Lecture 9: Developmental Theories of Crime

Welcome to the ninth lecture in the undergraduate criminology course of the University of Maine at Augusta. This week, we take a relative pause. You are (and should be) focused on completing your second course exam with excellence. Your brief readings this week (which will be covered by the final exam) pertain to a particularly hopeful strain. If criminal behavior is the consequence of a series of missteps in a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development, then careful and sustained intervention in the childhoods of at-risk youth may be able to help troubled children find track to a better life. This would be a victory for the individual who avoided a life of crime, but would also be a victory for a society that no longer has to absorb crime’s costs.

This week’s lecture assumes that you have read the second half of Chapter 7 in Frank E. Hagan’s Introduction to Criminology. Our lecture this week is focused on one and only one subject: Intervening in Development and Looking for Payoffs.

Intervening in Development and Looking for Payoffs

Developmental theories of crime suppose that criminal behavior is the adolescent and adult outcome of a cocktail of problems and experiences in childhood. Poor self-control, poor parental ability to confront difficult behavior, and poor social skills lead to difficulty in academic achievement, a difficulty that blocks off socially-legitimated avenues of success. These first difficulties can lead to further difficulties, as academic failure leads to rejection by teachers, as social difficulty leads to acting out, and as parents begin to give up on their “hopeless” children. On the other hand, if these are the developmental missteps that lead toward a self-destructive and socially-destructive life of crime, then the possibility remains open that social scientists could identify ways to correct those missteps before they cause major developmental damage. The hope of developmental crime prevention is to restore and reinforce a series of self-reinforcing successes — self-control, quality parenting, positive social skills and academic success — that lead to a personally satisfying and socially productive outcome (Moffitt 1993).

This all sounds good in the abstract, but to intervene successfully some concrete steps must be taken and then evaluated. Enter the Fast Track Project, a project of four communities — Durham NC, Nashville TN, rural central Pennsylvania and Seattle WA — and four universities embedded within them — Duke University, Vanderbilt University, Penn State University and the University of Washington. The goal of this project is to intervene in the lives of randomly-selected kindergartners and first graders deemed “at risk” due to the developmental risk factors identified above. These troubled youngsters, the “experimental group,” are targeted for parent education, training in social skills and friendship, and extra help in learning to read (Fast Track Project 2016). They are compared to another randomly-selected “control group” — similarly troubled youngsters who are given normal school interventions when they encounter difficulty, but not the special interventions of the Fast Track Project. The central question of the researchers is whether children given this experimental treatment are less likely to engage in disruptive, delinquent behavior later in childhood of the sort that is associated with crime in childhood. In other words, the main independent variable of the study is membership in the experimental interventions. The dependent variable of the latest research study by the group is pre-criminal behavior, measured as observed conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or externalizing disorder in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 12 of childhood. As research subjects continue to age, their behavior as young adults will be added as a new dependent variable in additional research studies.

The authors of the Fast Track Project “hypothesize” (that is, predict) four possible outcomes of their intervention in the lives of the the “experimental group.” The possible outcomes are visualized in Figure 1 of the Project’s most recently published research article (Fast Track Project 2011):

Figure 1 of the Fast Track Project 2011 Research Paper: Four Models

The Fast Track Project’s staff thought that their intervention with the experimental group of youth might produce results described by the Innoculation Model visualized in the upper-left-hand corner of Figure 1. Imagine that the vertical Y-axis represents positive behavior, with more positive behavior indicated at the top of the axis and more negative behavior indicated at the bottom of the axis. If the Innoculation Model is right, early intervention in the lives of at-risk children could have such a positive effect that, regardless of any future intervention, better outcomes for the experimental group would be achieved — better outcomes that can be sustained for life.

The Cumulative Dose Model, visualized in the upper-right-hand corner of Figure 1, also imagines that the experimental treatment works wonders for at-risk youth, decreasing their negative behaviors, but it supposes that the effects aren’t the positive result of a single treatment. Rather, the Cumulative Dose Model hypothesizes that as subjects continue to receive experimental treatments over time as children, their behavior becomes gradually more positive, eventually reaching a highly positive level that can then be sustained through life.

The Temporary Scaffold Model presents a more pessimistic hypothesis: that the positive experimental treatments work, but only for as long as they continue. Experimental treatments ended after the middle school years. According to the Temporary Scaffold Model, negative behaviors should rebound for the experimental group in high school, eroding the impact of the project’s positive developmental interventions.

Finally, the Null Effects Model presents the most pessimistic hypothesis: that perhaps none of the interventions did any good. This model is represented in the lower-right-hand corner by the graphic idea that the two lines of measured results (one line for the experimental group results and another line for the control group results) show no difference. If substantiated, the Null Effects Model would indicate that the Fast Track Project had been useless in preventing the kind of negative behaviors that are associated with a life of crime.

What have the actual research results in the most recent Fast Track study shown? According to the latest available data, patterns of results for the experimental and control groups most closely followed the “Cumulative Dose Model,” meaning that continued intervention in young people’s lives leads to continually better outcomes for their behavior. Furthermore, those positive benefits were the strongest for youngsters who at the outset of the study were deemed most at-risk for poor behavior later in their lives. The pessimistic predictions of the “Temporary Scaffold” and “Null Effects” models were strongly refuted.

In this most recent research article published regarding the project (Fast Track Project 2011), the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group asserts that “Willingness-to-pay surveys indicate that the American public would pay to support the raising of these high-risk children as healthy citizens if the efforts could be shown to be effective.” If that claim is correct, then the importance of research demonstrating the costs and benefits of different intervention efforts is high. Nobel laureate James Heckman (2006) writes about the real monetary benefit of intervention to interrupt developmental problems during early childhood:

“Consider the Perry Preschool Program (Schweinhart 2005), a 2-year experimental intervention for disadvantaged African-American children initially ages 3 to 4 that involved morning programs at school and afternoon visits by the teacher to the child’s home. The Perry intervention group had IQ scores no higher than the control group by age 10. Yet, the Perry treatment children had higher achievement test scores than the control children because they were more motivated to learn. In followups to age 40, the treated group had higher rates of high school graduation, higher salaries, higher rates of home ownership, lower rates of receipt of welfare assistance as adults, fewer out-of-wedlock births, and fewer arrests than the controls.”

Heckman cites the cost-benefit analysis of W. Stephen Barnett (2004) to quantify the very real monetary benefit of the Perry Preschool Program, which include the benefit of not having to house an inmate, not having to staff the criminal justice system, and not having the expense of victimization of another person when graduates of the Perry Preschool Program do better as young adults:

James Heckman's table on cost-benefit analysis of the Perry Preschool program by Barnett

To generate the impressive cost savings of $94,065 due to decreased crime by Perry Preschool participants, Barnett (2004) identifies the rate of felony, misdemeanor and juvenile crime among Perry participants and the control group, those fellow preschoolers who were randomly selected to not receive Perry Preschool program intervention:

Perry Preschool Program and Control Arrests for Felony, Misdemeanor and Juvenile Offenses Per Person -- source W. Stephen Barnett 2004

According to Heckman (2011), later interventions do not pay off nearly as well as early interventions. This means that if we care about cost, intensive interventions should indeed be aimed at the young.

Chart: differences in a Unit Dollar Invested over the life course

Watch this video to see James Heckman describing the developmental model of criminal activity and how stopping crime starts with investment in a healthy preschool experience:


Barnett, W. Stephen. 2004. “Benefit-Cost Analysis of Preschool Education.” Accessed October 1, 2015 at http://nieer.org/resources/files/BarnettBenefits.ppt.

Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group. 2011. “The Effects of the Fast Track Preventive Intervention on the Development of Conduct Disorder Across Childhood.” Child Development 82: 331-345.

Fast Track Project. 2016. Accessed October 1 2016 at http://www.fasttrackproject.org.

Heckman, James. 2006. “Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children.” Science 312: 1900-1902.

Heckman, James. 2011. “The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children.” Remarks at the White House Conference of December 16, 2011. Accessed March 1 2013 at http://documents.mccormickfoundation.org/PDF/F_WhiteHouseSpeech_web.pdf.

Moffitt, Terrie E. 1993. “Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent Antisocial Behavior: a Developmental Taxonomy.” Psychological Review 100: 674-701.

Schweinhart, Lawrence J., Jeanne Montie, Zongping Xiang, W. Steven Barnett, Clive R. Belfield and Milagros Nores. 2005. Lifetime Effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

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