Age and Crime


I. Introduction

II. Hirschi and Gottfredson’s “Age and the Explanation of Crime

III. Methodological Implications of the Invariance Argument

IV. Theoretical Implications of the Age–Crime Relationship

V. The Age–Crime Relationship in Traditional Criminological Theory

VI. Practical and Policy Implications of the Age–Crime Relationship

VII. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Introduction

The curvilinear relationship between age and crime is one of the most consistent findings in criminology, and it has been referred to as a “resilient empirical regularity” (Brame & Piquero, 2003, p. 107) and “one of the brute facts of criminology” (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1983, p. 552). Social statisticians as early as Quetelet in the 1800s (Steffensmeier, Allan, Harer, & Streifel, 1989) identified a strong relationship between age and crime that has come to be known as the age–crime curve. The general form of the relationship between age and crime is not much debated. In aggregate studies, the age–crime curve is unimodal, with official crime rates rising in adolescence to a peak in the late teenage years and then declining rapidly through adulthood. It is also apparent that the age–crime curve peaks somewhat later for violent crimes as compared with property crimes. Although much research examining the age–crime relationship has relied on official data and age-specific arrest rates (Marvell &Moody, 1991),Moffitt (1993) noted that the general curvilinear pattern also holds true more generally for conduct disorder, antisocial behavior, and childhood aggression. Farrington (1986) and Hirschi and Gottfredson (1983) have commented that although scholars agree on the general form of the age– crime curve, there is less agreement on its meaning and implications.

II. Hirschi and Gottfredson’s “Age and the Explanation of Crime”

Many scholars have pointed to Hirschi and Gottfredson’s (1983) seminal article, “Age and the Explanation of Crime,” as the beginning of serious debate surrounding the relationship between age and crime. This debate centers around a number of factors, both methodological and theoretical. Specifically, Hirschi and Gottfredson set forth a number of basic perspectives on the relationship between age and crime. First, and perhaps most important, these authors argued that the age–crime curve is invariant across a wide variety of social and cultural factors, including time, place, individuals, and types of crime. Although they recognized that there may be differences in levels of offending among groups (e.g., males and females), they dismissed this variation in favor of the conclusion that the general form of the curve is the same. This invariance argument has profound implications for methodological, theoretical, and practical considerations in criminology and has provoked intense debate among criminologists that are visited in more detail later in this research paper.

Hirschi and Gottfredson (1983) also addressed theoretical attempts to contend with the age–crime curve, arguing that theories should not be obligated to try to explain this relationship and should not be rejected solely because of their inability to do so. The authors further contended that no existing criminological theories are capable of explaining the age–crime curve. In the absence of strong theoretical explanations, Hirschi and Gottfredson suggested that age has a direct effect on crime and on other social factors proposed to explain crime. An apparent relationship between marriage and reduced offending is spurious, because age causes both; in other words, this relationship appears only because individuals get married and begin to age out of crime at the same time. Finally, Hirschi and Gottfredson argued that conceptualizing the age–crime relationship in terms of a criminal career is unnecessary and potentially misleading, especially because the causes of crime are the same at all ages throughout life.

The arguments Hirschi and Gottfredson (1983) put forth in their article have spurred a great deal of debate in the field and have far-reaching implications for criminological research, theory, and policy. Tittle and Grasmick (1998), for example, argued that Hirschi and Gottfredson’s perspective presents a major challenge to many current directions in criminology, including the criminal careers perspective, longitudinal research, developmental theories, and social theories in general. Subsequent sections of this research paper explore the methodological, theoretical, and policy implications of these various arguments about the age– crime curve.

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