Rational Choice and Developmental Influences on Recidivism Among Adolescent Felony Offenders


  • This research was supported by generous grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through the MacArthur Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. Additional major funding was provided by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Justice, the State of Arizona, and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. This study is part of a collaboration among investigators at the University of Pittsburgh, Columbia University, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the University of South Carolina, Temple University, and Arizona State University, who have guided the development and execution of the study. We are grateful for the heroic efforts of the interviewers in Philadelphia and Phoenix, whose labors have produced the data infrastructure for this research. John Laub, Edward Mulvey, Carol Schubert, and participants at the First Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies at The University of Texas Law School provided helpful comments on earlier drafts. All opinions and errors are our own.

*Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law School, Columbia University, 435 W. 116th St., New York, NY 10027; email: jfagan@law.columbia.edu. Fagan is Professor of Law and Public Health; Piquero is Presidential Scholar and Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice & Graduate Center, City University of New York.


Recent case law and social science both have claimed that the developmental limitations of adolescents affect their capacity for control and decision making with respect to crime, diminishing their culpability and reducing their exposure to punishment. Social science has focused on two concurrent adolescent developmental influences: the internalization of legal rules and norms that regulate social and antisocial behaviors, and the development of rationality to frame behavioral choices and decisions. The interaction of these two developmental processes, and the identification of one domain of socialization and development as the primary source of motivation or restraint in adolescence, is the focus of this article. Accordingly, we combine rational choice and legal socialization frameworks into an integrated, developmental model of criminality. We test this framework in a large sample of adolescent felony offenders who have been interviewed at six-month intervals for two years. Using hierarchical and growth curve models, we show that both legal socialization and rational choice factors influence patterns of criminal offending over time. When punishment risks and costs are salient, crime rates are lower over time. We show that procedural justice is a significant antecedent of legal socialization, but not of rational choice. We also show that both mental health and developmental maturity moderate the effects of perceived crime risks and costs on criminal offending.