Life Course Criminology

IV. Life Course Criminology

In recognition of the robust relationship between age and crime, the importance of early influential criminal career research (Glueck & Glueck’s [1930, 1950] and Wolfgang et al.’s [1972, 1987] studies) and the findings generated from recent efforts (Farrington, 2003; Blumstein et al., 1986; Laub & Sampson, 2003; Piquero et al., 2007), and appreciating the life course paradigm developed in sociology and psychology, there has emerged a subfield within criminology known as DLC criminology (Farrington, 2003).

Within criminology, the life course perspective is an effort to offer a comprehensive outlook to the study of criminal activity because it considers the multitude of factors that affect offending across different time periods and contexts (Thornberry, 1997). One of the core assumptions of DLC theory is that changes with age and delinquency and criminal activity occur in an orderly way (Thornberry, 1997, p. 1), and some of the DLC theories that have begun to emerge from this perspective have in large part made an effort to not only document crime over the life course but also to more readily identify the key risk and protective factors associated with the onset, persistence, and desistance from criminal activity. Furthermore, these DLC theories have made efforts to integrate knowledge from other disciplines outside of criminology into their theoretical frameworks, most notably drawing from psychology, sociology, biology, and public health.

In general, DLC theory concentrates on three main issues: (1) the development of offending and antisocial behavior, (2) the effect of risk and protective factors at different ages on criminal activity at different ages, and (3) the effects of life events on the course of development and criminal activity throughout the life course (Farrington, 2003, p. 221). With regard to the first issue, empirical research has documented the progression of delinquency and criminal involvement over time (see, e.g., Tracy et al., 1990), but there is a general lack of available data that follows individuals from early on in life well into middle and/or late adulthood (for important exceptions, see Laub & Sampson, 2003; see also Piquero et al., 2007). Concerning the second issue, research is beginning to identify key risk and protective factors that have an impact on whether an individual becomes involved in crime in the first place and whether he or she continues to be involved in crime over the life course (see Hawkins & Catalano, 1992; Loeber & Farrington, 1998). Turning toward the final issue (as identified by Farrington, 2003), recent research evidence has suggested that several key life events, such as marriage and steady employment, not only appear to be related to participation in offending but also seem to be particularly important in the reduction of criminal activity and fostering desistance from crime in general (Farrington & West, 1993; Horney, Osgood, & Marshall, 1995; Laub, Nagin, & Sampson, 1998; Piquero, Brame, Mazzerole, & Haapanen, 2002). In contrast, additional research has shown that other life events, such as incarceration, are a risk factor for subsequent and continued involvement in criminal activity (Sampson & Laub, 1997).

In his review of DLC theory and research, Farrington (2003, pp. 223–224) identified 10 widely accepted conclusions about the development of criminal offending:

  1. The prevalence of offending peaks in the late teenage years.
  2. The peak age of onset of offending is between 8 and 14, and the peak age of desistance from offending is between 20 and 29.
  3. An early age of onset predicts a relatively long criminal career duration.
  4. There is marked continuity in offending and antisocial behavior from childhood to the teenage years and to adulthood.
  5. A small fraction of the population (the chronic offenders) commits a large fraction of all crimes.
  6. Offending is versatile rather than specialized.
  7. The types of acts defined as offenses are elements of a larger syndrome of antisocial behavior.
  8. Most offenses up to the late teenage years are committed with others, whereas most offenses from age 20 onward are committed alone.
  9. The reasons given for offending up to the late teenage years are quite variable, including utilitarian reasons, for excitement or enjoyment, or because people get angry.
  10. Different types of offenses tend to be first committed at distinctively different ages.

Considering this list of relatively undisputed truths about the development of criminal offending, it is also important to point out that the strength of the evidence for these truths does range considerably from relatively strong evidence to substantially strong evidence. Keeping this in mind, Farrington (2003, pp. 225–227) also described a series of issues in DLC criminology that are still points of contention to which DLC theories and research should attend. For instance, although the evidence is fairly robust with regard to the prevalence of offending peaking during late adolescence, the research is not as clear as to how an individual’s frequency of offending fluctuates in any given year and whether seriousness escalates and de-escalates as a function of age. Furthermore, two related issues concern the relationship of early-onset offending with later-onset offending and chronic offending with less frequent offending. More specifically, it is not yet determined whether early-onset offenders are different in degree or kind from late-onset offenders or whether chronic offenders are merely distinguishable from less frequent offenders in the number of offenses committed or if their offense repertoires are in fact distinct from one another.

The last few contentious DLC issues (identified by Farrington, 2003) focus on escalation, risk and protective factors, and intermittency in criminal careers. First, the research is not clear on whether certain types of offenses act as precursor events or gateway offenses (or stepping stones) for other types of offenses. For instance, does burglary lead to later sexual offending? Second, although risk and protective factors for early-onset offending are well-known, the evidence is lacking on whether these factors are in fact causal or whether they are merely indicators of the same underlying construct. Finally, research should incorporate and seek to explain the possibility that intermittency in criminal careers affects their results. For example, all offenders do not necessarily start offending at one particular point in time, continue offending for some duration, completely quit (desist) at another particular point in time, and never offend again. Instead, some offenders appear to desist for some period of time before restarting some years later, perhaps in response to some adverse life event such as losing a job, getting a divorce, or developing a substance abuse problem.

Acknowledging the current truths and points of contention in DLC research, the following section of this research paper highlights some of the key DLC theories and reviews their basic assumptions and expectations. The research paper concludes by offering some suggestions on where DLC theoretical development and modification and DLC empirical research should perhaps move toward in the future.