Criminal Careers

VI. Future Directions

In the future, further consideration of specialization of diversity and specialization of offending is needed to inform criminological theory and public policy and practice. Presently, much of the research regarding criminal specialization is descriptive in nature and does not necessarily consider the context of contemporary theory and practice. On the theoretical side, it is important to consider this characteristic of the criminal career in the context of emerging integrated perspectives. For example, identification of specialized offending patterns in shorter segments of the life course may provide important insights regarding situational influence on criminal behavior. At the same time, stringing shorter portions of the life course together will likely show an aggregate pattern of versatility. The process of merging those segments may provide greater insight into the trajectory of offending careers by identifying the social circumstances in which an offender might limit or expand his or her repertoire of offenses.

In the case of sex offenders, Lussier (2005) notes that limitations in the existing literature may help explain the disparate findings observed in his review. This is also likely the case in more general considerations of specialization and diversity (e.g., Osgood & Schreck, 2007; Sullivan et al., 2006). Lussier criticizes existing studies for not fully capturing the key theoretical issues surrounding specialization in offending. Specifically, researchers have not focused enough on within-individual change across the criminal career in their consideration of the issue of specialization. He suggests that use of the knowledge drawn from the foundation of the criminal career framework is an important aspect of understanding findings that demonstrate both generality and specialization in sex offender careers (see also McGloin, Sullivan, Piquero, & Pratt, 2007; Sullivan et al., 2006). Such a focus may help to reconcile patterns of short-term specialization with the more abundant findings of versatility in criminal careers.

As with much research in criminology, and the social sciences generally, it is important to assess substantive findings in the context of the samples and methods used in specialization studies. A variety of approaches have been used in order to assess the presence and nature of this property of criminal careers. The use of different measures, analytic approaches, and data sources has caused some difficulty in terms of fully understanding the level of specialization and its meaning for theory and policy. Gradually, emergent methods have begun to deal with some of the criticisms raised about the existing evidence. For example, Osgood and Schreck (2007) identified a variety of guidelines for studying specialization that may serve as a foundation for future research. It is important that findings from studies of specialization are viewed in relation to their operational definitions, time window, data source, the number and type of offenses used, and the analytic procedure.

Policymakers and practitioners make implicit assumptions about categorizations of offenders that allow them to execute prevention, processing, sentencing, placement, and treatment planning. These assumptions allow for simplified decision making, but they may also limit the ability to deal with offending problems in the long term. For instance, treating a versatile offender who just happened to commit a sex offense using a modality designed around assumptions regarding the psychological makeup of “sex offenders” may contribute to a squandering of already limited justice resources. Similarly, a policy that treats drug offenders as a pure category and deals with them as if they are specialized offenders may compromise public safety if those underlying assumptions turn out to be false. As Miethe et al. (2007) point out, if policies and treatment approaches for criminal offenders are based on false assumptions regarding specialized behavior patterns, they may be destined for failure before they are even initiated. Clearly, in the future it is important that policies and practices built on assumptions of specialization be carefully considered in relation to information obtained from actual offenders. In addition, theory and existing empirical findings should be utilized to explain why particular types of offenders might be more or less likely to specialize.

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