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Age and Crime

Age-crime Patterns For The U.s.

The F.B.I.'s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data, particularly the Crime Index (homicide, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, auto theft) document the robustness of the age effect on crime and also reveal a long-term trend toward younger age-crime distributions in more modern times. Today, the peak age (the age group with the highest age-specific arrest rate) is younger than twenty-five for all crimes reported in the F.B.I.'s UCR program except gambling, and rates begin to decline in the teenage years for more than half of the UCR crimes. In fact, even the median age (50 percent of all arrests occurring among younger persons) is younger than thirty for most crimes. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), self-report studies of juvenile and adult criminality, and interview data from convicted felons corroborate the age-crime patterns found in the UCR data (Steffensmeier and Allan).

Explaining the youthful peak in offending. In a general sense, physical abilities, such as strength, speed, prowess, stamina, and aggression are useful for successful commission of many crimes, for protection, for enforcing contracts, and for recruiting and managing reliable associates (for a review, see Steffensmeier and Allan). Although some crimes are more physically demanding than others, persistent involvement in crime is likely to entail a lifestyle that is physically demanding and dangerous. Declining physical strength and energy may make crime too dangerous or unsuccessful, especially where there are younger or stronger criminal competitors who will not be intimidated, and this might help to explain the very low involvement in crime of small children and the elderly.

However, available evidence on biological aging reveals very little correspondence between physical aging and crime's decline in late adolescence. The research literature on biological aging (see especially Shock) suggests that peak functioning is typically reached between the ages of twenty-five and thirty for physical factors plausibly assumed to affect one's ability to commit crimes (strength, stamina, aerobic capacity, motor control, sensory perception, and speed of movement). Although decline sets in shortly after these peak years, it is very gradual until the early fifties, when the decline becomes more pronounced (Shock). Other commonly mentioned physical variables like testosterone levels peak in late adolescence but then remain at or near peak level until at least the mid-forties. In contrast, the age curves for crimes like robbery and burglary that presuppose the need for physical abilities peak in mid-adolescence and then decline very rapidly. In short, although biological and physiological factors may contribute toward an understanding of the rapid increase in delinquent behavior during adolescence, they cannot by themselves explain the abrupt decline in the age-crime curve following mid-to-late adolescence (which, in particular, is observed in contemporary, postindustrial nations).

A variety of social and cognitive factors can help explain the rapid rise in age-specific rates of offending around mid-adolescence. Teenagers generally lack strong bonds to conventional adult institutions, such as work and family (Warr). At the same time, teens are faced with strong potential rewards for offending: money, status, power, autonomy, identity claims, strong sensate experiences stemming from sex, natural adrenaline highs or highs from illegal substances, and respect from similar peers (Steffensmeier and Allan). Further, their dependent status as juveniles insulates teens from many of the social and legal costs of illegitimate activities, and their stage of cognitive development limits prudence concerning the consequences of their behavior. At the same time, they possess the physical prowess required to commit crimes. Finally, a certain amount of misbehavior is often seen as natural to youth and seen as simply a stage of growing up ( Jolin and Gibbons; Hagan et al.).

For those in late adolescence or early adulthood (roughly ages seventeen to twenty-two, the age group showing the sharpest decline in arrest rates for many crimes), important changes occur in at least six spheres of life (Steffensmeier and Allan):

  1. Greater access to legitimate sources of material goods and excitement: jobs, credit, alcohol, sex, and so on.
  2. Age-graded norms: externally, increased expectation of maturity and responsibility; internally, anticipation of assuming adult roles, coupled with reduced subjective acceptance of deviant roles and the threat they pose to entering adult status.
  3. Peer associations and lifestyle: reduced orientation to same-age-same-sex peers and increased orientation toward persons of the opposite sex or persons who are older or more mature.
  4. Increased legal and social costs for deviant behavior.
  5. Patterns of illegitimate opportunities: with the assumption of adult roles, opportunities increase for crimes (for example, gambling, fraud, and employee theft) that are less risky, more lucrative, or less likely to be reflected in official statistics.
  6. Cognitive and analytical skill development leading to a gradual decline in egocentrism, hedonism, and sense of invincibility; becoming more concerned for others, more accepting of social values, more comfortable in social relations, and more concerned with the meaning of life and their place in things; and seeing their casual delinquencies of youth as childish or foolish.

As young people move into adulthood or anticipate entering it, most find their bonds to conventional society strengthening, with expanded access to work or further education and increased interest in "settling down." Leaving high school, finding employment, going to college, enlisting in the military, and getting married all tend to increase informal social controls and integration into conventional society (Steffensmeier et al., 1989). In addition, early adulthood typically involves a change in peer associations and lifestyle routines that diminish the opportunities for committing these offenses (Warr). Last, at the same time when informal sanctions for law violations are increasing, potential legal sanctions increase substantially.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawAge and Crime - Age-crime Patterns For The U.s., Variations In The Age Curve, Variations In Criminal Careers