Aggression and Crime


I. Introduction

II. Defining Aggression

III. The Development of Aggression

IV. Theoretical Perspectives Linking Early-Life Aggression With Later-Life Crime

V. Implications for Crime Prevention

VI. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Introduction

One of the most consistently documented findings flowing from criminological research is that approximately 5% to 6% of the U.S. population commits more than 50% of all criminal offenses. This small cadre of offenders is often referred to as career criminals or habitual offenders, to capture their prolonged and frequent involvement in criminal offenses. Even more striking than the sheer volume of crime committed at the hands of habitual offenders is their widespread use of physical violence. Compared with other criminals, career criminals are more likely to use serious violence; they also use physical aggression much more frequently. Rape, robbery, assault, and murder, for example, are crimes that are almost exclusively confined to habitual offenders. In all respects, then, career criminals represent the most serious violent offenders, and they also pose the greatest danger to society.

Career criminals are thus very different than all other offenders in terms of their frequent involvement in crime as well as their frequent use of aggression. The questions that come to bear, then, are the following: (a)What are the factors that contribute to the development of habitual offenders, and (b) are these the same factors that contribute to the development of all other types of offenders? The answers to these questions are obviously complex, but rich insight can be garnered by focusing on two intertwined issues. First, the use of aggression appears to be one of the main elements that distinguishes chronic offenders from other offenders. Second, and closely related, the making of criminals is a sequential process that begins at conception and continues throughout the rest of the life course. Any understanding of chronic, habitual offending, therefore, must begin by unraveling the developmental origins of aggression. This research paper explores these issues in great detail and examines the close nexus between aggression and crime.

II. Defining Aggression

Before moving into a discussion of the development of aggression and how it relates to crime, it is first necessary to arrive at a definition of aggression. Many types of behaviors can be categorized as aggressive. Lying, stealing, and vandalism are often used as visible indicators of aggression. Although disruptive and socially annoying, these types of behaviors do not necessarily constitute acts of aggression, and they certainly are not harbingers of chronic offending in adulthood. As a result, scholars often divide aggression into different components, each reflecting a relatively homogeneous set of behaviors. The underlying assumption is that different types of aggression may have different etiologies and may differentially relate to the odds of engaging in offending behaviors later in life.

One of the main distinctions made by scholars trying to define aggression is delineating indirect aggression and direct aggression. Indirect aggression is usually verbal and covert and includes actions such as gossiping and ostracism. Direct aggression, in contrast, is typically physical and overt and includes behaviors such as hitting, kicking, punching, and biting. In general, females are more likely than males to use indirect aggression, and males are more likely than females to use direct aggression. Although both forms of aggression have important ramifications, it is direct aggression that is most applicable to the etiology of criminal behaviors. As a result, this research paper focuses exclusively on direct aggression.

Simply focusing on direct aggression leaves open a lot of room for ambiguity and treats all forms of direct aggression as the same. For example, consider two men, both of whom engaged in a serious physical fight in the past week. Unprovoked, one of the men attacked an elderly woman. The other man, in contrast, was jumped by a group of teenagers and fought back in self-defense. These two types of direct aggression clearly are different, and thus it is essential that the definition of aggression be able to delineate between the two. In the preceding example, the behaviors were the same: Both men were fighting; however, the intentions were quite different. For one man, using aggression was a way of inflicting harm on someone, whereas for the other man, using aggression was a defense mechanism. To take differences in intentions into account, this research paper defines aggression as direct aggression whereby the actor intends to inflict harm on or intimidate another person.

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