Title: An assessment of deterrent and labeling effects for violent offending subpopulations: A contemporary methodological approach
Name: Jeffrey T. Ward
Assistant Professor
Department of Criminal Justice
University of Texas at San Antonio
Year: 2009
Type: Dissertation Fellowship

Two competing theoretical propositions predict opposite effects of official intervention on subsequent delinquency. Specific deterrence theory suggests that justice system contact results in the reduction of criminal behavior, whereas labeling theory suggests that it ultimately results in the worsening of criminal behavior. While these hypotheses are generally contradictory, scholars have long acknowledged that both labeling and deterrence theories may be relevant explanations of behavior since the effects of sanctions may be contingent on offender characteristics and may also differ in the short-term and long-term.

This dissertation research places deterrence and labeling theories in a life-course and developmental context to study the extent to which official intervention serves as a turning point for youths with different criminal histories. I use data from the Rochester Youth Development Study and cutting-edge integrated statistical methods for observational data to investigate whether there is evidence for deterrence and/or labeling among distinct violent offending subpopulations. More specifically, my dissertation employs latent class growth analysis to empirically identify unique groups of youths with different criminal histories and uses propensity score matching methods in an attempt to create two balanced groups within each violent offending group - those experiencing justice system contact and those not experiencing it - on forty key covariates across numerous domains including demographics, neighborhoods, family, school, peers, values and mental states, and prior delinquent behavior. Results indicated the presence of three distinct violent offending trajectory groups: high offenders, non-offenders, and low offenders. Propensity score matching was highly successful in removing covariate imbalances for the non-offending and low offending trajectory groups; however, it was unsuccessful in removing covariate imbalances for the high offending trajectory group. Thus, unbiased effect estimates were available for the non- offending and low offending youth but were unavailable for chronically violent youth. Results indicate the presence of short-run labeling effects for the low offending trajectory group. Of substantial consequence, there was no evidence to support specific deterrence among any of the trajectory groups in unmatched and propensity score matched samples. While traditional criminal justice responses to offending remain politically popular and are needed on the principle of justice, they appear highly unlikely to alleviate the problem of violence for youth following along any of several different violent offending trajectories. Further, low violent offending youth who have contact with the justice system may end up more violent, at least in the short-term.


Ward, J.T., Krohn, M.D., & Gibson, C.L. (2014). The effects of police contact on developmental trajectories of violence: A group-based, propensity score matching analysis. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29, 440-475.