Youth under 18 account for 19% of all criminal code charges and 16% of all violent crime in 1998 (Bell, 2012, p. 10). Official crime has increased over the last 100 years in Canada, but the overall pattern of youth crime has not (Bell, 2012, p. 22). There are many theories that attempt to explain this youth crime including Gottfredson and Hirschi as well as Sampson and Laub. Gottfredson and Hirschi put forth self-control theory of crime which states the establishment of self-control at a young age affects crime over the life course (Criminal Careers - Contemporary Issues And Controversies, 2011). Sampson and Laub look at transitions and trajectories that affect social bonds which cause turning points that affect a person’s criminal activity (Criminal Careers - Contemporary Issues And Controversies, 2011). Although Gottfredson and Hirschi and Sampson and Laub can both be considered life-course views that attempt to explain youth crime, there are certain strengths and limitations to both theories and not one theory can explain youth crime because the theories draw upon each other.
Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory claims crime is based on the offender’s self- control which is established by the mere age of eight based on parenting techniques (Criminal Careers - Contemporary Issues And Controversies, 2011). Based on self-control, a person’s offending can be seen as being stable overtime and then eventually “aging out” (Criminal Careers - Contemporary Issues And Controversies, 2011). If a person established low self-control early in life then they are likely to participate in more risky behaviour compared to individuals with high levels of self-control (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 151). Gottfredson and Hirschi claim that social bonds are determinant of whether an individual commits crime. “The social bond consists of four elements that bind a person to a conventional lifestyle: attachment, commitment, involvement, and beliefs” (Bell, 2012, p. 152). If any of these elements are broken then it may cause the individual to participate in delinquent behaviour (Bell, 2012, p. 152). Once an individual has offended once then they are likely to continue offending into their old age as criminal behaviour is continuous (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 151). Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory has many positive and negative aspects intertwined within it but is still helpful in explaining youth crime.
Gottfredson and Hirschi also hold promise in explaining youth crime because self- control is the strongest known correlate of crime, there is clarity within the theory, and other theorists agree with their theory. With self-control being the strongest correlate of crime and Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory being based around self-control it makes it hard not to believe their theory (Pratt & Cullen, 2000, 952). Gottfredson and Hirschi’s clarity on how various social factors that any youth comes into contact with, play a role in delinquency is a strength because their theory is so simplistic that there could be ambiguity of where the factors fit in (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 151). This theory has given many researchers the opportunity to study it with the “theory’s central proposition that low self-control is the chief predictor of involvement in crime and in behaviors analogous to crime” (Pratt & Cullen, 2000, p. 934). Gottfredson and Hirschi essentially created the basis for other theorists to have as a starting point which means their theory is accepted as a form of explaining youth crime in combination with other theories.
Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory has limitations which include their deployment of a cross- sectional study, their use of a behavioral scale and the simplicity of their theory. Gottfredson and Hirschi used a cross-sectional study opposed to a longitudinal study like Sampson and Laub used. A cross- sectional study is a collection of data at a specific point in time (Pratt & Cullen, 2000, 933). This type of study does not allow for a comparison of data to see changes and patterns overtime but they do allow for a comparison of many variables at once (Pratt & Cullen, 2000, 933). Gottfredson and Hirschi decided to use a behavioural scale rather than an attitudinal scale which could be seen as inappropriate because they were using the scale to measure similar behaviours (Pratt & Cullen, 2000, 933). These similar behaviours are caused by low self-control so therefore cannot be measured by self-control since it is the independent variable with no inverse relationship (Pratt & Cullen, 2000, 933). Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory can also be seen as simple in the sense that they do not offer many explanations for crime other than social influences that relate to self-control rather than taking into account biological factors as well (Beaver & Wright, 2007, p. 1346). The individual could have been born with a disorder that renders them unable to maintain self-control such as bipolar disorder and if the individual was born a psychopath. These limitations do not make their theory incorrect but rather invoke the need for another theory in combination with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory to fill in the blanks.
On the other hand, Sampson & Laub’s life course theory states that social bonds occurring between people and institutions are the driving factor behind whether a person will commit a crime or not. Social bonds refer to the bond between an individual and society (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 157). If an individual’s social bonds are strong then they have social capital which refers to the relationship between an individual and an institution (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 157). If a person has a positive relationship with an institution then they are less likely to commit crime compared to an individual who has a negative relationship with institutions (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 157). A person may have a positive relationship with institutions for a few years and then the relationship may turn negative if a person loses their job which may make them feel disconnected to society and crime (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 157). An individual’s relationship may also start negative and turn positive (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 157). This is why this theory allows for stability and change. Sampson and Laub make “three major theoretical assertions: (1) the structural context of family and school social controls explains delinquency in childhood and adolescence; (2) this leads to a continuity in antisocial behavior from childhood through adulthood across many social domains; and (3) social bonds in adulthood to institutions such as family and employment explain changes in criminal behavior over the life-course” (Criminal Careers - Contemporary Issues And Controversies, 2011). This theory both has advantages and limitations in explaining youth crime.
Sampson and Laub’s theory holds promise in explaining youth crime because of their longitudinal study, hope, and their theory revolves around continuity as well as change. Sampson and Laub did a longitudinal study which is where many data collections are taken over time on the same test subjects to see how they are not only affected in the present but also later in life (Pratt & Cullen, 2000, 933). Sampson and Laub are the only researchers who have done studies on severely antisocial children with a follow-up (Robins, 2005, p. 69). This is helpful because it allows for better insight on high risk children. Children who are antisocial are at risk for delinquency because their social bonds are cut from the rest of society which means a lack of social capital that will cause the child to participate in delinquent behaviour (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 157). Their theory also gives hope for treatment because if social bonds are not broken between institutions and youth then they essentially should not commit crime (Robins, 2005, p. 58). Prevention strategies can then be put into place to ensure youth are diverted from crime altogether (Bell, 2012, p. 153).
Sampson and Laub’s research is very promising in helping youth crime for many reasons but with strengths there are always limitations to be found as there is always room for improvement.
Sampson and Laub’s theory also has limitations such as the use of Glueck’s data, childhood risk in predicting trajectories, and the limited number of people interviewed. Sampson and Laub specifically just used Glueck’s data rather than collecting their own which limited their data (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 160). It was found that there was a “lack of impact of childhood risk factors on the trajectory” (Robins, 2005, pp. 65). Placed independently of the adult arrest trajectory; sits the youth predicting trajectory which is because they have weakened factors with irrelevant items which could have been avoided by using only significant predictors to foretell the adult trajectory (Robins, 2005, pp. 65-66). Sampson and Laub conducted interviews with only 52 individuals from the 181 people that they located from Glueck’s initial tests (Robins, 2005, p. 61). This is problematic because it is a small sample size compared to all the individuals they had access to. It is better to have a larger sample size than a smaller sample size because it gives the researcher more accurate results. The limitations show the need for improvement in the next study but do not render the theory useless for explaining youth crime.
An example of how these two theories can come together to explain youth crime is in the case of Reena Virk who was murdered by her friends in British Columbia. Gottfredson and Hirschi would say that it is the parent’s fault for not paying enough attention to their children that caused them to ultimately kill Reena (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 151). The children lacked the social controls necessary to not kill Reena but Reena also lacked the social control necessary to not hang out with that particular group of kids and participate in the risky behaviour they were displaying like under aged drinking (Pratt & Cullen, 2000, p. 931). It would be stated that these children would never change and would continuously be involved in crime throughout their lives (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 151). Sampson and Laub would say that the structural context of family and school social controls would explain why the children murdered Reena (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 157). They were disconnected from society in a sense that they either had a negative relationship with their school or with their family that caused them to lack social capital (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 157). “With Gottfredson and Hirschi’s view, however, these individual differences appear to have some independent effects on antisocial conduct across the life course” (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 157). Through treatment these young offenders will be able to change and become socially bonded with society again.
In conclusion, both Gottfredson and Hirschi and Sampson and Laub’s theories in combination explain youth crime which is important because it is necessary to understand underlying causes of delinquency in order to try to fix it. Gottfredson and Hirschi use self-control to describe why individuals offend continuously (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 151). Whereas Sampson and Laub use both continuity along with change to describe individuals involved in crime and use social bonds to explain how the relationship between the individual and institutions is what drives criminal activity (Analizi, Muş & Eker, 2011, p. 157). There are both strengths and limitations associated with both of these theories hence why both theories are used to describe youth crime. There is more than one explanation for youth crime so it is important not to exhaust all options and limit oneself to just one theory.
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Robins, L. N. (2005). Explaining When Arrests End for Serious Juvenile Offenders: Comments on the Sampson and Laub Study. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 602: 57-72.
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