Longitudinal Studies in Criminology Research Paper

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The purpose of this research paper is to “take stock” of the important contributions of longitudinal studies in the field of criminology. First, classic longitudinal studies in criminology are reviewed. Second, the authors review key findings from the major contemporary longitudinal studies that focus on the development of crime and delinquency. Third, there are numerous longitudinal studies that have a broader focus but have important provided important insight into crime and delinquency; thus, some of the contributions of these studies are examined. To conclude, potential avenues for future research are suggested.


Core issues that capture the imagination of criminologists, such as identifying the antecedents of criminal behavior or why some individuals desist from crime while others continue criminal lifestyles, are issues which require longitudinal data to disentangle. Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck conducted a series of seminal studies (1950) that demonstrated that long-term follow-ups studies were both feasible and valuable to the study of crime and delinquency. Since then, there have been specific calls for more longitudinal studies (e.g., Farrington et al. 1986) and recently, there has been considerable growth in both number and quality of longitudinal studies of crime and delinquency. These studies are integral in shaping how the study of crime has been advanced.

Longitudinal, or panel, data consists of repeated observations on the same units of analysis over time, offering many advantages over cross-sectional data. Some of these advantages include having a better precision of the sequence of events timing and measurement; studying intraindividual change; and disentangling direct and indirect causal chains of analyses (Thornberry and Krohn 2003). Despite the vast potential, many early researchers who had access to longitudinal data did not take advantage of this potential and analyzed their data as though it were cross sectional (Farrington et al. 1986). The growth in the number of studies that use longitudinal data in recent years can be attributed to a number of factors including methodological and analytical advances especially developed for panel data. Further, many of the contemporary studies in criminology were initiated in the 1980s with cohorts born in the 1970s. Thus, these data are just now coming to into fruition. Undoubtedly, the use of longitudinal data has advanced the field of criminology both in terms of theory and policy (this, however, is not without controversy).

The purpose of this research paper is to “take stock” of the important contributions of longitudinal studies in the field of criminology. Given the abundance of studies, however, this is not a straightforward task. Past reviews of longitudinal research have broadly consisted of two approaches. Some reviews of the literature have discussed key findings of each study (e.g., Thornberry and Krohn 2003), while other reviews choose key topics and summarize the findings across studies (e.g., Farrington 2003). The authors approach the topic by using both approaches. First, the classic longitudinal studies in criminology are reviewed. These studies are important in that they provided a springboard both methodologically and theoretically in which contemporary researchers could be inspired. Second, the key findings from the major contemporary longitudinal studies (that focus on the development of crime and delinquency) are examined. Some of these studies are still ongoing and scholars are just beginning to witness the returns to these data. Third, there are numerous longitudinal studies that have a broader focus, such as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, but include crime and delinquency measures. The contributions of these studies are reviewed. Finally, this research paper concludes by suggesting potential avenues for future research.

Classic Longitudinal Studies

Classic longitudinal studies are characterized by the following of one cohort over time. Information was often collected through official records on a number of important factors such as family life, school, employment, police contacts, and court dispositions. Records would be collected over a number of times. By following one cohort however, potential problems such age, period, and cohort effects can arise (see Farrington et al. 1986). Another criticism is that early researchers did not pay attention to the exact timing of specific events so that causal mechanisms can be established (see Farrington 1988). Although single cohort designs are criticized, it is important to spend some time looking at some of the seminal works in the study of the development of crime and delinquency.

Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck are considered the pioneers of longitudinal research in crime and delinquency. The Gluecks’ study consisted of 500 delinquent boys (recruited at ages 7–11) living in the Boston area. Each delinquent was matched with a nondelinquent by age, family background, general intelligence, ethnicity, and residence in an under-privileged neighborhood (Glueck and Glueck 1950). The Gluecks’ inquiry fell into five main categories: family and personal background, body types, health, intelligence, and temperament and character. The major contribution of the Gluecks’ was their discovery that factors relating to temperament and family characteristics played an important role in later delinquency, and emphasized early detection and prevention.

Another reason why the Gluecks’ study is one of the most important longitudinal inquiries is because of the highly influential work of Robert Sampson and John Laub (1993). Sampson and Laub reanalyzed the Glueck data using modern analytic techniques and formulated their agegraded theory of informal social control, which posits that informal social bonds can be an important factor in continuity in and desistance from crime. In 2003, Laub and Sampson conducted a follow-up study of the original participants of the study. In addition to following up with official records of all the original participants, they conducted in-depth interviews with 50 of the men who were in their 70s at the time of follow-up. This makes their study the longest follow-up study in criminology. A number of important contributions have stemmed from Sampson and Laub’s work including insight into the mechanisms of desistance and turning points, which include importance of marriage, work, and military service.

The Cambridge Study in Delinquency Development is a prospective study composed of a sample of 411 boys from South London who were aged 8 or 9 between 1961 and 1962. The goal of the original Cambridge study was to test several hypotheses about delinquency: first was to describe development of delinquent and criminal behavior; to assess the efficacy of prediction; and to explain why or why not it continued to adulthood. The investigators examined socioeconomic conditions, schooling, friendship, parent–child relationships, extracurricular activities, school records, and criminal records. They also performed psychological tests to determine the causes of crime and delinquency. The importance of this study is that there have since been follow-up studies of the men up to the age of 48. Few studies have followed as many subjects for as long as the Cambridge study. Researchers are still analyzing data from the Cambridge Study to assess important criminological puzzles.

Another seminal longitudinal study is the Philadelphia Birth Cohort, collected by Wolfgang et al. (1972), which has been described as “one of the turning points in criminological research in the United States” (Laub 2004). The study is composed of two birth cohorts, 1945 and 1958. The 1945 cohort consisted of males who resided in Philadelphia from 10 years (most from birth) to at least 18 years old, and contains almost 10,000 cases. Information contained in school records, police records, and dispositions from juvenile and criminal court records was used to provide important descriptive information and also to allow the researchers to predict offending behavior. Since 1968, Wolfgang et al. were able to follow up and conduct interviews with 567 of the original sample from 1945. The follow-up consisted of questions pertaining to offenses in which the participants were not arrested for. The 1958 cohort study was a replication of the 1945 study to assess whether there were any cohort effects. The 1958 cohort was much larger, over 28,000 subjects and resulted in substantively comparable findings.

The most important contribution of Wolfgang et al.’s study is their identification of the “chronic offender,” which they identified as boys with four or more offenses. They found that the chronic offenders consisted of 18 % of the delinquents but were responsible for over half of all the offenses. Further, the Wolfgang et al. (1972) study found that the probability of committing an offense increased with each successive offense committed. That is, the probability of committing a second offense after the first was about 50 %, the third after the second was about 79 %, and about 80 % thereafter. In fact, Wolfgang et al. (1972) have been credited as being the seed of the criminal career paradigm (Piquero et al. 2007). The notion of the chronic offender and methods to prospectively identify such individuals still captures the interest of scholars today.

Other classic studies have also provided a foundation for the study of criminal careers. For example, Blumstein et al. (1985) were able to prospectively identify chronic offenders based on low IQ, poor parent–child rearing, convicted parents, conduct, and other behavioral problems among a London cohort. Other scholars have also argued that factors such as parent–child rearing and early signs of aggression can be predictive of later delinquency. Robins (1978) showed that there is continuity in antisocial behavior and offending. These studies support the famous “Robin’s Paradox,” which argues that “antisocial behavior virtually requires childhood antisocial behavior; yet most antisocial children do not become antisocial adults” (p. 611). Horney and Marshall (1991) focused on the reliability of life event calendars and emphasized the importance of short-term within-individual variability. Other issues such as work and crime have been made possible through longitudinal studies such as the National Supported Demonstration Work Project. Lyle Shannon also added to criminal career work by following three cohorts from Racine, Wisconsin.

The authors have spent time on some detail reviewing several classic longitudinal studies in the hopes of illustrating the innovative and creative nature of early longitudinal research. These studies provide a foundation in which contemporary researchers are able to refine research designs and move toward a better understanding of the development of crime and delinquency. Indeed, scholars today are still using classic longitudinal studies to provide commentary on new questions (e.g., the next section turns to contemporary longitudinal studies. In reviewing these studies, the authors take a slightly different approach and use the key findings from the past 20 years of longitudinal research as a guide.

Contemporary Longitudinal Studies

The contemporary longitudinal studies reviewed in this research paper are more eclectic than the classic studies. They are, however, often larger-scale studies with various methodological improvements over classic studies. For example, rather than one cohort, many of them employ “accelerated cohort” designs, which tracks several cohorts over a shorter period of time while others follow subjects who are closely clustered in age. Many are also conducted at multiple sites. Krohn and Thornberry (2008) identify three main purposes of contemporary longitudinal studies. The primary purpose is to describe delinquent and criminal careers. The second purpose is to identify causal mechanisms of delinquent behavior. The third purpose is to identify the consequences of delinquent/criminal behavior. To be sure, different longitudinal studies have different emphases. For example, some may focus on structural characteristics while others focus on biological factors. There are dozens of studies that can be considered contemporary longitudinal studies, with many still ongoing. These studies have been conducted across various samples and throughout numerous countries. The burgeoning of information makes the task of reviewing contemporary longitudinal studies challenging. Thus, as an organizing framework, the authors identified five key findings gleaned from longitudinal studies in criminology over the past several decades. The five findings include: problem behavior begins early; parents, school, peers, and social structure remain consistent risk factors; there is often co-occurrence of problem behaviors and delinquency; there is a substantial amount of continuity in crime and delinquency; and there is also a considerable amount of change. Each will be reviewed in succession.

  1. Problem behavior begins early

Since Wolfgang et al.’s finding of the chronic offender, there has been great interest in identifying individuals who are at high risk of becoming chronic or life-course persistent individuals. Several longitudinal studies focus on identifying early signs of risk factors. Risk factors can be identified prenatally or when children are very young (before the age of 6). Scholars have found that prenatal complications, such as exposure to substances like cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs, interact with psychosocial and environmental factors, such as maternal rejection, poor parenting, neighborhood disadvantage, and low-income, to produce a heightened risk of later antisocial behavior.

Early childhood signs include disruptive behavior like aggression and negative emotionality (Tremblay et al. 2003). Researchers have found that there is a moderately stable relationship between early disruptive behavior and other similar behaviors (heterotypic). Important findings such as those from the Pitt-Mother and Child Project show that very few children have an onset

of conduct behavior before the age of 5 or 6. Further studies suggest that the earlier a child is identified and treated, the higher is the likelihood of prevention. Several longitudinal studies have been central to our understanding of early childhood risk factors on later delinquency. This group of studies would include the Montreal Longitudinal and Experimental Study (Tremblay et al. 2003), which tracks subjects from kindergarten to high school and has a special focus on parent– child relationships. The Dunedin Study is a multidisciplinary study that follows 1,000 individuals for almost 40 years and the Longitudinal Study of Biosocial Factors Related to Crime and Delinquency which studies the prenatal and child-related health of a high-risk sample of boys.

  1. Important factors: parents, schools, peers, and social structure

The previous section discussed how early child-hood risk factors can set a child on to a path to later delinquency. Similarly, there are factors in later childhood and adolescence that are also indicative of persistent delinquent behavior. In 1986, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention funded a large-scale project entitled the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency. These projects consisted of: the Denver Youth Study, the Pittsburgh Youth Study, and the Rochester Youth Development study. In a review of the findings of these and four other large-scale longitudinal studies, Thornberry and Krohn (2003) identified parenting, schools, peers, and social structure as consistent factors that can affect children’s lives. These predictors can be taken as part of a risk factor approach or guided by criminological theory. Nevertheless, examining these factors provides a useful approach to reviewing longitudinal studies.

Various indicators of poor parenting have been consistently found to be positively related to delinquent or problem behavior. Using the Rochester Youth Development Study, childhood and adolescent maltreatment is linked with later antisocial behavior. Sampson and Laub (1993) found that parent–child attachment mediated the relationship between poverty and delinquency. Similarly, findings from the Montreal Longitudinal Study suggest that healthy child-rearing practices and supervision are crucial protective factors against future antisocial behavior (Tremblay et al. 2003). Using data from the Cambridge Study, scholars investigated childhood neglect and juvenile delinquency and found that the odds of juvenile conviction were over four times higher for subjects who were exposed to childhood neglect than subjects who were not.

Children spend vast amounts of time in school, and thus, experiences in school are an important factor to consider in the development of delinquency. Low levels of intellectual ability and academic achievement are a consistent predictor of delinquency and other problem behaviors (Thornberry and Krohn 2003). For example, Raine et al. (2002) found that life-course persistent offenders had lower visuomotor functioning than other subjects. A birth cohort from Kuai was followed and results suggest that individuals who had below average intellectual skills had a greater likelihood of antisocial behavior.

The relationships between delinquent peers and one’s own delinquency have been a part of many longitudinal studies. There is strong support for the causal role that deviant peers play. For example, research suggests that deviant peers provide support and opportunity for delinquent behavior which in turn has an effect on the patterns of associations an individual has. Moreover, in mid-adolescence, selection and socialization are important whereas in late adolescence, socialization is more important. New longitudinal methods have been developed to assess the impact of delinquent peers. Longitudinal social network data gathered by the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement’s School Study, a study that focuses on social networks and the role of peers in delinquency. Scholars have used Simulation Investigation for Empirical Network Analyses, a method that can estimate the effects on individual changes in network ties as well as effects on changes in individual behavior, and found that the average delinquency of an individual’s friends has a significant causal effect on the individual’s behavior.

The idea of delinquent peers has extended to inquiry into the causes and consequences of gang membership. Krohn and Thornberry (2008) commented that longitudinal studies are an “ideal design for investigating the impact of gang membership on life-course development” (p. 130). For example, the Seattle Social Development Project is an example of a longitudinal study that looks at the development of both positive and problem behaviors among adolescents and young adults. Researchers using data from the study found that youth who are gang members more often commit property and violent offenses.

Since Shaw’s work on juvenile delinquency prevention in the 1930s in Chicago and the founding of the Chicago Area Project, structural factors have been an important part in investigating the development of delinquent behavior. Shaw and McKay’s (1942) seminal work on social disorganization pointed to community factors such as poverty, population mobility, and population heterogeneity as correlates of delinquency. Several contemporary studies have also incorporated structural factors in their design. For example, the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) is an interdisciplinary study which assesses families, schools, and neighborhoods affect child and adolescent development. The PHDCN has two components: a neighborhood level component and an individual level component. Researchers using the PHDCN have provided important insight into the dynamics of the mediating effects of social control on neighborhood disadvantage (Sampson and Morenoff 2006). The Denver Youth Study also integrated high-risk neighborhoods as an integral part of the study.

  1. Co-occurrence of problem behaviors and delinquency

There have been calls by prominent criminologists for the discipline to consider a broader set of behaviors beyond crime (Sampson and Laub 1993), with the rationale that there may be an underlying dispositional trait between crime and other risky behaviors. Important questions such as whether all problem behaviors, such as substance abuse, delinquency, school problems, aggression, promiscuity, and violence, represent one underlying syndrome and to what extent risk factors are the same for all problem behaviors are of central concern for developmental researchers. Results to date suggest that this is the case. Huizinga et al. (2000) found that individuals with serious delinquency also are more likely to have mental health problems. Similarly, data from the Denver Youth Study show that there is overlap between violent behavior and mental health problems. Using data from the Cambridge study, Piquero and colleagues (2011) found that chronic offenders were more often hospitalized and have a registered disability. Loeber et al. (1998) looked at eight problem behaviors, including substance use, conduct problems, physical aggression, and depression, and found that they were interrelated. Thus, how extensive the overlap between offending behavior and other problem behavior is unclear but commentary on this topic has been consistently positive.

  1. There is a significant amount of continuity

According to Farrington (2005), one of the most widely accepted conclusions about the development of offending is that there is a marked continuity in antisocial behavior. That is, there is a relative stable ordering of individuals on some level of antisocial tendency. This important finding has motivated scholars to investigate what the mechanisms behind continuity are. Two divergent explanations have dominated criminology: state dependence and population heterogeneity. State dependence argues that the effects of earlier offending have an effect on later offending whereas population heterogeneity offers persistent individual differences as an explanation to continuity. Blokland and Nieuwbeerta (2010) use data from the Criminal Career and Life-course Study, which follows 4,684 Dutch offenders for the better part of their lives, and found that both population heterogeneity and state dependence partially explain continuity in offending. The more an individual offends, however, the effect of state dependence weakens. Violent and aggressive behavior also appears to have continuity. Farrington (1993) suggests that there is continuity in bullying behavior – both within and between generations. Individuals who self-report bullying at 14 were more likely to report bullying at age 32. Their children were also more likely to be bullies.

  1. There is also change

Thus far, the authors have not portrayed an optimistic view of the development of offending. While there is a marked continuity in offending and other problem behaviors, there is also a great deal of change. Investigation into change was sparked by Sampson and Laub’s (1993) study. The scholars found that there are multiple pathways to desistance and identified four major factors associated with change: marriage, the military, reform school, and neighborhood change (Laub and Sampson 2003). The study of desistance remains a challenge however, because measuring desistance is not straightforward. For example, there is debate regarding the definition of what constitutes cessation from crime and the data are ultimately right censored. Moreover, the methodological advancement developed has allowed scholars to study population heterogeneity in developmental offending trajectories by identifying groups of distinct trajectories. Piquero (2008) reports over 60 studies that have employed such group-based trajectory modeling to study change over time.

The idea of change provides researchers with incentive to explore the factors and mechanisms that contribute to desistance. For example, Hawkins et al. (1992) advocate for a risk factor preventive approach whereby risk factors are identified and then addressed to promote desistance. The idea of change was the impetus behind The Pathways to Desistance project. The Pathways study is a large collaborative, multidisciplinary project that followed 1,354 serious juvenile offenders aged 14–18 for 7 years after their adjudication. The main purpose of the study is to identify factors related to continued desistance. General findings suggest that almost all offenders greatly reduce their offending and longer stays in institutions do not reduce recidivism.

Other Important Longitudinal Studies

It is important to note that the authors have based our review primarily on panel studies that focus on the development of crime and delinquency. There are, however, many longitudinal studies that have a broader focus but also include delinquency measures. These studies are often large in scale and are of a representative population sample of adolescents. These studies are rich sources of data that provides insight into many important criminological questions that only longitudinal studies can shed light on.

A couple of the national longitudinal surveys commonly used in criminological research include: the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) and the National Youth Survey (NYS). The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth is a study of 9,000 individuals who were born in 1980–1984 and has been used to study issues such as education, work, and crime (Lochner 2004). The National Youth Survey began in 1976 and is ongoing. Parents and youth were interviewed about both conventional and deviant types of behavior by youths. Important studies on drug use deterrence, labeling, and peer influence have used the NYS.

Monitoring the Future is an annual nationally representative survey of American high school students. Annual follow-up questionnaires are mailed to individuals in each graduating class for a few years after their initial participation. Data from Monitoring the Future has provided insight into patterns of drug use and work and delinquency. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent-Health (Add-Health) is also a nationally representative sample of adolescents in grades 7–12. In addition to collecting information on neighborhood, family, social, psychological, health, and economic well-being, the Add-Health collects information on the social networks of adolescents. This has generated a number of important studies that provide commentary on the nature of delinquent peers.


The discipline of criminology owes much of its knowledge of the development of offending to past and current longitudinal studies. In this research paper, the authors reviewed classic studies that are the foundation of longitudinal studies in criminology, key findings gleaned from contemporary panel studies, and some of the important nationally representative longitudinal studies on adolescent wellbeing. However, it is realized that there are other important longitudinal studies that were not included in this research paper. To this end, the authors urge readers to explore previous syntheses of longitudinal studies (Blumstein et al. 1986; Delisi and Piquero 2011; Farrington 1988b; Liberman 2008; Thornberry and Krohn 2003).

Despite considerable advances made in the study of the development in crime and delinquent behavior over the last few decades, there are avenues that would benefit from greater scholarly investment. One such avenue is longitudinal experimental designs. Despite highlighting the value of longitudinal experimental studies over 20 years ago, Farrington (2006) was able to only identify four longitudinal experiments that have incorporated significant pre-and post-developmental measures, suggesting that there is a dearth of research that assesses the long-term effects of interventions.

As ongoing longitudinal studies extend into their subjects’ early adulthood, it is important to investigate intergenerational study of crime and delinquency. Elder (1985) noted that one of central tenets of studying the life course is the notion of linked lives, which refers to the interaction between individuals and their social world. He argues “Each generation is bound to fateful decisions and events in the other’s life course” (p. 40). Issues of central concern such as continuity and change can be extended to look at intergenerational patterns in crime and problem behaviors. Ongoing studies such as the Rochester Developmental Youth Survey and the Denver Youth Study are gathering information on the children of the participants. Preliminary results from these studies and past studies like the Ohio Life Course Study suggest that there is a clear relationship between the antisocial behaviors of parents and their children.

Finally, an important yet often neglected line of inquiry is investigation into the processes of cooffending. Co-offending has important implications for the development of criminal careers. For example, co-offenders tend to be more prolific offenders, are more likely to engage in violence, and have longer criminal careers (McGloin and Nguyen 2012). Indeed, greater insight into cooffending can be important in terms of theory and policy. In conclusion, longitudinal studies in criminology have made significant strides since the Glueck’s Unraveling Delinquency study. Continued improvements in methodological designs, advancements in statistical applications, and theoretical refinements will provide scholars of crime with a number of interesting avenues for research.


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