Deconstructing Criminal Networks: Intervening to Break Down Patterns of Criminal Associations

Article excerpt

Authors' Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Correctional Service Canada. Correspondence should be addressed to Jeremy F. Mills, Psychology Department, Bath Institution, 5775 Bath Road, P.O. Box 1500, Bath, Ontario, K0H 1G0; MillsJF@csc-scc.gc.ca.

Antisocial peers are central to understanding the development of antisocial behavior and predicting criminal acts. One of the most consistent findings with antisocial populations is the relationship between antisocial peers and antisocial behavior. (1) This finding is consistent within the criminological, (2) child psychology (3) and adult psychology literature. (4) Research about the influence of antisocial peers on adult offenders has received relatively little attention when compared with research involving children and adolescents.

Antisocial peers have a prominent place within many theories of criminal behavior. (5) Control theorists such as Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi (6) would argue that association with delinquent peers is due to low social control. More specifically, poor or ineffective parenting produces children who lack self-control and social controls to keep them from associating with delinquent peers. Therefore, antisocial peers are a consequence of poor social control and not the cause of delinquent behavior. Others would argue that a delinquent peer group contributes to negative relationships with others brought about by the presentation of negatively valued stimuli and, in turn, this strain contributes to antisocial behavior. (7) Learning theorists would argue that the influence of antisocial peers comes through the modeling of antisocial behavior and the reinforcement of antisocial attitudes. (8) A similar understanding of peer association is advocated by differential association theory. This theoretical perspective views antisocial attitudes that result from associations with delinquents as the root cause of delinquent behavior. (9) Therefore, for these two latter theoretical orientations, antisocial peers' influence on antisocial behavior is attributed to modeling antisocial behavior.

Research has tested competing theories and variables to determine their relative explanatory role and, often, support is found for more than one theory, though the magnitude of effect may differ. (10) For example, research conducted with adolescents showed that relative to their peers' attitudes, their peers' behavior had a greater relationship with delinquent behavior. (11) This led the investigators to conclude that it is what the peers do, not what they think, that influences delinquent behavior.

Social learning or social mimicry of antisocial behavior has also been used to explain the observed increase of antisocial behavior during the adolescent years, (12) as the exposure to delinquent peers increases rapidly from preteen years through adolescence to mid and late teen years. (13) There is ample evidence that exposure to deviant peers is related to later delinquent behavior (14) and violence. (15) Social learning can also be used to reduce antisocial behavior through exposure to positive influences as demonstrated by the negative relationship between time spent with family and delinquency. (16)

A meta-analysis conducted by Paul Gendreau and colleagues examined a broad range of predictors related to adult recidivism. (17) Predictors of recidivism were placed into one of 17 categories (e.g., criminal history, age, race, companions/associates, personal distress, substance abuse, etc.). The four best predictors of adult recidivism to emerge were companions, criminogenic needs (attitudes), antisocial personality and adult criminal history. However, when the effect sizes were weighted to account for sample size, the predictor of companions had the greatest effect size.

One of the few studies to examine antisocial peers among adult offenders compared a variety of variables from different theoretical orientations in a sample of young adult felons. …