Crime and the Life Course



Criminal behavior has been correlated to numerous characteristics such as gender, socioeconomic class, race and ethnicity. However, this essay we will focus on age and the time dimensions in which a criminal career can exist. Through older and more contemporary forms of research, it has been found that changes in age and criminal activity occur in an orderly way (Thornberry 1997: p.1). The orderly function in which criminals commit crimes is called the life course. By using criminology within the realm of the life course paradigm, social scientists have been able to understand the myriad of fluctuations that occur in the duration of a criminal career. This paper will attempt to provide some ground work on the life course criminology that examines these changes, provide concrete statistics on these trends, and discuss how age-related differences in crime have had impacts on the criminal justice system as a whole.


The relationship between age and crime has been one of the highest researched topics in criminology. The long history of scholarly attention to understanding age and crime has mostly been paid to gathering information with regard to the onset, persistence, and desistance associated with criminal behavior throughout an individual’s life course. The high level of attention has fostered the creation of theories of crime across multiple realms of social science. The commonality that is obvious across these disciplines is that they desire to explain the fluctuations in criminal activity over the life course and why or how involvement in a criminal career changes with the onset of major developmental phases and experiences within the life course (Life Course Criminology 2016).

The Criminal Career

Before one can look at life course theories developed to understand fluctuations in criminal activity, they must first become familiar with the idea of criminal careers. A criminal career is the “characterization of the longitudinal sequence of crimes committed by an individual offender” (Blumstein, 1986: 12). A criminal career operates within the life course, with identifiable start and end points. In other words, individuals begin their career of crime, persist to commit crimes, and at some point, halt offending. A groundbreaking study completed by Marvin Wolfgang and his colleagues, known as the Philadelphia Birth Cohort Study, planted the roots for this area of thinking. In the Birth Cohort study, Wolfgang, Figlio & Sellin studied the criminal activity among 9,945 males born in Philadelphia in 1945 (1972). Their first important finding was that one third of the cohort had police contact by the age of 17, with most being one-time offenders. Their second influential insight was that 18% of the cohort was responsible for committing roughly half of all offenses and about two thirds of all violent offenses (Wolfgang, Figlio, Sellin 1972). These findings shed light on the adolescent onset of most criminal careers within an individual’s life course and how, in most cases, a small majority is responsible for a large portion of the crime that is occurring (Piquero, Farrington and Blumstein 2007).

With these findings in mind, Wolfgang, Thornberry & Figlio sought to expand the scope to later parts in the original subject’s life courses (1987). In a 10 year follow up of the Philadelphia Birth Cohort Study, they found that of 10% of the original cohort had become chronic offenders, increasing the seriousness of their criminality into adulthood. This insight provided evidence of not only the persistence of criminal careers but also the increasing severity of crimes committed later on in an individual’s career and life course. In other words, as time goes by, chronic offenders­—­with the beginnings of their careers at an early age—continue to lead lives of crime with mounting cruelty.

In an effort to enhance and extend these research findings, Tracy, Wolfgang and Figlio conducted the Second Philadelphia Birth Cohort Study, which was a study of more than 27,000 individuals who were born in Philadelphia in 1958 and socialized in the 60s and 70s (1990). They found even higher rates of chronic offending among members of the second cohort. Most importantly, they found these chronic offenders to represent only 7% of the cohort with 23% of the offenders being responsible for committing 61% of all the offenses; including 60% of homicides, 75% of forcible rapes, 73% of robberies, and 65% of aggravated assaults (Tracy, Wolfgang and Figlio 1990). It is clear from these numbers and severity of crime, that the earlier hypotheses about crime progression throughout a criminal career were impressively significant.

With these findings about an individual’s criminal career, researchers began to wonder why such changes were taking place and in what context they were occurring. These questions led them to the life course framework and insightful experiences that impact criminal careers.


The Life Course Framework

The life course paradigm can be defined as a series of pathways throughout developmental processes in which there are varying age-dependent expectations and available options in an individual’s decision-making process (Elder 1985). Personal decisions, such as attending college, and natural events like familial death can shape one’s life path and can influence various transitions and turning points within the life course. The criminal career is one such trajectory that operates throughout the life course framework. Other examples might include schooling, work life and y marriage—each with their own potentially positive or negative impacts on the trajectory of the life course (Elder 1985). With the myriad of possible outcomes and transitions within the life course framework scholars look to focus on three main veins.

The first major concept that life course criminologists look at is the development of offending alongside antisocial behavior. Often times, the two come together, with the latter exacerbating the criminal career. Antisocial behavior has been found to increase the progression of crime overtime (Tracy, Wolfgang and Figlio, 1990). In other words, the more antisocial an individual tends to be, the more serious crimes he or she will commit. Second is the effect of risk and protective factors at different ages on criminal activity at varying ages. Some examples of risk factors for a life of crime include scenarios such as truancy and poor social bonding. Protective factors against a criminal career might include items such as local law enforcement presence and strong family bonds. The third important concentration for life course theorists deals with the effects of life events on the course of development and criminal activity throughout the life course. For example, marriage and steady employment have been found to be two of the most influential live events that decrease criminal decisions and lifestyles (Farrington 2003:221). In addition, as individuals develop and mature in later years, they tend to move away from lives of crime and towards more normative lifestyles. These significant characteristics of the life course—antisocial behavior, risk and protective factors, and powerful life experiences—depict a relatively vivid picture in which social scientists can better understand the changes in likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior.

Characteristics of Criminal Behavior

Extensive life course criminology studies have aided in identifying trends of criminal careers as they develop and progress throughout their life course. So much so, that social scientists from multiple disciplines have been able to provide widely accepted conclusions on the likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior, many of which are directly connected to age and maturation.

Through his studies and observations of other research, Farrington—a psychological criminologist— has outlined ten conclusions of criminal behavior.

  1. The frequency of offending peaks in the late teenage years.
  2. The peak age of onset of offending is between 8 and 14, and the peak age from desistance of offending (halting crime) is between 20 and 29.
  3. An early age of onset predicts a relatively long criminal career timeline.
  4. There is a significant correlation between offending and antisocial behavior from childhood, to the teenage years and into adulthood.
  5. A small fraction of the population (i.e. chronic offenders) commits a large fraction of all crimes.
  6. Offending is versatile rather than specialized.
  7. The types of acts defined as offenses are elements of a larger syndrome of antisocial behavior.
  8. Most deviant behavior up to the late teenage years is committed in groups, whereas most offenses from the age 20 onward are committed unaccompanied.
  9. The reasons given for offending up the late teenage years are quite variable, including utilitarian reasons, for excitement or enjoyment, or because people become angry.
  10. Different types of offenses tend to be committed at distinctively different ages (Farrington 2003: 223-224).

In a study of 411 males from South London, ages 10-40, Piquero, Farrington and Blumstein uncovered findings that helped in the creation of the listed conclusions (2007). In this long term follow up of individuals previously tracked during childhood in the Cambridge Study of Delinquent Development (West & Farrington 1973), they found that 2 out of every 5 males, approximately 40%, accumulated an official conviction for a crime in some point in their lives; with 17 being the most prevalent age. In addition, they found that an early onset of offending was directly related to having a more extensive criminal career. This was measured by the accumulation of numerous convictions, having higher probability of participation of violence, demonstrating a longer criminal career and displaying involvement in many type of offenses. Piquero, Farrington & Blumstein also found the average length of a criminal career to be 10 years—falling in place almost perfectly with the peak ages of onset in the teen years and desistance somewhere in the late twenties (2007). Lastly, they found that recidivism after the fourth conviction, or a return to criminal behavior, was extremely high at 84.5%. This statistic points to progressive nature of criminals and their almost habitual dependency on crime from one reason or the other.

Changes in the Criminal Justice (CJ) System

From the examination thus far, it is clear that age plays an important role in the nature of criminal behavior. Adolescents commit different crimes than adults, and in different ways. Should this marked disparity hold true with regards to punishment of these crimes in the criminal justice system? In a poll by ABC news, 55% believed that the crime, and not the perpetrators age, should determine their sentencing (Reaves 2001).  In other words, children and adults should be tried equally. Let us now turn to what the research has to say.

Historically, children in the CJ system were treated in much the same ways as adults and subject to many of the same criminal justice processes as adults (Richards 2011). Until the mid-nineteenth century, there was no specific category for the juvenile offender in Western CJ systems. For example, children as young as six years of age were being tried and incarcerated in Australia (Cunneen & White 2007). However, it is becoming increasingly acknowledged that juveniles should be subject to a CJ system that is different from the adult system. Scholars and activists have now turned to providing evidence for why this change should come to fruition.

Most proponents of separate punishments for adolescents point to their lack of development and maturity. One researcher writes, “changes in arousal and motivation brought on by pubertal maturation precedes the development of regulatory competence in a manner that creates a disjunction between adolescent’s affective experience and his or her ability to regulate arousal and motivation” (Steinberg 2005: 69-70). In other words, children are not yet equipped with the tools to control some of their urges and decisions that often end in criminal behavior. It’s as if they were starting the engine to an automobile without yet having learned about to drive it. This lag in development is by no means their fault. It is a biological phenomenon that all children must deal with, unfortunately, some are better at it than others. On the other hand, majority of healthy adults do not struggle with this discrepancy; all parts of their cognitive development are completed around age 20 (Steinberg 2005). Due to this completion of maturation, many scholars believe adults should be put in separate categories when it comes to convicting them for crimes that they are undoubtedly responsible for. Children however require an additional acknowledgement of this maturity discrepancy before being convicted.

Fortunately for adolescent criminals within the United States, many changes—drawn from international law— are being made to add this extra protection to U.S.  criminal proceedings (de la Vega 2015). De la Vega argues that there are many cases where individual’s rights, especially children’s rights, are better protected under an international standard than under the American Constitution and its statutes. The influence of international law, practice and opinion has been, and continues to be, responsible for much of the criminal justice reform that is occurring in the United States.

In Toper v. Simmons 2005, the Supreme Court abolished the juvenile death penalty. No longer can a child be put to death for his or her crimes. Adults however, can still be convicted with this punishment. The Court specifically looked for evolving values of decency with regards to this punishment, pulling much inspiration from international law that prohibits adolescence from receiving the out dated and biblical punishment (De la Vega 2015). In a similar case, Graham v. Florida 2010, after citing the Roper case, deemed life without parole sentences for juveniles for non-homicide crimes unconstitutional, already international trend. This case, much like its predecessor, reaffirmed the relevance of the international law practice and opinion on the differences between adolescent and adult crimes and punishment (De la Vega 2015).


Along other important characteristics of criminal behavior such as race, ethnicity or gender, age proves to be a dimension worth examining. Each year in an individual’s life is different and these differences can be represented by their life course (Blumstein et al.1986; Elder 1985). Different pathways or trajectories push and pull these people into various decisions and experiences, some better than others. By looking at an individual’s trajectory through the life course paradigm, we can gather more information on the direction they are heading. For some, this means a life of crime and the development of a criminal career. From an early age many people begin their careers. For some, it is short lived and desistance takes place rapidly, while others evolve into chronic offenders. For these individuals, their crimes increase in both frequency and extremity as they journey through their life course (Farrington 2003; Piquero, Farrington and Blumstein 2007; Tracy, Wolfgang and Figlio 1990). Regardless, all crime comes to an end and in the case of this paper, the halting of crime most often comes with old age or conviction. These two milestones mark the end of the criminal career but not necessarily the end of the life course. Some may live on without criminal behavior while others who have become convicted are left in prison or rehabilitated into civil citizens. No matter the outcome, all life courses must also come to end and it’s up to the individual to choose how that is.


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Cunneen, C. and White, R. 2007. Juvenile Justice: Youth and Crime in Australia. 3rd ed. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

De la Vega, C. 2015. “Using International Human Rights Standards to Effect Criminal Justice Reform in the United States. Human Rights. Vol. 51, (2).

Elder, G.H. 1985. “Perspectives on the life course” in Life Dourse Dynamics: Trajectories and Transitions. 23-49. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.

Farrington, D.P. 2003. “Developmental and Life-course Criminology: Key Theoretical and Empirical Issues. Criminology 41: 221-225.

“Life Course Criminology”. Criminal Justice. Retrieved August 25th, 2016. (

Piquero, A.R., Farrington, D., and Blumstein, A. 2007. Key Issues in Criminal Career Research. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Reaves, J. “Should the law treat kids and adults differently?”. Time. May 17th, 2001. (,8599,110232,00.html)

Richards, K. 2011. “What Makes Juvenile Offenders different from Adult Offenders?”. Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice. 409: 1-7.

Steinberg, L. 2005. “Cognitive and Affective Development in Adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 9(2):62-74.

Thornberry, T.P. 1997. “Advances in Criminological Theory”. Vol. 7. Developmental Theories of Crime and Delinquency. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction.

Tracy, P.E., Wolfgang, M.E. and Figlio, R.M., 1990. Delinquency in Two Birth Cohorts. New York: Plenum.

West, D.J., and Farrington, D.P. 1973. Who Becomes Delinquent?. London: Heinemann.

Wolfgang, M.E., Figlio, R.M., and Sellin, T. 1972. Delinquency in a Birth Cohort. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wolfgang, M., Thornberry, T.P., and Figlio, R.M. 1987. From Boy to Man, From Delinquency to Crime. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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