Uggen, Christopher and Irving Piliavin. 1998. “Asymmetrical Causation and the Study of Criminal Desistance.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 88:1399-1422.

Excerpt reprinted in NIJ Journal 237:20. 1998.




We argue that theory and research on desistance from crime will advance both policy and scientific goals.  Although etiological studies may yield critical tests of theory, they often suggest unworkable policy interventions.  Neither the researcher nor the state has the ethical or constitutional license to alter, say, the personality, parental background, or associates of "at risk" or "predelinquent" youth who have yet to violate the law.  Desistance researchers, in contrast, have a more legitimate and expansive license to intervene: they can provide or deny truly exogenous treatments and concentrate resources on those likely to benefit from them.  Studies of desistance -- from crime, substance use, welfare receipt, and other phenomena -- may therefore prove a useful policy guide.  Yet we also need theories of desistance, since manipulating the conditions which give rise to a phenomenon is unlikely to curb the phenomenon.  To the extent that such asymmetrical causation applies to crime, etiological theories must be modified to explain desistance.  We discuss early desistance models, recent advances in developmental and life-course conceptions of crime, and the debate over criminal careers and the age-crime curve.  We then advance a desistance model founded on choice, commitment, and opportunity.