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II. Defining Aggression
III. The Development of Aggression
IV. Theoretical Perspectives Linking Early-Life Aggression With Later-Life Crime
A. Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime
B. Moffitt’s Developmental Taxonomy
V. Implications for Crime Prevention
One of the most consistently documented findings flowing from criminological research is that approximately 5% to 6% of the U.S. population commits more than 50% of all criminal offenses. This small cadre of offenders is often referred to as career criminals or habitual offenders, to capture their prolonged and frequent involvement in criminal offenses. Even more striking than the sheer volume of crime committed at the hands of habitual offenders is their widespread use of physical violence. Compared with other criminals, career criminals are more likely to use serious violence; they also use physical aggression much more frequently. Rape, robbery, assault, and murder, for example, are crimes that are almost exclusively confined to habitual offenders. In all respects, then, career criminals represent the most serious violent offenders, and they also pose the greatest danger to society.
Career criminals are thus very different than all other offenders in terms of their frequent involvement in crime as well as their frequent use of aggression. The questions that come to bear, then, are the following: (a)What are the factors that contribute to the development of habitual offenders, and (b) are these the same factors that contribute to the development of all other types of offenders? The answers to these questions are obviously complex, but rich insight can be garnered by focusing on two intertwined issues. First, the use of aggression appears to be one of the main elements that distinguishes chronic offenders from other offenders. Second, and closely related, the making of criminals is a sequential process that begins at conception and continues throughout the rest of the life course. Any understanding of chronic, habitual offending, therefore, must begin by unraveling the developmental origins of aggression. This research paper explores these issues in great detail and examines the close nexus between aggression and crime.
II. Defining Aggression
Before moving into a discussion of the development of aggression and how it relates to crime, it is first necessary to arrive at a definition of aggression. Many types of behaviors can be categorized as aggressive. Lying, stealing, and vandalism are often used as visible indicators of aggression. Although disruptive and socially annoying, these types of behaviors do not necessarily constitute acts of aggression, and they certainly are not harbingers of chronic offending in adulthood. As a result, scholars often divide aggression into different components, each reflecting a relatively homogeneous set of behaviors. The underlying assumption is that different types of aggression may have different etiologies and may differentially relate to the odds of engaging in offending behaviors later in life.
One of the main distinctions made by scholars trying to define aggression is delineating indirect aggression and direct aggression. Indirect aggression is usually verbal and covert and includes actions such as gossiping and ostracism. Direct aggression, in contrast, is typically physical and overt and includes behaviors such as hitting, kicking, punching, and biting. In general, females are more likely than males to use indirect aggression, and males are more likely than females to use direct aggression. Although both forms of aggression have important ramifications, it is direct aggression that is most applicable to the etiology of criminal behaviors. As a result, this research paper focuses exclusively on direct aggression.
Simply focusing on direct aggression leaves open a lot of room for ambiguity and treats all forms of direct aggression as the same. For example, consider two men, both of whom engaged in a serious physical fight in the past week. Unprovoked, one of the men attacked an elderly woman. The other man, in contrast, was jumped by a group of teenagers and fought back in self-defense. These two types of direct aggression clearly are different, and thus it is essential that the definition of aggression be able to delineate between the two. In the preceding example, the behaviors were the same: Both men were fighting; however, the intentions were quite different. For one man, using aggression was a way of inflicting harm on someone, whereas for the other man, using aggression was a defense mechanism. To take differences in intentions into account, this research paper defines aggression as direct aggression whereby the actor intends to inflict harm on or intimidate another person.
III. The Development of Aggression
One of the most firmly established criminological findings is the age–crime curve, which captures the age-graded nature of delinquency. The age–crime curve resembles an inverted U, whereby delinquent involvement does not exist until around the age of 12, then rises sharply until around the age of 18 or 19, at which point it begins to decline relatively quickly. By age 30, rates of criminal involvement hover near zero and remain that way throughout the rest of life. The age–crime curve has been observed at different time periods, in different countries, and by means of different methodological techniques—it is, in short, a robust criminological finding. As a direct result, there has been little reason to suspect that the age–crime curve may not be painting an accurate picture of the ebb and flow of delinquency over time.
Part of the reason that there has been little dispute of the age–crime curve is because most criminologists study adolescents and adults but fail to investigate antisocial behaviors among children. After all, how could children commit crimes such as rape, robbery, or assault? This is, of course, a rhetorical question; children do not—in fact, they cannot— commit these types of crimes. However, they can begin to display signs of antisocial behaviors, and they can engage in various forms of aggression during the first year or two of life. The problem, however, is that this section of the life course has not been studied extensively among criminologists. In recent years, a small group of researchers, spearheaded by Richard Tremblay, have examined the use of physical aggression among children (Tremblay, 2000, 2006; Tremblay et al., 1999). Their scholarship has pointed to the possibility that theory regarding the age– crime curve may perhaps need to be revamped.
Tremblay and his colleagues have examined aggressive behavior in very young children and tracked them throughout childhood. The results of their studies have been quite striking. They have found that some children begin using aggression, including hitting and kicking, well before their first birthday; in some cases, around 7 or 8 months of age (Tremblay, 2000). Even more revealing is that Tremblay et al. have reported that more than 80% of children began using physical aggression by age 17 months (Tremblay et al., 1999). Within childhood, the peak age at which children use aggression and violence is around 2 to 3 years, after which rates of aggression decline until mid-adolescence. Other types of antisocial behaviors that are not necessarily aggressive per se are also almost universal behaviors among children. For example, Tremblay and associates (1999) found that approximately 90% of children took things from others. With age, all of these types of behaviors become less prevalent.
Against this backdrop, Tremblay and others have argued that there are really two distinct age–crime curves (Tremblay, Hartup, & Archer, 2005). The first, the traditional age–crime curve described earlier, is based on official crime measures and captures involvement in law-violating behaviors. The second age–crime curve measures not criminal involvement per se but rather physical aggression. This age–crime curve also resembles an inverted U, whereby physical aggression does not appear until around the age of 1, then increases sharply until around age 3, declining quickly thereafter. Keep in mind that this latter age–crime curve indexes only acts of physical aggression, not official acts of crime or delinquency.
The fact that there are two age–crime curves is a somewhat new finding, and the next logical question is whether these two age–crime curves are interrelated or whether they are distinct from each other. Before tackling this issue, it is first necessary to determine whether behavior is stable and what is meant by behavioral stability. There are, in general, two types of stability: (a) absolute stability and (b) relative stability. It is easiest to make the distinction between these different types of stability clear by providing an example. Suppose a group of children was examined when they were 10 months old, again when they were 18 months old, and again when they were 24 months old. Suppose, further, that at each of these three ages, they were assigned an aggressiveness score (based on a valid measure of aggression) that ranged from 0 to 10, with higher scores representing more aggressiveness.
In order for absolute stability to be preserved, the scores for each person must remain the exact same at each age. For example, if a child received a score of 3 on the aggression scale at age 10 months, that child must also receive a score of 3 on the scale at age 18 months, and he or she must also receive a score of 3 at age 24 months. Any change in the value of the aggression scale across time would reduce absolute stability. Perfect absolute stability, where everyone has the exact same score at each age, is rarely, if ever, observed in the social sciences. However, it is possible to approach perfect absolute stability in some instances. Absolute stability, in short, measures the degree to which people have identical scores on some measure over time.
Relative stability, in contrast, compares all people being assessed (on the aggression scale, in this example) and rank orders them. So, for instance, suppose that there were three children who were once again assigned an aggressiveness score (again, based on a valid measure of aggression) when they were 10 months old, 18 months old, and 24 months old. At each age, it would be possible to rank order these three children, whereby one child would be rated as the most aggressive, another would be rated as the second most aggressive, and the last would be rated as the least aggressive (or the third most aggressive). Relative stability is achieved when the rank ordering of people does not change over time. In the current example, the most aggressive child at age 10 months would also be the most aggressive child at age 18 months, and he or she also would be the most aggressive child at age 24 months. With relative stability, then, change is possible on an absolute level, as long as the rank orderings remain the same. In reality, perfect relative stability is rarely, if ever, achieved, because there is usually at least some change in the rank ordering of people.
The distinction between absolute stability and relative stability is critical, especially when one is examining behaviors over the life course. After all, the frequency with which aggression is used varies drastically across different stages of the life course, and just because someone uses aggression on a daily basis at the age of 18 months does not necessarily mean that he or she will also use aggression on a daily basis at age 35 (absolute stability); however, it is quite a different question to ask whether the most aggressive 18-month-old will mature into the most aggressive 20-year-old (relative stability). In this case, an 18-monthold might use aggression daily, which would make him or her a highly aggressive child. As an adult, however, this individual may not use aggression as frequently and instead may resort to aggression perhaps twice a month. If this is the case, then as an adult this person would still rank near the high end of the aggression spectrum. It is clear that his or her use of aggression has dropped appreciably from an absolute stability perspective, but from a relative stability perspective this person remains one of the most aggressive persons when compared with other adults. From a developmental standpoint it makes more intuitive sense to speak in terms of relative stability when one is examining the stability of behavior over time. As a result, for the most part when criminologists speak of stability they are referring to relative stability, not absolute stability, and in this research paper stability should be equated with relative stability.
A wealth of studies have examined the stability of antisocial behaviors, including violent aggression, over long swaths of the life course, and the results have been remarkably consistent. Across samples, generations, and countries, and regardless of the sample analyzed and the methodological techniques used, extremely high levels of relative stability in aggressive behaviors have been observed. In a classic article, Dan Olweus (1979) reviewed studies that had examined the stability of aggressive behavior over time; he found that aggression was extremely stable, even more so than IQ scores. Findings from more recent reviews have upheld Olweus’s original article by showing that aggressive and violent behaviors are highly stable across long periods of the life course. Persons with the highest degrees of stability, moreover, are those who score extremely high or extremely low on aggression. In other words, people who are the most aggressive (or the least aggressive) at one point in time are likely to be characterized as the most aggressive (or the least aggressive) at another point in time. Change, in other words, is highly unlikely. With this information in hand, it is probably not too surprising to learn that one of the best predictors of future criminal behavior is a history of aggressive behavior in childhood and adolescence.
Building on the studies that have examined behavioral stability, criminologists have also examined whether the age of criminal onset is associated with offending behaviors later in life (DeLisi, 2005). Age of criminal onset typically is broken down into two categories: (1) an early age of criminal onset and (2) a later age of criminal onset. Although there are many ways to operationalize an early age of criminal onset, most criminologists measure earlyonset offending by examining the age at first arrest. Offenders who were arrested at or before age 14 are usually considered early-onset offenders, whereas those who were arrested after age 14 are considered as having a later age of criminal onset.
Results culled from an impressive body of literature have shown that offenders who have an early age of criminal onset are more violent and aggressive when compared with offenders who have a later age of criminal onset. Early-onset offenders, in contrast to later-onset offenders, engage in delinquent acts more frequently; commit more serious, violent offenses; and continue to commit criminal behaviors for a longer period of time, usually well into adulthood. By all objective standards, early-onset offenders have a much worse prognosis in terms of criminal outcomes than do offenders who have a later age of criminal onset.
One of the main pitfalls of measuring early-onset offending with official crime statistics (e.g., age at first criminal arrest) is that aggressive propensities begin to emerge much earlier than the age of official offending. This is why Tremblay and others have argued that the age– crime curve does not necessarily portray an accurate picture of criminal involvement over time; instead, it ignores early childhood and pretends that this stage of the life course has no bearing on later-life aggressive conduct. With this in mind, it is now possible to return to the original question: Are the two age–crime curves related, or are they separate? According to Tremblay and others, the two age–crime curves are indeed intertwined, and in the following sections a number of different theoretical perspectives are presented that are able to shed some light on the link between early-life aggression, or the early age–crime curve, and later-life involvement in crime and delinquency, or the later age–crime curve.
IV. Theoretical Perspectives Linking Early-Life Aggression With Later-Life Crime
Because early-life aggression is such a strong predictor of adolescent delinquency and adult criminal behavior, any sound theory must be able to explain the rise of aggression in childhood, how aggression in childhood is linked to later-life crime, and why most aggressive children do not become criminal as adults. Most mainstream criminological theories collapse when they attempt to provide an explanation for these known behavioral patterns. There are, however, a handful of theories that hold some promise in their ability to explain some of these patterns. Two of the more influential theories—at least within mainstream criminology—are Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi’s (1990) general theory of crime and Terrie Moffitt’s (1993) developmental taxonomy.
A. Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime
In 1990, Gottfredson and Hirschi published a widely read and highly influential book titled A General Theory of Crime, in which they set forth a parsimonious and easily testable theory of crime. Unlike most criminological theories that focus almost exclusively on social factors, Gottfredson and Hirschi centered their attention on a psychological personality trait: low self-control. According to this theory, low levels of self-control are the cause of crime; delinquency; aggression; and analogous acts, such as smoking, drinking, and arriving late to class. Low self-control was defined through six different dimensions: (1) an inability to delay gratification, (2) a preference for simple tasks, (3) a penchant for risk seeking, (4) a preference for physical activities as opposed to mental ones, (5) an explosive temper, and (6) self-centeredness. Persons who score high on these six dimensions have, on average, relatively low levels of self-control and thus are at high risk for engaging in antisocial and criminal behaviors. A rich line of research has tested this proposition, and the results have been strikingly supportive of the theory. Indeed, of all the existing criminological theories, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory of low self-control is among the most empirically supported, and measures of low self-control are often the strongest predictors of delinquent acts.
It appears, then, that variation in individual levels of self-control is an important contributor to adolescent delinquency and adulthood crime. Still, the questions that remain are whether this theory can explain (a) aggression in childhood and (b) the link between early-life aggression and later offending behaviors. To address these issues, it is necessary to examine the nature of self-control.
Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) maintained that self-control is engineered during childhood, typically by the ages of 8 to 10 years. Parents, according to the general theory, are the main agents responsible for shaping and molding their children’s level of self-control. Specifically, parents who monitor their children, recognize their children’s misbehavior, and punish their children’s transgression will raise, on balance, children with relatively high levels of self-control. Parents who fail to engage in these parenting techniques will, in general, raise children with comparatively low levels of self-control.
If this part of the theory is correct, then it takes about 8 to 10 years for parents to shape a child’s level of self-control. Moreover, it is not inconceivable to assume that most parents do not engage in much discipline before their children are approximately age 18 months. It is around this time that most children begin to display signs of aggression and consequentially is approximately the same time that most parents begin to punish and correct their child’s misbehavior. Over the course of the next few years, at least according to the logic of self-control theory, most parents will continue trying to blunt their children’s aggressive behaviors. Most children will respond to parental socialization, their use of aggression will subside, and between the ages of 5 to 8, their aggressive behavior will not be nearly as widespread as it was during early childhood. Parental socialization tactics thus might be able to explain the early age–crime curve set forth by Tremblay and his colleagues (2005).
During the time between childhood and early adolescence the use of aggression is not nearly as high as it was early in life. With the onset of adolescence, delinquent involvement begins to rise sharply to form the initial upswing in the more traditional age–crime curve. Proponents of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory argue that variations in self-control can also explain this age–crime curve. Although not well understood, and rarely studied, there is some reason to believe that levels of self-control are, on average, at their lowest during mid-to-late adolescence, around the same time that delinquent involvement is at its pinnacle. Near the end of adolescence and during early adulthood, levels of self-control begin to climb, which corresponds to the rapid drop in delinquency participation rates. The precise reasons for why levels of self-control change over time, however, are not known.
Also, it is important to note that the general theory places a relatively heavy emphasis on the role that criminal opportunities play in transforming low levels of self-control into a criminal act. If there is no crime opportunity available, then no one—not even persons with very low levels of self-control— will commit a crime. Thus, it is possible that there are more crime opportunities available during adolescence (especially because youths are able to escape the constant surveillance of their parents) than earlier in life (between the ages of 8 and 12 years). If this is the case, then self-control theory may be able to explain at least part of the age-graded nature of adolescent delinquent involvement.
The preceding discussion highlights the possible ways in which self-control theory can explain both the early age–crime curve and the later age–crime curve. However, can this theory also explain the stability in antisocial behaviors over time, including the link between early-life aggression and later-life crime? According to Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), the answer is a resounding “Yes!” To understand their explanation of stability it is important to remember that levels of self-control purportedly emerge by around the age of 8 to 10. Furthermore, according to this theory, after levels of self-control are established, they remain relatively stable over the remainder of the life course. This means that a child with relatively low levels of self-control will mature into an adolescent with relatively low levels of self-control, who in turn will develop into an adult with relatively low levels of self-control. Given that low self-control is the cause of antisocial acts, including aggression and crime, then children with low self-control will be at risk for using aggression and, because they will develop into adolescents with low self-control, they will also be at risk for using aggression in adolescence. In adulthood, persons with low self-control will be apt to engage in aggression as well as criminal acts.
To recap, according to the general theory, the reason that aggression is prevalent during childhood is because self-control has not yet been acquired. As children age and as their parents socialize them, they begin to accumulate much higher levels of self-control. This emergence of self-control is accompanied by a concomitant drop in aggressive behaviors. Of course, not all children develop high levels of self-control, and those children who are typified by low levels of self-control are, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), the same children who are at greatest risk for continuing to engage in aggressive behaviors in adolescence, and they are also at great risk for engaging in criminal conduct during adulthood. Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory of low self-control has the potential to explain the link between early-life aggression and later-life law-violating behaviors.
B. Moffitt’s Developmental Taxonomy
Moffitt’s (1993) developmental taxonomy is one of the most influential criminological theories advanced in recent years. One of the theory’s most noteworthy contributions is that, instead of treating all offenders as having the same developmental pathways, Moffitt recognized that there were at least two different types of offenders, each with their own unique etiology. The first type of offender, which she labeled life-course-persistent (LCP) offenders, begins to display signs of antisocial behavior, including aggression, early in life, often well before the age of 2. LCP offenders, according to the theory, persist with their antisocial behaviors throughout childhood and, during adolescence, they engage in all different types of delinquent acts, ranging from very minor (e.g., underage drinking) to very serious (e.g., assault and robbery). As adults, LCP offenders continue their violent behaviors and criminal conduct; as a result, they often spend a considerable amount of time incarcerated. Approximately 6% of all males are considered LCP offenders, and there is debate over whether there are any female LCP offenders. Although LCP offenders comprise only a relatively small percentage of the population, they make up a disproportionate amount of all crimes, and they are responsible for the majority of all violent crimes.
According to Moffitt (1993), two interrelated factors are responsible for producing LCP offenders. First, LCP offenders are born with neuropsychological deficits. These neuropsychological deficits can be the result of birth complications, exposure to toxins in utero, genetics, or a range of other factors. Second, LCP offenders are born into adverse, criminogenic family environments, where their parents may be abusive, cold and withdrawn, or emotionally detached. To understand how these two factors (i.e., neuropsychological deficits and an adverse family environment) work together to produce LCP offenders it is important to recognize that children born with neuropsychological deficits are often challenging to care for; they tend to be fussy and socially taxing, and they typically have difficult temperaments. Parents who are warm, loving, caring, and attached to their children are often in a position to override the problem behaviors displayed by children with neuropsychological deficits. Some children with neuropsychological deficits, in contrast, are born into criminogenic family environments where their parents are not well equipped with the necessary skills needed to overcome the difficult nature of their child. Over time, the family environment exacerbates the antisocial behaviors of children with neuropsychological impairments, thereby setting the child onto an antisocial pathway that ultimately culminates in the creation of an LCP offender.
Moffitt’s explanation of LCP offenders also has the ability to explain the association between aggression in childhood and crime in adulthood. LCP offenders show extremely high levels of behavioral stability, wherein early-life aggression is associated with serious physical violence in adolescence, followed by criminal involvement during adulthood. Moffitt explained the stable antisocial behavioral patterns of LCP offenders by focusing on transactional processes that occur between the difficult temperaments of LCP offenders and the environment. In brief, aggressive temperaments propel LCP offenders into certain criminogenic situations. For example, highly aggressive children often have difficulties excelling in school, which may lead to difficulties excelling in school during adolescence. LCP offenders, because of their problems at school, may drop out or, if they do graduate, face career prospects that often are circumvented and not very promising. As adults, then, LCP offenders are somewhat “knifed off ” from conventional society, thereby embedding them even further into an antisocial lifestyle where behavioral change is unlikely to occur.
Because only a small fraction of all persons would be considered LCP offenders, Moffitt was left to explain why rates of delinquent involvement are so high during adolescence. To answer this question, she identified a second class of offenders, which she termed adolescence-limited (AL) offenders. AL offenders do not display antisocial tendencies in childhood; neither do they engage in criminal behaviors during adulthood. Unlike LCP offenders, who engage in antisocial behaviors at all stages of the life course, AL offenders confine their offending behaviors to adolescence, and their delinquent acts are much less serious than those committed by LCP offenders. The types of delinquent behaviors that most AL offenders commit are relatively minor and mostly include status offenses (e.g., underage drinking, truancy) or other forms of minor delinquency (e.g., petty theft). Most youth would be considered AL offenders because the majority of adolescents dabble in delinquency but are not antisocial as children and never commit a crime in adulthood.
Moffitt (1993) provided a unique and provocative explanation for the factors that contribute to the development of AL offenders. Unlike LCP offenders, who suffer from neuropsychological deficits and an adverse home environment, AL offenders engage in delinquency because of what Moffitt called the maturity gap. The maturity gap, according to Moffitt, captures the disjuncture that exists between biological maturity and social maturity for adolescents. Most adolescents would be considered biologically mature in the sense that they are capable of reproducing. In historical times, youth around the age of 13 did, in fact, begin to marry and produce offspring. They were also afforded the same rights and privileges that were extended to adults. In other words, their biological maturity was matched to their social maturity. In contemporary times, in most industrialized countries, however, adolescents are subjected to a series of laws and rules that adults are not. These regulations limit youths’ ability to partake in adult behaviors. Adolescents in the United States, for example, are not allowed to drive a car until they turn 16 years old, they are not allowed to vote until they turn 18, and they may be required to attend school until a certain age. The end result is a gap between biological maturity (i.e., they are able to reproduce) and social maturity (i.e., society places limits on their privileges) in which adolescents are trapped.
The maturity gap creates dissonance in adolescents and, as a result, they search out ways (unconsciously) to reduce the disjuncture between their biological maturity and their social immaturity. To do so, they turn their attention to LCP offenders. LCP offenders live their lives with a total disregard for rules. They skip school, drink alcohol, have promiscuous sex, and basically thumb their nose at any and all regulations that seek to limit their freedom. In many ways, then, they engage in minor acts of delinquency that are reminiscent of “adult-like” behaviors (e.g., drinking alcohol, not going to school). To reduce the maturity gap, AL offenders mimic these adult-like behaviors being displayed by LCP offenders. By doing so, AL offenders increase their social maturity and erase, at least in part, the disjuncture between biological maturity and social immaturity. As adolescents mature into adults, they begin to be afforded the same privileges that are bestowed to adults. Maturation thus eliminates the maturity gap and, consequentially, delinquent involvement decreases appreciably as adolescents become adults.
Moffitt’s (1993) theoretical perspective has the potential to explain the conventional age–crime curve, but can it also explain the newer age–crime curve discovered by Tremblay and associates (1999, 2005)? Even though Moffitt did not directly confront this issue when setting forth her theory, there is some reason to believe that the developmental taxonomy may be able to shed some light on the early age–crime curve. During childhood, LCP offenders obviously display various signs of antisocial behaviors, including aggression. According to Moffitt’s theory, however, AL offenders do not show any signs of aggression early in life. Thus, the developmental taxonomy is able to explain why LCP offenders use aggression in childhood, but it is not able to explain why almost all children, including AL offenders, use aggression. Moreover, Moffitt’s theory does lend itself to an explanation of why aggressive behaviors decline around age 3 only to reappear once again in adolescence. Overall, however, the developmental taxonomy provides some needed insight into how aggressive behaviors in childhood may be tied to criminal behaviors later in life.
V. Implications for Crime Prevention
Rates of recidivism (being rearrested after being released from prison, probation, or parole) in the United States and other countries are extremely high, often hovering around 70% to 80%. Criminals who are released from prison, as well as newly released probationers and parolees, are all at very high risk for committing another crime in the near future. This holds true even among offenders who complete intervention modalities, such as drug and alcohol abuse programs. Part of the explanation for why the United States is not very good at reducing crime is that intervention programs focus almost exclusively on adolescents and adults and ignore children. As this research paper has discussed, this is a serious oversight, because the roots of violence begin to take hold early in life, and early-life antisocial behaviors remain relatively stable over time. Thus, it would seem logical to conclude that the best way to reduce crime is to prevent it from ever surfacing. This is exactly what the research tends to show. Although some programs that focus on adolescents and adults have been found to be successful at reducing recidivism, the overwhelming majority of such programs have dismal success rates—that is, recidivism rates are extremely high. There is some good news: Programs that focus on the critical time periods of childhood and infancy have been shown to be extremely successful at preventing crime.
To understand how it is possible to intervene in the lives of young children to reduce offending behaviors later in life, it is first necessary to recognize that not all children are equally likely to become habitual offenders. Career criminals, for instance, disproportionately come from impoverished, urban neighborhoods, from single families, and from families in which one or both parents have been arrested previously. A number of other factors have also been found to relate to serious, violent offenders, but the key point is that these factors can be used to identify families who are at risk for producing career criminals. This is precisely the information that early intervention programs use to seek out children who are at risk for future offending behaviors.
Perhaps the most well-known and most successful early intervention program is David Olds’s (2007) nurse–family partnership (NFP). The NFP identifies mothers who are pregnant with their firstborn child and who are also from low-socioeconomic classes (typically, they are unwed adolescents). Although the original aim of the NFP was to reduce abuse, neglect, and negative birth outcomes, emphasis also has been placed on reducing antisocial behaviors among these children. This latter goal is an especially daunting task given that the NFP focuses on families that are at elevated risk for producing criminals.
Once the women agree to participate in the NFP, they immediately have a meeting with a nurse; this meeting occurs while the women are pregnant. There typically are approximately six to nine nurse visits while the women are pregnant. These nurse visits are designed to accomplish three goals. First, they are concerned with improving the outcomes of pregnancy by helping mothers improve their prenatal health. This entails educating women about the harms associated with drinking, smoking, and using drugs. Improvements in nutrition also are discussed. Note that this part of the NFP is consistent with Moffitt’s (1993) explanation of LCP offenders because it targets known risk factors that interfere with healthy brain development and that are linked to neuropsychological deficits. Second, nurses attempt to improve the child’s health and development by helping mothers learn about competent care. This part of the program focuses on parental socialization, such as reducing abuse and maltreatment, and increasing effective parenting tactics. Note how this part of the NFP is in line with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory on the development of self-control, and it is also consistent with Moffitt’s explanation of LCP offenders. Third, the NFP attempts to help mothers after their children are born by promoting smart choices about education and employment. Nurse visitations continue to occur throughout childhood to promote positive outcomes.
To evaluate the effectiveness of the NFP, Olds (2007) used random assignment, whereby families were randomly assigned either to the NFP or to some other type of programs. To say that the results showed that NFP is effective would be a gross understatement. Compared with children who were placed into another type of program, NFP children accrued 61% fewer arrests, they had 72% fewer convictions, and they spent 98% fewer days in jail. These are truly remarkable gains, especially given that the NFP focuses on infancy and childhood and yet the effects are visible decades into the future. Contrast this with the fact that programs that focus on adolescents and adults rarely achieve such marked reductions in crime. Other early intervention programs, such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool Programs, have also been found to be very effective at reducing and preventing antisocial behaviors in the future (Schweinhart, 2007). The common theme that cuts across most effective intervention programs is that they are established very early in the life course and the earlier the intervention is implemented, the better the results.
The overarching goal of this research paper was to examine the association between aggression displayed early in life and acts of criminal violence committed during adolescence and adulthood. This discussion led to five key points. First, there is now a rich line of empirical research indicating that the use of aggression peaks during childhood, typically around age 3 years. Second, although the use of aggression usually wanes by late childhood, and is not a predictor of future criminal behavior, most violent offenders have long histories of aggression that can be traced back to early childhood. Third, aggressive behaviors are relatively stable, even across very lengthy periods of time. Fourth, the traditional age–crime curve that captures the ebb and flow of official delinquency in adolescence is complemented by a similar age–crime curve that captures the ebb and flow of aggression during early childhood. Fifth, research has revealed that the most effective intervention programs focus on at-risk families and implement prevention programs immediately after conception. In general, the earlier interventions are established, the larger the reduction in antisocial outcomes.
These findings have important implications for criminologists and for the criminal justice system. To begin with, less attention needs to be paid to offending during adolescence, and more attention needs to be expended on examining the development of aggression in childhood. As it stands now, mainstream criminological research typically fails to study this important section of the life course and usually focuses narrowly on adolescence and adulthood. However, as an abundance of research outside of criminology has shown, childhood is perhaps the key stage of the life course in terms of the etiology of violent offending. More and more research needs to be directed at unpacking the development of aggression during childhood. Focusing research efforts on childhood advance the understanding of the causes and correlates of crime and delinquency. This important knowledge base then can be used to develop early intervention programs that are based on and guided by methodologically rigorous research findings.
The development of criminal behavior, as this research paper has discussed, is complex, involving a multitude of factors that interlock across time and space. To gain a complete picture of what causes offending behaviors to emerge, how they develop, and why they are stable is a daunting yet exciting enterprise. Insight into these issues is most likely to be garnered from research that takes an interdisciplinary approach and examines environmental and genetic influences on human behavior across the entire life course.
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