In the previous article I covered quite a complex model of how individuals develop self-control and how this stops them from committing crime. However, the majority of the explanation for that model was based around children. It’s also important to consider whether or not self-control changes later on in the life-span and whether or not it’s possible to reform an individual with low self-control. If not, then we may have to accept the majority of current offenders as lost causes.
Sampson and Laub suggest that it is possible to change over time. They say that the strength of an individual’s self-control over time is relatively stable, but it can shift across the life-span. They suggest that this may be because weak social bonds can become somewhat stronger as people get older and this means that people have more at stake when they commit a crime. Perhaps a new social bond can form during a lifetime which can change the way a person acts, for example the birth of a child can often cause a big personality change for people who have been in and out of prison as they realise that caring for the child is now the most important thing and that they have to be a role model for them.
As offenders get older there may be many ways in which their lives change that increase their responsibility and stop them from committing crime, and becoming a parent is just one way. Offenders may also enter a new romantic relationship, where their partner becomes an external control, stopping them from making bad decisions. Steady employment too may make an offender reform, since they know that if they commit crime again, they have more to lose. However, the problem here is that it is so difficult for most offenders to find jobs again after they leave prison. Sometimes people may stop committing crimes across the lifespan for other reasons than a strengthening of social bonds, for example through eventually getting used to following the rules over time and realising that it is an easier way of life. Conversely, sometimes social bonds will weaken over the life-span and so people will feel that committing crime is no longer a problem as they’ve already lost everyone and everything that they care about.
Research does show that the percentage of people who commit crime does decrease with age and this may be related to the strengthening and growth in their number of social bonds. Matza explains control theory well in his 1964 book ‘Delinquency and Drift’, saying that delinquents are not that different from ‘normal’ people and it is very difficult to predict who will or won’t turn to crime. He suggests that the key moment in any individual turning to crime is not their choice, but when the grip of social control loosens. He further showed that criminals still had morals, unlike the general belief, but just used techniques of neutralisation to work around them, for example denying responsibility for the crime or saying that their victims deserved what they got. Murphy reports drug dealers as neutralising their actions by saying that they were just doing it to help out their friends and so it actually makes them a good friend.
Critics of control theory argue that it needs to be more specific about the effects of individual groups and control types on behaviour, and also suggest that focussing on social control mechanisms may distract from bigger issues causing crime such as class inequality. It seem that from here, control theory needs to become more specific about the effects of different types of social control, and we need to integrate this theory with others, since it is currently set apart from other schools of theory.
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