When Opportunity Matters: Comparing the Risk-Taking Attitudes of Prisoners and Recently Released Ex-Prisoners

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Abstract

Risk-taking tendencies and environmental opportunities to commit crime are two key features in understanding criminal behavior. Upon release from prison, ex-prisoners have a much greater opportunity to engage in risky activity and to commit criminal acts. We hypothesized that ex-prisoners would exhibit greater risk-taking tendencies compared to prisoners who have fewer opportunities to engage in risky activity and who are monitored constantly by prison authorities. Using cumulative prospect theory to compare the risky choices of prisoners and ex-prisoners our study revealed that ex-prisoners who were within 16 weeks of their prison release made riskier choices than prisoners. Our data indicate that previous studies comparing prisoners behind bars with nonoffenders may have underestimated the risk-taking tendencies of offenders. The present findings emphasize the central role played by risk-taking attitudes in criminal offending and highlight a need to examine offenders after release from prison.

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