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Human Agency and Explanations of Criminal Desistance: Arguments for a Rational Choice Theory


Extant theoretical work on desistance from crime has emphasized social processes such as involvement in adult social bonds or pro-social relationships, with very little attention given to individual subjective processes such as one’s identity. The desistance theories of Sampson and Laub and Giordano seem to have reached the point of consensual acceptance in the field. Theoretical work within the past 5 years, however, have begun to stress the role of identity and human agency in the desistance process including Paternoster and Bushway’s (2009) identity theory of desistance (ITD), which offers a rational choice perspective on how offenders quit crime. This paper provides a critical theoretical assessment of both the age-graded informal social control theory of desistance and the theory of cognitive and emotional transformation, illuminating the critical theoretical omissions and empirical inconsistencies in each. We suggest that the apparent consensus in the criminological literature regarding desistance theory may be premature and highlight the advantages provided by theories that emphasize the internal cognitive dimensions of change including the ITD.

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