Agency, Self-Efficacy, and Desistance from Crime: an Application of Social Cognitive Theory

  • Tricia M. JohnstonEmail author
  • Timothy Brezina
  • Beverly R. Crank



To explain why many offenders desist from crime, and why some persist, some theorists highlight the role of personal agency. Qualitative studies, in particular, observe that desisting offenders tend to express a “language of agency”—they view themselves as capable of influencing their actions and environment—while persistent offenders tend to see themselves as relatively helpless and even “doomed to deviance.”


Drawing on Bandura’s social cognitive theory, which highlights self-efficacy as a key mechanism of agency, we analyze quantitative data from a large sample of serious offenders and examine how confidence in their ability to desist (desistance self-efficacy) is related to offending behavior. To advance research in this area, we focus on within-person effects and examine how changes in desistance self-efficacy relate to changes in offending over time. We also examine factors that are expected to enable or constrain personal agency.


The findings indicate that a number of factors contribute to changes in desistance self-efficacy. An increase in desistance self-efficacy, in turn, is associated with a decrease in overall criminal involvement.


Implications for theory, research, and policy are discussed.


Agency Self-efficacy Desistance Theory Longitudinal data 



  1. 1.
    Agnew, R. (1995). Determinism, indeterminism, and crime: an empirical exploration. Criminology, 33, 83–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Agnew, R. (2011). Toward a unified criminology: integrating assumptions about crime, people, and society. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Agnew, R., & Brezina, T. (2018). Juvenile delinquency: causes and control (6th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Baldwin, A. S., Rothman, A. J., Hertel, A. W., Linde, J. A., Jeffery, R. W., Finch, E. A., & Lando, H. A. (2006). Specifying the determinants of the initiation and maintenance of behavior change: an examination of self-efficacy, satisfaction, and smoking cessation. Health Psychology, 25(5), 626–634.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Bandura, A. (1982a). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), 122–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Bandura, A. (1982b). The self and mechanisms of agency. In J. Suls (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on the self (pp. 3–39). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(2), 164–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator-mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: conceptual, strategic and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1173–1182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Benda, B. B. (2001). Factors that discriminate between recidivists, parole violators, and nonrecidivists in a 3-year follow-up of boot camp graduates. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 45(6), 711–729.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Bottoms, A. (2006). Desistance, social bonds, and human agency: a theoretical exploration. In P. O. Wikstrom & R. Samspon (Eds.), The explanation of crime: context, mechanisms and development (pp. 243–290). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Bottoms, A., & Shapland, J. (2011). Steps towards desistance among male young adult recidivists. In S. Farrall, M. Hough, S. Maruna, & R. Sparks (Eds.), Escape routes: contemporary perspectives on life after punishment (pp. 43–80). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Bottoms, A., Shapland, J., Costello, A., Holmes, D., & Muir, G. (2004). Towards desistance: theoretical underpinnings for an empirical study. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 43, 368–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Brezina, T., & Piquero, A. (2001). Drinking and drift: an empirical application of soft determinism. Journal of Crime and Justice, 24, 15–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Brezina, T., & Topalli, V. (2012). Criminal self-efficacy: exploring the correlates and consequences of a ‘successful criminal’ identity. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39, 1042–1062.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Bryk, A. S., & Raudenbush, S. W. (1987). Application of hierarchical linear models to assessing change. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 147–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Bushway, S. D., Piquero, A. R., Broidy, L. M., Cauffman, E., & Mazerolle, P. (2001). An empirical framework for studying desistance as a process. Criminology, 39, 491–516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Chassin, L., Rogosch, F., & Barrera, M. (1991). Substance use and symptomatology among adolescent children of alcoholics. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(4), 449–463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Condiotte, M. M., & Lichtenstein, E. (1981). Self-efficacy and relapse in smoking cessation programs. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 49(5), 648–658.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Council of State Governments Justice Center. (2015). Reducing recidivism and improving other outcomes for young adults in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. New York: The Council of State Governments Justice Center.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Cullen, F. T. (2017). Choosing our criminological future: reservations about human agency as an organizing concept. Journal of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology, 3(4), 373–379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Ezell, M. E. (2007). The effect of criminal history variables on the process of desistance in adulthood among serious youthful offenders. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 23(1), 28–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Fagan, J. (1989). Cessation of family violence: deterrence and dissuasion. Crime and Justice, 11, 377–425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Farrington, D. P. (2007). Advancing knowledge about desistance. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 23, 125–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Farrall, S. (2002). Rethinking what works with offenders: Probation, social context and desistance from crime. Cullompton: Willan.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Farrall, S., & Bowling, B. (1999). Structuration, human development and desistance from crime. British Journal of Criminology, 39(2), 253–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Farrall, S., Bottoms, A., & Shapland, J. (2010). Social structures and desistance from crime. European Journal of Criminology, 7(6), 546–570.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Farrall, S., Sharpe, G., Hunter, B., & Calverley, A. (2011). Theorizing structural and individual-level processes in desistance and persistence: outlining an integrated perspective. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 44(2), 218–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Ford, J. A., & Schroeder, R. D. (2010). Higher education and criminal offending over the life course. Sociological Spectrum, 31, 32–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Gibson, S., & Dembo, M. H. (1984). Teacher efficacy: a construct validation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 569–582.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Giordano, P. (2017). A relational perspective on agency and the desistance process. In A. Blokland & V. van der Geest (Eds.), Routledge international handbook of life-course criminology. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Giordano, P. C., Cernkovich, S. A., & Holland, D. D. (2003). Changes in friendship relations over the life course: implications for desistance from crime. Criminology, 41, 293–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Giordano, P. C., Cernkovich, S. A., & Rudolph, J. L. (2002). Gender, crime, and desistance: toward a theory of cognitive transformation. American Journal of Sociology, 107(4), 990–1064.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    Giordano, P. C., Schroeder, R. D., & Cernkovich, S. A. (2007). Emotions and crime over the life course: a neo-median perspective on criminal continuity and change. American Journal of Sociology, 112, 1603–1661.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Halsey, M., Armstrong, R., & Wright, S. (2017). F*ck it! Matza and the mood of fatalism in the desistance process. British Journal of Criminology, 57(5), 1041–1060.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Healy, D. (2013). Changing fate? Agency and the desistance process. Theoretical Criminology, 17(4), 557–574.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Healy, D., & O'Donnell, I. (2008). Calling time on crime: motivation, generativity and agency in Irish probationers. Probation Journal, 55(1), 25–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Hindelang, M., Hirschi, T., & Weis, J. (1981). Measuring delinquency. Beverly Hills: Sage.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Hoeppner, B. B., Kelly, J. F., Urbanoski, K. A., & Slaymaker, V. (2011). Comparative utility of a single-item versus multiple-item measure of self-efficacy in predicting relapse among young adults. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 41(3), 305–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Horney, J., Osgood, D. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1995). Criminal careers in the short-term: intra-individual variability in crime and its relation to local life circumstances. American Sociological Review, 60, 655–673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Howerton, A., Burnett, R., Byng, R., & Campbell, J. (2009). The consolations of going back to prison: what ‘revolving door’ prisoners think of their prospects. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 48(5), 439–461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Kazemian, L. (2007). Desistance from crime theoretical, empirical, methodological, and policy considerations. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 23(1), 5–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    King, S. (2012). Transformative agency and desistance from crime. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 13(3), 317–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Laub, J. H., & Sampson, R. J. (2001). Understanding desistance from crime. Crime and Justice, 28, 1–69.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Laub, J. H., & Sampson, R. J. (2003). Shared beginnings, divergent lives: Delinquent boys to age 70. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    LeBel, T. P., Burnett, R., Maruna, S., & Bushway, S. (2008). The ‘chicken and egg’ of subjective and social factors in desistance from crime. European Journal of Criminology, 5(2), 131–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Liem, M., & Richardson, N. J. (2014). The role of transformation narratives in desistance among released lifers. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 41(6), 692–712.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. 48.
    Lindegaard, M. R., & Jacques, S. (2014). Agency as a cause of crime. Deviant Behavior, 35, 85–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 49.
    Lloyd, C. D., & Serin, R. C. (2012). Agency and outcome expectancies for crime desistance: measuring offenders’ personal beliefs about change. Psychology, Crime & Law, 18(6), 543–565.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. 50.
    MacKinnon, D. P., Lockwood, C. M., & Williams, J. (2004). Confidence limits for the indirect effect: distribution of the product and resampling methods. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 39, 99–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. 51.
    Maruna, S. (2001). Making good: how ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington: America Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    Maurer, T. J., & Andrews, K. D. (2000). Traditional, likert, and simplified measures of self-efficacy. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 60, 965–973.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. 53.
    Mulvey, E. P. (2012) Research on pathways to desistance [Maricopa County, AZ and Philadelphia County, PA]: subject measures, 2000–2010. ICPSR29961-v1. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor].Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Monahan, K. C., & Piquero, A. R. (2009). Investigating the longitudinal relation between offending frequency and offending variety. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36(7), 653–673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. 55.
    Monahan, K. C., Steinberg, L., & Cauffman, E. (2003). Affiliation with antisocial peers, susceptibility to peer influence, and antisocial behavior during the transition to adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 45(6), 1520–1530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. 56.
    Monahan, K. C., Steinberg, L., Cauffman, E., & Mulvey, E. P. (2009). Trajectories of antisocial behavior and psychosocial maturity from adolescence to young adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 45(6), 1654–1668.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. 57.
    Mulvey, E. P., Steinberg, L., Piquero, A. R., Besana, M., Fagan, J., Schubert, C., & Cauffman, E. (2010). Trajectories of desistance and continuity in antisocial behavior following court adjudication among serious adolescent offenders. Development and Psychopahtology, 22, 453–475.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. 58.
    Nagin, D. S., Farrington, D. P., & Moffitt, T. E. (1995). Life-course trajectories of different types of offenders. Criminology, 33(1), 111–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. 59.
    Nguyen, H., & Loughran, T. A. (2018). On the measurement and identification of turning points in criminology. Annual Review of Criminology, 1, 20.1–20.24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. 60.
    Oyserman, D., Bybee, D., & Terry, K. (2006). Possible selves and academic outcomes: how and when possible selves impel action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 188–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. 61.
    Paternoster, R. (2017). Happenings, acts, and actions: articulating the meaning and implications of human agency for criminology. Journal of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology, 3(4), 350–372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. 62.
    Paternoster, R., Bachman, R., Bushway, S., Kerrison, E., & O’Connell, D. (2015). Human agency and explanations of criminal desistance: arguments for a rational choice theory. Journal of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology, 1(3), 209–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. 63.
    Paternoster, R., & Bushway, S. (2009). Desistance and the “feared self”: toward an identity theory of criminal desistance. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 99(4), 1103–1156.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Paternoster, R., & Mazerolle, P. (1994). General strain theory and delinquency: a replication and extension. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 31, 235–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. 65.
    Paternoster, R., & Pogarsky, G. (2009). Rational choice, agency and thoughtfully reflective decision making: the short and long-term consequences of making good choices. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 25(2), 103–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. 66.
    Piquero, A., Monahan, K., Glasheen, C., Schubert, C. A., & Mulvey, E. P. (2012). Does time matter? Comparing trajectory concordance and covariate association using time-based and age-based assessments. Crime and Delinquency, 59(5), 738–763.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. 67.
    Pratt, T. C. (2016). A self-control/life-course theory of criminal behavior. European Journal of Criminology, 13(1), 129–146.Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Raudenbush, S. W., Rowan, B., & Cheong, Y. F. (1992). Contextual effects on the self-perceived efficacy of high school teachers. Sociology of Education, 65, 150–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. 69.
    Rocque, M., Posick, C., & Paternoster, R. (2016). Identities through time: an exploration of identity change as a cause of desistance. Justice Quarterly, 33, 45–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. 70.
    Rogosa, D. R., & Willett, J. B. (1985). Understanding correlates of change by modeling individual differences in growth. Psychometrika, 50, 203–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. 71.
    Ross, J. A., Cousins, J. B., & Gadalla, T. (1996). Within-teacher predictors of teacher efficacy. Teaching & Teacher Education, 12, 385–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. 72.
    Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (1990). Crime in the making: pathways and turning points through life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (2016). Turning points and the future of life-course criminology: reflections on the 1986 criminal careers report. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 53(3), 321–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. 74.
    Schnoll, R. A., Martinez, E., Tatum, K. L., Glass, M., Bernath, A., Ferris, D., & Reynolds, P. (2011). Increased self-efficacy to quit and perceived control over withdrawal symptoms predict smoking cessation following nicotine dependence treatment. Addictive Behaviors, 36, 144–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. 75.
    Shover, N. (1996). Great pretenders: pursuits and careers of persistent thieves. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  76. 76.
    Singer, J. D., & Willett, J. B. (2003). Applied longitudinal data analysis: modeling change and event occurrence. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. 77.
    Sullivan, C. J. (2013). Change in offending across the life course. In F. Cullen & P. Wilcox (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of criminological theory (pp. 205–225). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  78. 78.
    Sweeten, G. (2012). Scaling criminal offending. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 28, 533–557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. 79.
    Teasdale, B. (2009). Mental disorder and violent victimization. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36, 513–535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. 80.
    Uggen, C. (2000). Work as a turning point in the life course of criminals: a duration model of age, employment, and recidivism. American Sociological Review, 65(4), 529–546.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. 81.
    Uggen, C., & Massoglia, M. (2003). Desistance from crime and deviance as a turning point in the life course. In J. T. Mortimer & M. J. Shanahan (Eds.), Handbook of the life course (pp. 311–329). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. 82.
    van Ginneken, E. F. J. C. (2017). Constrained agency: the role of self-control in the process of desistance. In E. L. Hart & E. F. J. C. van Ginneken (Eds.), New perspectives on desistance theoretical and empirical developments (pp. 241–265). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. 83.
    Vaughan, B. (2007). The internal narrative of desistance. British Journal of Criminology, 47, 390–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. 84.
    Walters, G. D. (2017). Getting specific about psychological inertia: Mediating the past crime-future relationship with self-efficacy for a conventional lifestyle. Criminal Justice Review. Published first online. DOI:

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Criminal Justice and CriminologyGeorgia State UniversityAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.Kennesaw State UniversityKennesawUSA

Personalised recommendations