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Ungovernable, Incorrigible, and Impudent: An Empirical Study of Criminal Character Among Serious Institutionalized Delinquents

Abstract

The notion of criminal character—indicative of an offender unresponsive to rehabilitative efforts, largely unamenable to treatment, primed for recidivism, and committed to a criminal or delinquent lifestyle—has an uneven history in criminology and criminal justice. Despite tangential efforts to apply criminal character considerations to delinquency, we are unaware of any study that has empirically employed the concept of criminal character among justice-system involved youth. Here, we examine the similarities and differences among a large cohort of serious delinquent offenders, some of whom correctional staff assessed as having “criminal character.” Youth with criminal character had more extensive delinquent history, adverse childhood experiences, psychopathology, and institutional and violent misconduct while confined in state juvenile correctional facilities and had significant associations with institutional and violent misconduct despite controls for 29 covariates. However, sensitivity analyses indicated the results were sensitive to specification of the dependent variable (e.g., null associations with dichotomous measures of misconduct) and revealed period effects (e.g., null associations for more recently placed youth). Our models show the potential pitfalls from using administrative measures of criminological and forensic concepts and we offer guidance for measurement development in this area.

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Notes

  1. Concern about criminal character is also important in the prevention domain. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America (2020) have character and leadership as one of the pillars of their organization and offer several programs (e.g., Keystone Clubs, Torch Clubs, and Youth of the Year programs) aimed toward academic success, career preparation, and community service. These programs inculcate and reinforce prosocial character development toward behavioral competencies in school, work, peer, family, and community domains. Other structured, prosocial activities such as sports involvement are theorized to enhance character development that buffers against delinquency. However, empirical research indicates this does not often occur (see, Spruit et al., 2016).

  2. Status offender designations are varied and pertain to youth who would benefit from social services or prosocial guardianship, and not all youth who receive CHINS, PINS, YINS, or related labels are necessarily serious, violent, or chronic delinquents (Loeber & Farrington, 2000, 2001; Regoli et al., 2016). However, these designations are also used for youth whose delinquency appears more entrenched and who would appear to be exhibiting signs of criminal character.

  3. A tangential but conceptually similar research area relates to the study of demeanor and dispositional tendencies of juveniles and the ways that it potentially influences various juvenile justice system processes. Although studies do not necessarily invoke the concept of criminal character, an antagonistic, sullen, defiant, or deviant demeanor is sometimes associated with justice system outcomes (Barnes et al., 2008; DeLisi & Berg, 2006; Morewitz, 2016; Piliavin & Briar, 1964).

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Slemaker, A., Bonner, T., DeLisi, M. et al. Ungovernable, Incorrigible, and Impudent: An Empirical Study of Criminal Character Among Serious Institutionalized Delinquents. Am J Crim Just (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12103-021-09639-4

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Keywords

  • Criminal character
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Juvenile justice
  • Institutional misconduct
  • Prison violence