A basic premise of drug courts and similar initiatives is that well-designed interventions administered through the criminal-justice system can help addicts and others with self-control problems to gain better control over their behavior. This premise, however, flies in the face of an influential line of criminological thinking, which posits that an individual’s relative capacity for self-control is more-or-less fixed by age ten. Although self-control may improve in absolute terms as an individual ages, a person with poor self-control relative to his peers at age ten will likely remain behind his peers indefinitely, and hence present relatively greater risks of criminality through adulthood. On this view, interventions that occur only after crimes are committed in the teen and adult years are not likely to have much effect.
However, a competing line of criminological work holds out more promise for the improvement of relative self-control. A certain amount of empirical research could be cited in support of each position, although nothing of a conclusive nature.
Chongmin Na and Raymond Paternoster add to the empirical research in a new article, “Can Self-Control Change Substantially Over Time? Rethinking the Relationship Between Self- and Social Control,” 50 Criminology 427 (2012). Na and Paternoster provide support for the more optimistic view that self-control can change and interventions can help.
Na and Paternoster drew on data produced through an ambitious multiyear study. The subjects were 399 Baltimore schoolchildren, who were evaluated at various intervals from first through twelfth grade. In first grade, children were divided into treatment and control groups. The caregivers of the “treatment” group received instruction and training to improve the quality of their disciplinary practices, and to enhance their attachment to and involvement with their children.
Between the sixth and twelfth grades, the researchers found considerable variation in how self-control changed. Although a majority of the children improved, a substantial minority (more than 40%) actually regressed. And among those who improved, wide variations in the degree of improvement were observed. In particular, self-control among the kids in the treatment group improved by a greater degree, on average, than those in the control group. This suggests that self-control is much more malleable even in the teen years than some criminologists have recognized.
The study thus provides some support for rehabilitative interventions administered by the criminal-justice system. However, several important questions remain, including:
1) Does self-control continue to be malleable after grade 12? If malleability declines markedly in the late teens and/or early twenties, then interventions intended to improve self-control may be worthwhile for juvenile offenders, but not for others.
2) Would similar results be observed with less disadvantaged kids? The subjects of the Na-Paternoster study were more than 85% African American, and more than 60% of them received free or reduced-cost school lunches. It is possible that parenting-focused interventions are able to have an impact on poor, inner-city, minority kids, but are much less effective with other populations.
3) Are actors in the criminal-justice system able to have a comparable impact? The intervention in the Na-Paternoster study involved a school-based partnership between caregivers and school personnel. Can police, prosecutors, judges, and/or corrections officials produce similar results? A persistent concern regarding drug courts, for instance, has been that legally trained professionals are not qualified to supervise addiction treatment.