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Criminal Careers - Historical Background

offending offenders chronic age

Research has demonstrated that most offenders commit only a single offense and terminate their offending after first arrest. A smaller percentage go on to offend repeatedly, while a subset of these repeat offenders go on to chronic "career" patterns of offending. The focus on the concept of crime patterns as "careers" began with the early studies of Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck that followed the pathways of both criminals and noncriminals. In the work for which they are best known, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency (1950), the Gluecks followed five hundred white males, ages ten to seventeen, who were adjudicated delinquent by the state of Massachusetts. This sample was matched case-by-case on such variables as neighborhood of residence, birthplace of the parents, and measured intelligence to a sample of five hundred white males of the same age drawn from the Boston public school system. Delinquent/criminal behavior was followed from 1939 to 1948 through self-reports, parental reports, and teacher reports. With these data, the Gluecks were instrumental in beginning to disentangle the relationship between age and crime (Sampson and Laub). In identifying age of onset and declining rates of offending with age as key components in the age-crime relationship, they contributed greatly to current criminal careers research. In addition to changing behavior over time (e.g., declining rates of offending with age), the Gluecks also found high levels of stability in offending behavior over time. The concept of stability versus change, or dynamic versus static models of offending, is a central argument in modern criminal careers research (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990; Sampson and Laub).

Building on work done by the Gluecks, several major cohort studies advanced the development of the criminal careers paradigm (Shannon, 1988, 1991; Tracy, Wolfgang, and Figlio; West and Farrington, 1973, 1977; Wolfgang, Figlio, and Sellin). Wolfgang, Figlio, and Sellin assembled data on the males of the 1945 birth cohort in the city of Philadelphia and followed their criminal activity through the young adult years, leading to a more complete conceptualization of the chronic or career offender. A particularly enduring finding of Wolfgang and his colleagues has been the existence of a small percentage of the general population (estimated at 5 to 10 percent), called "chronic recidivists" that is responsible for over 50 percent of the total offenses committed by cohort members. The 1945 Philadelphia Birth Cohort Study was followed up with a larger birth cohort study in 1958 that included both males and females, following them into adulthood (Tracy, Wolfgang, and Figlio). While the researchers found increased rates of offending in the 1958 Philadelphia Birth Cohort, there remained a stable class of chronic offenders responsible for a large percentage of the cohort's offenses. In addition, it was found that females offended at significantly lower rates than their male counterparts, with approximately 1 percent being classified as chronic offenders. Later follow-ups of the 1958 cohort have found stability in offending among the most chronic of offenders, coupled with higher levels of desistance among other nonchronic offenders (Tracy and Kempf-Leonard).

West and Farrington (1973, 1977) continued the tradition of longitudinal studies of offending using panel data collected in Cambridge, England, beginning in 1961–1962 (West and Farrington, 1973, 1977). The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development followed the development of 411 boys from the age of eight through the age of thirty-two and documented the existence of chronic offenders similar to the conclusions reached in studies conducted in the United States. In particular, Farrington and his colleagues found that indicators of future chronic or persistent offending are detectable as early as age eight, indicating a continuity or stability in criminal behavior over time; that delinquent and criminal offending tends to be diverse in nature as opposed to specialized; and that social factors such as family structure, economic conditions, and marital status influence the continuity of offending over time.

Lyle Shannon's work (1988, 1991) with the Racine, Wisconsin, birth cohorts of 1942, 1949, and 1955 has added to the body of knowledge on the development of the criminal career. Coupling police contact information for all members of the birth cohorts who remained within the city of Racine through at least their eighteenth birthday with more in-depth interview data, Shannon found evidence supporting the existence of the career or chronic criminal. In the Racine cohorts, about 5 percent of each of the total cohorts was responsible for approximately 80 percent of the felonies. In addition, substantial continuity existed among the most serious offenders in their offending patterns, while less serious offenders were prone to desist from their offending.

Criminal Careers - Contemporary Issues And Controversies [next]

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