attempt to explain individuals' propensities to commit crime. The general theory of crime addresses internal mechanisms of self-control such as impulsivity; life course theory addresses external mechanisms such as school, employment, and marriage (social bonds) (Cullen & Agnew, 2006). Criminologists debate whether internal controls (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990) or external controls (Sampson & Laub, 1993) are more effective in reducing criminal behavior (Cohen & Vila, 1996). However, the present study examines relationships between internal and external control as predictors of arrest. As such, this research note examines the influence of self-control in forming three types of social bonds commonly associated with preventing criminal activity--education, employment, and marriage and then subsequently examines both self-control and social bonds as predictors of arrest in young adulthood.


General Theory of Crime

This theory asserts that self-control decreases the likelihood of engaging in delinquent or criminal behavior (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990) and is developed through socialization, generally established by age 10. Parents who develop prosocial relationships with their children and appropriately punish deviant acts are helping their children develop self-control (Akers & Sellers, 2004). Once self-control is established, it remains stable throughout the person's life, resulting in decreased likelihood for deviant behavior (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Children with higher internalized mechanisms of self-control are more likely to understand the long-term consequences of their actions than individuals with low self-control (O'Connell, 2003).

Many studies provide support for self-control as an element of the general theory of crime by confirming the relationship between low self-control and delinquency (Pratt & Cullen, 2000). For example, a four-nation comparative study (Vazsonyi, Pickering, Junger, & Hessing, 2001) found that self-control accounted for 17% to 28% of the variance in total deviance across various groups of adolescents. A meta-analysis of 21 studies assessing self-control and crime found that subjects with low self-control were more likely to be criminal offenders (Pratt & Cullen, 2000).These studies support the primary tenet of the general theory of crime that self-control is an important mechanism in criminality (Akers & Sellers, 2004).

Life Course Theory

Life course theory suggests that trajectories toward criminality are fostered by the absence of structure, routine, and informal social controls (Laub & Sampson, 2003) and that transitions can alter a person's life trajectory (Sampson & Laub, 1990). The goal of life course theory is to understand the stability and changes in criminal behavior while recognizing the importance of major life course transitions (Akers & Sellers, 2004). Significant events, such as marriage, employment, and education, may have pronounced effects on criminal behavior (Horney, Osgood, & Marshall, 1995; Sampson & Laub, 1993; Simons, Johnson, Conger, & Elder, 1998; Uggen, 2000; Warr, 1998). Ties to social bonds, such as job stability and marital attachment, have been shown to be significantly related to changes in adult criminality (Sampson & Laub, 1993). For example, employment appears to be a transition in the life-course for offenders over 26 years old, and maximizing participation in gainful employment decreases criminal involvement (Uggen, 2000).

Marriage has been shown to be the strongest discriminator between those who desist from criminal behavior and those who recidivate (Benda, Toombs, & Peacock, 2003).Although several studies indicate that young men who marry are more likely to resist criminal involvement than unmarried young men (Benda et al., 2003; Horney et al., 1995; Sampson & Laub, 1990; Warr, 1998), some research finds that marriage does not reduce criminal behavior (Farrington, 1989). Finally, education has also been shown to be related to criminal behavior (Benda et al., 2003). Delinquent youths enrolled in school are more likely to resist criminal activity (O'Connell, 2003; Sampson & Laub 1993), and educational programs reduce the likelihood of future arrests (O'Connell, 2003). Building on the concepts incorporated in these two theories--social bonds (employment, marriage, and education) and self-control--the present study investigates potential relationships between the two. It is evident that both theories have strong empirical support, with both internalized and external forms of control influencing criminal behavior. However, this article proposes that, rather than comparing one theory with the other, there is utility in understanding how internalized self-control and externalized social control factors are interrelated and coalesce to influence crime. Thus, this article examines the relationships between internal and external sources of control on arrest. Furthermore, this study examines one social bond (education) for its potential mediating role in the relationship between self-control and arrest. If findings indicate that higher levels of self-control predict social bonding and these factors together predict reduced crime in young adulthood, this information can begin to explain the intersection of internal and external...

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