Leiden Law Blog

Constrained agency and crime

Constrained agency and crime

‘Knowing is not the same as doing'

On 24 April 2017, the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) published a report on ‘Knowing is not the same as doing: A realistic perspective on life skills’. This report explains that life skills (redzaamheid in Dutch) are not only influenced by cognitive (‘thinking’) abilities, such as intelligence, but also by agentic (‘doing’) abilities. These include setting goals, planning, persistence and handling setbacks. Life skills are partly genetically and partly situationally determined. People are less likely to be able to tackle complex problems and make optimal decisions when they are under stress, when they are mentally fatigued, or when they experience financial strain. In other words, stressful life events and circumstances constrain agency.

The WRR report focuses on three areas of life in which the Dutch government places a strong emphasis on personal responsibility: employment, health and personal finances. A similar responsibilisation trend is visible in the domain of crime prevention; for example, prisoners are expected to take responsibility for their own rehabilitation.

Constrained agency

However, when it comes to offending it is especially important to acknowledge differences in abilities and the impact of life circumstances on agency. Agency is considered a key element in the process of stopping offending, which criminologists refer to as ‘desistance’. Offenders are more likely to desist when they actively pursue legitimate employment opportunities, and also when they avoid or resist criminal temptations.

Unfortunately, the life circumstances of desisting offenders are often far from ideal and are frequently chaotic, with many opportunities for crime and substance use. Many (desisting) offenders find it difficult to obtain housing, find employment, and escape criminogenic influences. Here we have a group of people that most likely disproportionately experience stress, mental fatigue, and financial strain. In a forthcoming chapter on constrained agency, I argue how these circumstances stand in the way of successful desistance.

Due to the mental tax of financial and other problems, offenders may struggle to exercise self-control to resist the short-term benefits of crime and substance use, in favour of the long-term benefits of effortful desistance. Setbacks often expose people to more temptations and, in the case of drug addiction, also tend to exacerbate financial problems. Crime, then, is the easy but ultimately destructive ‘fix’. Escaping this crime trap would require agency: since this encompasses self-control, planning and carefully-weighed decisions, we are faced with the problem that agency is constrained by the very circumstances it is meant to change.

Policy recommendations

The WRR report argues that the assumption that most people are able to make rational decisions when presented with complex choices and problems, is flawed. This has implications for individual and also moral responsibility. The recommendation to design policy to alleviate stress and reduce the need for exercising self-control may go some way to assist with life skills. However, the importance of reducing poverty and financial strain should not be forgotten.

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