Assessing an Age-Graded Theory of Informal Social Control: Are There Conditional Effects of Life Events in the Desistance Process?

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In 1993, Sampson and Laub presented their age-graded theory of informal social control in Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life. In essence, Sampson and Laub state that, among offenders, strong social bonds stemming from a variety of life events predict desistance from criminal offending in adulthood. In the past decade, there has been a growing amount of research supporting this general finding. However, little research has examined the potential conditional effects of life events on desistance. Using Sheldon and Eleanor Gluecks' Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency data, their follow-up data to age 32, and the long-term follow-up data collected by John Laub and Robert Sampson, this research focuses on the potential conditional effects of marital attachment, stable employment, honorable military service, and long-term juvenile incarceration on criminal offending over the life course.

Specifically, the present study tests Sampson and Laub's notion that strong social bonds predict desistance by asking two fundamental questions that bear on both theory and policy surrounding desistance from crime. First, does a high level of social integration as evidenced by the accumulation of social bonds stemming from life events within the same individual influence a person's level of offending and/or rate of desistance? Second, does the individual risk factor of low self-control or the related protective factor of adolescent competence interact with life events such that they differentially influence adult offending patterns?

Using the longitudinal methodologies of semiparametric mixed Poisson modeling and hierarchical linear modeling, the analyses find additional support for Sampson and Laub's theory. First, a person's level of social integration significantly affects his future offending patterns even after controlling for criminal propensity and prior adult crime. Second, no significant interaction effects emerge between life events and individual characteristics on future offending patterns. The conclusion then is that a high level of social bonding within the same individual influences offending, regardless of a person's level of self-control or adolescent competence. The implications of this research for life-course theories of crime, future research, and policies regarding desistance are discussed.