Life Course Criminology

To understand what crime over the life course actually means for research and practical purposes, it is important to become familiar with the criminal career terminology. In its most rudimentary form, a criminal career is the “characterization of the longitudinal sequence of crimes committed by an individual offender” (Blumstein, Cohen, Roth, & Visher, 1986, p. 12). As the word longitudinal implies, there is an inherent time dimension to criminal careers. Furthermore, this suggests that there are identifiable start and end points that allow researchers to chart out an individual’s criminal career length.


I. Introduction

II. Criminal Careers

III. The Life Course Paradigm

IV. Life Course Criminology

V. Developmental/Life Course Theory

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

The relationship between age and crime has been among the most researched of all “facts” in criminology (Farrington, 1986a; Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1983). Furthermore, it also has been—and continues to be—one of the most contentious of all issues, with researchers expressing different views about its meaning and interpretation. More specifically, the robust nature of the relationship between age and crime gives rise to the question of whether the degree to which the aggregate pattern displayed in the age–crime curve (i.e., with crime rising to a peak in the late teens and then declining more or less in the early 20s) is more similar or different from the pattern of individual careers.

Acknowledging the long history of scholarly attention to understanding the age–crime curve, a substantial amount of information has been generated with regard to the onset, persistence, and desistance associated with criminal offending over the life course. In the same vein, this rich research has fostered the development of theories of crime that have been proposed across a number of social science disciplines. The commonality that is evident across these theories is that they seek to explain the fluctuations in criminal activity over the life course as well as offer assumptions as to how and why individuals may vary in their involvement in crime and deviance across key developmental phases of the life course.

The purpose of this research paper is to provide readers with an overview of what has been termed life course criminology. The research paper begins with a brief overview of the criminal career framework and provides some empirical evidence on what is known about criminal offending over the life course based on the research findings gleaned from some of the most notable studies in this area. This section is followed by a discussion of the origin of the life course paradigm as we know it today, including its roots in sociology and psychology, which subsequently led to the emergence of the developmental/life course criminology (DLC) paradigm in criminology in particular. Following a review of several key DLC theories, this research paper concludes with a brief presentation of the gaps in the current DLC literature and offers several suggestions of where future research in this area should proceed.