Criminal Careers Research Paper

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Since the early works of Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, the concept of the criminal career has been well established within the field of criminology. Most generically, the criminal career is conceived of as the longitudinal sequence of delinquent and criminal acts committed by an individual as the individual ages across the lifespan from childhood through adolescence and adulthood. Four key structural elements are defined and applied to the study of criminal careers: participation/prevalence, frequency/incidence, seriousness, and career length (Blumstein, Cohen, Roth, and Visher). Participation is a macro-level measure of the proportion of the population that is involved in offending behavior, while frequency is the rate of offending for those individuals who are active offenders (often denoted as lambda, or l). Seriousness refers to the level of seriousness of the offenses being committed by a given individual, while career length refers to the length of time that an individual is actively offending. When aggregated across individuals, criminal careers typically exhibit a unimodal age-crime curve for the population.

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Frequency, seriousness, and career length can vary greatly among individuals, who may range from having zero offenses across the lifespan to having one offense of a nonserious nature to being chronic or career criminals with multiple, serious offenses across a broad span of their lives. In the United States, Blumstein and others (1986) suggested that population-level participation rates vary between 25 and 45 percent, depending on how ‘‘participation’’ is measured. Visher and Roth, in a meta-analysis of studies on both United States and British participation rates, found that the level of participation is about 30 percent for non-traffic related offenses. Averages are higher or lower depending on the measure of participation, which can range from the mild ‘‘contact with the police’’ (e.g., Shannon, 1988, 1991) to the more stringent measure of ‘‘convicted of a crime’’ (e.g., West and Farrington, 1973, 1977).

However, despite this consensus on the definition of the criminal career (and the career criminal) and the aggregate level age-crime curve typically found, controversy has emerged across many other areas within criminal careers research. For example, do juvenile delinquents/ criminals comprise a unique segment of the population (e.g., Blumstein et al., 1986) or is delinquency a behavior that is a ‘‘typical’’ part of the growing-up process, from which most adults desist? Are criminal propensities relatively constant across the lifespan (e.g., Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990) or do they vary with age (e.g., Sampson and Laub)?

Studying criminal careers implies the use of longitudinal panel data. In criminology, this has been difficult due to a lack of available resources, hampering the development of testable theories. As Sampson and Laub point out, ‘‘criminology has been dominated by narrow sociological and psychological perspectives, coupled with a strong tradition of research using cross-sectional data on adolescents’’ (p. 23). This combination of a lack of data and limited theoretical perspectives and methodological techniques has particularly hampered the ability to understand the criminal career, which is both longitudinal and dynamic in nature.

Historical Background

Research has demonstrated that most offenders commit only a single offense and terminate their offending after first arrest. A smaller percentage go on to offend repeatedly, while a subset of these repeat offenders go on to chronic ‘‘career’’ patterns of offending. The focus on the concept of crime patterns as ‘‘careers’’ began with the early studies of Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck that followed the pathways of both criminals and noncriminals. In the work for which they are best known, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency (1950), the Gluecks followed five hundred white males, ages ten to seventeen, who were adjudicated delinquent by the state of Massachusetts. This sample was matched case-by-case on such variables as neighborhood of residence, birthplace of the parents, and measured intelligence to a sample of five hundred white males of the same age drawn from the Boston public school system. Delinquent/criminal behavior was followed from 1939 to 1948 through self-reports, parental reports, and teacher reports. With these data, the Gluecks were instrumental in beginning to disentangle the relationship between age and crime (Sampson and Laub). In identifying age of onset and declining rates of offending with age as key components in the age-crime relationship, they contributed greatly to current criminal careers research. In addition to changing behavior over time (e.g., declining rates of offending with age), the Gluecks also found high levels of stability in offending behavior over time. The concept of stability versus change, or dynamic versus static models of offending, is a central argument in modern criminal careers research (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990; Sampson and Laub).

Building on work done by the Gluecks, several major cohort studies advanced the development of the criminal careers paradigm (Shannon, 1988, 1991; Tracy, Wolfgang, and Figlio; West and Farrington, 1973, 1977; Wolfgang, Figlio, and Sellin). Wolfgang, Figlio, and Sellin assembled data on the males of the 1945 birth cohort in the city of Philadelphia and followed their criminal activity through the young adult years, leading to a more complete conceptualization of the chronic or career offender. A particularly enduring finding of Wolfgang and his colleagues has been the existence of a small percentage of the general population (estimated at 5 to 10 percent), called ‘‘chronic recidivists’’ that is responsible for over 50 percent of the total offenses committed by cohort members. The 1945 Philadelphia Birth Cohort Study was followed up with a larger birth cohort study in 1958 that included both males and females, following them into adulthood (Tracy, Wolfgang, and Figlio). While the researchers found increased rates of offending in the 1958 Philadelphia Birth Cohort, there remained a stable class of chronic offenders responsible for a large percentage of the cohort’s offenses. In addition, it was found that females offended at significantly lower rates than their male counterparts, with approximately 1 percent being classified as chronic offenders. Later follow-ups of the 1958 cohort have found stability in offending among the most chronic of offenders, coupled with higher levels of desistance among other nonchronic offenders (Tracy and Kempf-Leonard).

West and Farrington (1973, 1977) continued the tradition of longitudinal studies of offending using panel data collected in Cambridge, England, beginning in 1961–1962 (West and Farrington, 1973, 1977). The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development followed the development of 411 boys from the age of eight through the age of thirty-two and documented the existence of chronic offenders similar to the conclusions reached in studies conducted in the United States. In particular, Farrington and his colleagues found that indicators of future chronic or persistent offending are detectable as early as age eight, indicating a continuity or stability in criminal behavior over time; that delinquent and criminal offending tends to be diverse in nature as opposed to specialized; and that social factors such as family structure, economic conditions, and marital status influence the continuity of offending over time.

Lyle Shannon’s work (1988, 1991) with the Racine, Wisconsin, birth cohorts of 1942, 1949, and 1955 has added to the body of knowledge on the development of the criminal career. Coupling police contact information for all members of the birth cohorts who remained within the city of Racine through at least their eighteenth birthday with more in-depth interview data, Shannon found evidence supporting the existence of the career or chronic criminal. In the Racine cohorts, about 5 percent of each of the total cohorts was responsible for approximately 80 percent of the felonies. In addition, substantial continuity existed among the most serious offenders in their offending patterns, while less serious offenders were prone to desist from their offending.

Contemporary Issues And Controversies

Taking the lead from earlier cohort studies, more current research on criminal careers and chronic offenders has centered on the continuing exchange between Blumstein and his associates (Barnett, Blumstein, and Farrington; Blumstein, Cohen, and Farrington, 1988a, 1988b) and Gottfredson and Hirschi (1988, 1990) on the stability of criminal careers over time. To test the validity of the criminal career concept, Barnett, Blumstein, and Farrington proposed a probabilistic model (with the conviction process following a Poisson distribution of rare events) to predict actual offense rates from arrest/conviction rates (Barnett and Lofaso; Blumstein, Farrington, and Moitra). Using the Cambridge Cohort, the researchers generated a model reflecting both individual rates of offending and termination, as well as heterogeneity in the population through the use of multiple parameters of offending. In support of the criminal career paradigm and its implications of both continuity and change in offending, it was found that the Cambridge cohort is comprised of nonoffenders as well as those who were both ‘‘occasional’’ (57 percent of offenders) and ‘‘frequent’’ (43 percent) offenders. In addition, there existed an intermittency in offending, in which periods of criminal activity were interspersed with periods of inactivity (possibly related to such factors as incarceration). A more dynamic view of offending, including both stability and change within criminal careers, was supported.

Sampson and Laub’s age-graded theory of informal social control allows for both stability and change in behavioral trajectories such as offending over time. Sampson and Laub hypothesize that shifting social bonds to individuals and institutions (e.g., family, education, work) over the life-course cause an individual to either persist or desist in his/her offending. While life events such as marriage may increase ties to conventional society (Laub, Nagin, and Sampson) or decrease an individual’s association with delinquent peers (Warr), therefore decreasing offending, failure to make such transitions may cause an individual to persist in offending.

Sampson and Laub make three major theoretical assertions: (1) the structural context of family and school social controls explains delinquency in childhood and adolescence; (2) this leads to a continuity in antisocial behavior from childhood through adulthood across many social domains; and (3) social bonds in adulthood to institutions such as family and employment explain changes in criminal behavior over the life-course, despite early criminal propensity. Sampson and Laub’s developmental model acknowledges the potential for both stability and change in criminal behavior over time. While other psychologically oriented models of individual criminal behavior provide a more static view of criminality within the individual over time (e.g., Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990), the age-graded theory of social control allows for the possibility of changes in behavior fluctuating with changing levels of attachment or social bonding over time. At the population level, decreasing levels of offending at later ages are attributed to the termination in offending behavior of some, coupled with the persistence in offending behavior of others. While Sampson and Laub note that ‘‘there is considerable evidence that antisocial behavior is relatively stable across stages of the life-course,’’ there also are many opportunities for the links in the ‘‘chain of adversity’’ to be broken over time (pp. 11, 15).

The most prominent of the ‘‘static’’ or ‘‘continuity’’ theories of crime is Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) self-control theory of crime. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1988, 1990) assert that both crime and criminality are stable across the lifecourse and that a singular underlying individual characteristic, self-control, is predictive of offending behavior. Self-control is established early in life (before the age of eight) and is related to parental child-rearing techniques. Those parents who are able to consistently and fairly discipline children and teach them to resist impulsive behavior will instill in their children a high level of self-control. Across the lifespan, an individual’s level of self-control will remain stable but can manifest itself in many different ways. Childhood antisocial behavior, adolescent and adult criminality, problem drinking, excessive speeding, or any other impulsive or deviant activity could be traced back to low levels of self-control. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) attribute decreasing levels of offending at later ages in the age-crime curve to a gradual ‘‘aging-out’’ of all offenders, reflective of relative stability over time, as opposed to the termination of offending by some. Support for the existence of an underlying latent trait predictive of continuity in offending has been found by those such as Greenberg and Rowe, Osgood, and Nicewander.

Debates between those advocating a more dynamic versus a static view of offending behavior have spawned a related question on the relationship of past to future offending: Does prior offending have a subsequent causal impact on future offending or do time-stable individual differences cause persistence in offending over time? This question, framed in terms of the existence of either state dependence or persistent heterogeneity, has been advanced by Nagin and his colleagues (Nagin and Farrington, 1992a, 1992b; Nagin and Paternoster, 1991). State dependence implies that the commission of a crime may raise the probability that an individual will commit a subsequent crime. According to state dependence, prior participation in offending has an ‘‘actual behavioral effect’’ (Nagin and Paternoster, p. 163) on subsequent offending (a dynamic approach). On the other hand, population heterogeneity implies that past and future offending are related only inasmuch as they are both related to an unmeasured criminal propensity that is stable over time within the individual (a static approach). Mixed conclusions have been drawn from this vein of research—support has been found for both the hypotheses of statedependence (Nagin and Farrington, 1992a; Nagin and Paternoster) and population heterogeneity (Loeber and Snyder; Nagin and Farrington, 1992a, 1992b).

The Life Course and Offending Categories

The criminal careers research of the 1980s and early 1990s, begun with several seminal longitudinal cohort studies, has been expanded with the addition of life-course or developmental criminology, as well as evidence supporting multiple age-crime curves or classes/categories of criminal careers. According to Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber, studying criminal careers from a life-course or developmental perspective implies three major goals: (1) encouraging the description of within-individual changes in offending across time; (2) identifying the causal factors of the longitudinal course of offending; and (3) studying the impact of life transitions and relationships on offending behavior.

Support for a developmental perspective on criminal careers is abundant. Bartusch and others find that an individual’s age is indeed important in the development of offending, which it would not be in a more static model. They suggest that ‘‘identical antisocial behaviors [e.g., delinquency] represent somewhat different underlying constructs when the behaviors are measured during childhood versus during adolescence’’ (p. 39). Paternoster and Brame find more limited support for the developmental perspective. While association with delinquent peers and prior offending behavior—both of which change over time—are important predictors of serious delinquent activity, there also remains an element of time-invariance of betweenindividual differences in offending. Paternoster and Brame suggest that crime is best studied taking into account both static and dynamic models by assuming a ‘‘theoretical middle ground’’ (p. 49). Simons and others find a dynamic and reciprocal causal chain of events that support a developmental perspective of offending, as opposed to a direct relationship between childhood and adolescent misconduct, which would be suggestive of a latent trait or static approach.

The most recent criminal careers research has examined the possibility of heterogeneity in the unimodal age-crime curve. What this unimodal curve may mask is the possibility of heterogeneity between different kinds of offender groups that is lost at the aggregate level. Research by Nagin and Land and by D’Unger and others has suggested that the aggregated age-crime curve for the population may mask the existence of qualitatively different classes of criminal careers with distinct trajectories and differing ages of offending onset, peak ages and rates of offending. In addition, the assumption of a singular agecrime curve may hamper empirical research, particularly if different variables predict membership into different classes of offenders.

Theoretical developments in criminology have suggested that there are many different types of offenders, and empirical evidence for this assertion has been found. In particular, the development of latent class analysis (in the form of semiparametric mixed Poisson regression models) has allowed researchers to disaggregate offenders groups with multiple pathways of offending over time (Nagin and Land; Land, McCall, and Nagin; Land and Nagin; D’Unger et al.). The first major study that conjoined the criminal careers paradigm and latent class analysis of delinquent/criminal careers cohort data was Nagin and Land. Nagin and Land determined that four distinct categories of delinquent/criminal careers could be identified in the Cambridge cohort (West and Farrington, 1973, 1977): nonoffenders (i.e., those who did not have any recorded convictions), individuals whose offending was limited predominantly to the teen years, and two categories of chronic offenders—one with a low-rate and the other with a high-rate of offending.

The research was some of the first to provide empirical evidence of multiple types of offending trajectories with distinct patterns of offending over time. However, because it contained only a limited number of covariates, it was not able to establish the predictors of group membership. Subsequent latent class analysis of criminal careers offered further support for the notion of multiple types of delinquent/criminal offenders across many different types of data. D’Unger and others provide evidence that multiple categories of offenders are present across several data sets with a high level of consistency. Using all-male data from the Cambridge cohort, the 1958 Second Philadelphia Birth Cohort, and the Racine 1942, 1949, and 1955 Birth Cohorts, D’Unger and colleagues concluded:

Rather than merely representing a discrete approximation to an underlying continuous distribution of unobserved delinquent/criminal propensity, the small number of latent offending categories estimated in [the] models may represent distinct classifications of cohort offenders with respect to age trajectories of offending that are meaningful in and of themselves (emphasis added) (p. 1622).

Across all samples from various cohorts and with differing measures of offending (e.g., arrests, convictions) as the dependent variable, several basic patterns emerged: the adolescent-peaked offender, the chronic offender, and the nonoffender. These categories sometimes bifurcated into ‘‘higher-’’ and ‘‘lower-’’ rate groups, but the shape of the offending trajectories across samples was remarkably consistent. However, this research still did not answer the question: What predicts membership in various offender/ nonoffender classes?

In another attempt to answer the above question, Nagin, Farrington, and Moffitt looked at the impact of several types of factors on the four offending categories initially delineated by Nagin and Land in the Cambridge cohort. Using both self-report and conviction data on the Cambridge cohort, several significant differences were found between the predictors of the four criminal career categories. In particular, evidence was found in support of the distinctiveness of the high-rate chronic offenders. At their peak, these offenders were more likely to be engaged in violent behavior, smoking cigarettes, using drugs, and having sexual intercourse. By age thirty-two, all three of the offending groups (high-rate chronic, low-rate chronic, and adolescence-limited) were more likely to be fighting, using drugs, and abusing alcohol than the nonoffenders, based upon their self-reported offending. All three offender groups also suffered in the job market. Using data on males from the National Youth Survey, McDermott and Nagin also attempted to delineate the predictors of offending-class membership. It was determined that three classes of offenders exist in this sample, analogous to findings from other latent class research: nonoffenders, an adolescent-peaked group that rises to a peak early but then slows down and reaches zero by the age of twenty four, and a higher-rate group that exhibits an increasing rate of offending until the age of eighteen— characteristic of chronic offenders—but then acts erratically between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. McDermott and Nagin determined that variables such as involvement with delinquent peers and deviant labels imposed by parents were most significant for predicting changes in the offending index, while measures of social control offered conflicting evidence.

Criminal Career Patterns

As discussed above, much research has detailed the existence of several different types of criminal career patterns. This notion is very important for the testing and further development of criminological theories, as most previous work in criminology has posited the existence of a simple dichotomy of classes: offenders and nonoffenders. Research challenging this dichotomy points to the existence of several stable types of categories beyond offenders and nonoffenders.

In particular, Moffitt’s (1993, 1997a) work on adolescence-limited and life-course persistent offenders offers theoretical support for the existence of and distinctions between these two types of career patterns. It also suggests why there may be a continuity in offending behavior over time among some individuals, coupled with a dramatic increase in levels of offending in the teen years—one piece of evidence for what Cohen and Vila (1996) call the ‘‘paradox of persistence.’’ The paradox is this: while most juvenile delinquents do not grow up to be adult offenders (e.g., deviant behavior is a ‘‘normal’’ part of the teen years), almost all adult offenders were juvenile delinquents.

Moffitt (1993) points to neuropsychological problems, often occurring in the fetal brain and inhibiting temperamental, behavioral, and cognitive development, interacting with a poor or ‘‘criminogenic’’ social environment, as the cause for chronic offending. Unlike the adolescencelimited offenders, the cause of the antisocial behavior exhibited by chronic offenders is often located in the earliest years of socialization. The early deficit identified by Moffitt, combined with the lack of a supportive childhood environment and problematic child-parent interactions, causes persistence in deviant behavior over time. Moffitt points out that, ‘‘children with cognitive and temperamental disadvantages are not generally born into supportive environments, nor do they even get a fair chance of being randomly assigned to good or bad environments’’ (1993, p. 6681). Cumulative consequences of their behavior continue to narrow their options in the world of ‘‘legitimate’’ or normative behavior. Moffitt (1997b) goes one step further to assert that neuropsychological problems can interact specifically with neighborhood social context to either enhance antisocial or delinquent behavior. Looking at African American males from the Pittsburgh Youth Study (Loeber, StouthamerLoeber, Van Kammen, and Farrington), Moffitt (1997b) finds that living in a good neighborhood seemed to protect boys from involvement with delinquency, but only if they were neuropsychologically healthy. Boys suffering from neuropsychological problems were always more likely to be delinquent than those not suffering from such problems, regardless of neighborhood status.

Unlike their chronic counterparts, Moffitt hypothesizes that adolescence-limited offenders do not come from the same environmentally deficit backgrounds or have the same neurological problems, nor do they suffer from the effects of cumulative disadvantage. Rather, Moffitt asserts that such behavior confined in the teen years is, ‘‘motivated by the gap between biological maturity and social maturity’’ (1993, p. 685). Antisocial behavior, including involvement with juvenile delinquency, is ‘‘social mimicry’’ that is used by young individuals to achieve a higher level of status in the teenage world, with its subsequent power and privileges. Adolescence-limited offenders mimic the behavior that they see exhibited by chronic offenders during the teen years but, because they have not severed major bonds with society, may come from more stable families, and are not suffering from the same neurological damage, they are able to easily desist from offending as they reach the early years of adulthood.

The hypothesized existence of these two groups of offenders suggests two important points. First, it would explain the huge increase in individual rates of offending that happen in the adolescent years, followed by the precipitous decline exhibited in the unimodal populationlevel age-crime curve. It would seem to suggest that this change happens because fewer people are offending in the later years: the adolescencelimiteds have stopped, while the smaller group of chronic offenders keeps going—an argument for state dependence as opposed to population heterogeneity. Secondly, it also points to the necessity of conducting longitudinal research on criminal careers. If, at their peaks in offending, adolescence-limited and life-course persistent offenders are similar in their behavior, there is little way to distinguish between the two groups.

Conclusions and Future Research

Osgood and Rowe have suggested that the best ways to answer the current questions in criminal careers research is through building ‘‘bridges between theoretical criminology, the study of criminal careers, and policy relevant research’’ (p. 517). Offering suggestions for moving beyond the current debates, Land has suggested that only through empirical analysis of criminal behavior over time via competing statistical models will the questions of criminal careers research be answered. Loeber and LeBlanc have suggested that only by paying attention to how a criminal career unfolds (e.g., what causes some to begin offending, what predicts desistance, what leads to specialization in offending, what causes an escalation in severity of offending) will the tension between dynamic and static theories of crime be resolved. Future years undoubtedly will see many important contributions to this exciting area of research in criminology.


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