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Age and Crime

Variations In The Age Curve

Although crime tends to decline with age, substantial variation can be found in the parameters of the age-crime curve (such as peak age, median age, and rate of decline from peak age). "Flatter" age curves (i.e., those with an older peak age and/or a slower decline in offending rates among older age groups) are associated with several circumstances:

  1. Types of crime for which illegitimate opportunities increase rather than diminish with age.
  2. Population groups for whom illegitimate opportunities and integration into adult society do not markedly increase with age (i.e., during young adulthood).
  3. Cultures and historical periods in which youth have greater access to legitimate opportunities and integration into adult society.

Crime types. The offenses that show the youngest peaks and sharpest declines are crimes that fit the low-yield, criminal mischief, "hell-raising" category: vandalism, petty theft, robbery, arson, auto theft, burglary, and liquor law and drug violations. Personal crimes like aggravated assault and homicide tend to have somewhat "older" age distributions (median ages in the late twenties), as do some of the public order offenses, public drunkenness, driving under the influence, and certain of the property crimes that juveniles have less opportunity to commit, like embezzlement, fraud, and gambling (median ages in late twenties or thirties). However, even these older age-distributions (e.g., fraud) have shifted toward younger peak ages in recent years (see below).

Those offenses with flatter age curves are often those for which the structure of illegitimate opportunities increases rather than disappears with age. For example, some opportunities for fraud exist for young people (such as falsification of identification to purchase alcohol or gain entry to "adult" establishments), but since they are too young to obtain credit, they lack the opportunities for common frauds such as passing bad checks, defrauding an innkeeper, or credit card forgery. Similarly, young people have more opportunities for some kinds of violence (for example, street fights or gang violence) but less opportunity for other kinds of violence (for example, spousal violence).

Older people may also shift to less visible criminal roles such as bookie or fence. Or as a spin-off of legitimate roles, they may commit surreptitious crimes or crimes that, if discovered, are unlikely to be reported to the authorities, such as embezzlement, stock fraud, bribery, or price-fixing. Unfortunately, we know relatively little about the age distribution of persons who commit these and related lucrative crimes, but the fragmentary evidence that does exist suggests that they are likely to be middle age or older (Shapiro; Pennsylvania Crime Commission). Evidence also suggests that the age curves for lucrative crimes in the underworld like racketeering or loansharking not only peak much later but tend to decline more slowly with age (Steffensmeier and Allan; Steffensmeier).

Still less is known of the age distribution of "respectable" or upperworld offenders who commit lucrative business crimes like fraud, price-fixing, or bribery, since such data are not plentiful. However, data from New York Times articles on profitable business crimes (those involving gains of $25,000 or more) during the 1987–1990 period reveals a preponderance of middle-aged or older offenders, with a modal age between forty and fifty (Steffensmeier and Allan).

Minority differences. For black inner-city youths, the problems of youth described above are compounded by persistent racial discrimination and blocked conventional opportunity (Wilson, 1987; 1996). As inner-city blacks move into young adulthood, they continue to experience limited access to high quality adult jobs and are more likely to associate primarily with same-sex peers. As UCR data show, adult offending levels among blacks continue at higher levels than among whites, and the proportion of total black crime that is committed by black adults is greater than the proportion of total white crime that is committed by white adults (Steffensmeier and Allan). Arrest statistics for homicide/robbery from California further document the flatter age-crime curves among blacks than whites.

Cross-cultural and historical differences. In small preindustrial societies, the passage to adult status is relatively simple and continuous. Formal "rites of passage" at relatively early ages avoid much of the status ambiguity and role conflict that torment modern adolescents in the developed world. Youths begin to assume responsible and economically productive roles well before they reach full physical maturity. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that such societies and time periods have significantly flatter and less skewed age-crime patterns (for a review, see Steffensmeier et al., 1989).

Much the same is true for earlier periods in the history of the United States and other industrial nations, when farm youth were crucial for harvesting crops and working-class children were expected to leave school at an early age and do their part in helping to support their families. By contrast, "The typical job a teenager can get today provides neither the self-pride of economic independence not the socializing benefits of working alongside adult mentors. . .. Work relations seem to have been critical experiences for the socialization of many young men in the past. Such jobs integrated youths into adult society . . . instead of segregating them in a separate peer culture" (Coontz, p. 29).

Although youth has always been seen as a turbulent time, social processes associated with the coming of industrialization and the postindustrial age have aggravated the stresses of adolescence, resulting in increased levels of juvenile criminality in recent decades. The structure of modern societies, therefore, encourages crime and delinquency among the young because these societies "lack institutional procedures for moving people smoothly from protected childhood to autonomous adulthood" (Nettler, p. 241).

Unfortunately, reliable age statistics on criminal involvement are not available over extended historical periods. Nonetheless, we can compare age-crime distributions over the past sixty years or so in the United States and also compare these to early nineteenth-century age-crime distributions reported in Quetelet's pioneering study (see also Monkkonen). The age-crime plots for homicide clearly document the trend toward younger age distributions and younger peak ages.

The shift toward a greater concentration of offending among the young may be due partly to change in law enforcement procedures and data collection. Nevertheless, the likelihood that real changes have in fact occurred is supported by the consistency of the changes from 1830 to 1940 to 1980, and continuing into the mid-1990s. Support for the conclusion that real change has taken place over the past century also is found in the age breakdown of U.S. prisoner statistics covering the years 1890 to 1980 (Steffensmeier et al., 1989). As with the UCR statistics, the prison statistics show that age curves are more peaked today than a century ago and that changes in the age-crime curve are gradual and can be detected only when a sufficiently large time frame is used. Moreover, research shows that more-recent birth cohorts of juveniles are more violent than ones in the past (Tracey et al., 1990; Shannon, 1988).

Together, these findings are consistent with the view that contemporary teenagers in industrialized nations are subject to greater status anxiety than in previous periods of history and that the transition from adolescence to adulthood is more turbulent now than in the past (Greenberg, 1979, 1982; Glaser). In comparison to earlier eras, youths have had less access to responsible family roles, valued economic activity, and participation in community affairs (Greenberg 1982). This generational isolation has fostered adolescent subcultures oriented toward consumption and hedonistic pursuits (Hagen et al., 1998; Hagan). The weakened social bonds and reduced access to valued adult roles, along with accentuated subcultural influences, all combine to increase situationally induced pressures to obtain valued goods; display strength, daring, or loyalty to peers; or simply to "get kicks" (Hagan et al., 1998; Steffensmeier et al., 1989).

Sex differences in the age-crime relationship. Although age-crime parameters differ as described above, there appears to be considerable similarity in the age-crime relationship between males and females (Steffensmeier and Streifel). UCR arrest statistics from the 1930s to the 1990s show that the age curves of male and female offenders are very similar within any given period and across all offenses, with the exception of prostitution. To the extent that age differences between the sexes exist, the tendency is for somewhat lower peak ages of offending among females—apparently because of their earlier physical maturity and the likelihood that young adolescent females might date and associate with older delinquent male peers. But overall, although male levels of offending are always higher than female levels at every age and for virtually all offenses, the female-to-male ratio remains fairly constant across the life span (Steffensmeier and Streifel). Also, the trend toward younger and more peaked age-crime distributions holds for both sexes.

The single major difference in the age curves of males and females is for prostitution (and to some extent vagrancy, often a euphemism for prostitution in the case of female arrestees), with females having a much greater concentration of arrests among the young. Although this difference may be due in part to more stringent enforcement of prostitution statutes when young females are involved, the younger and more peaked female age curve is also a function of the extent to which opportunity structures for sexual misbehaviors differ between males and females. Clearly, sexual attractiveness and the marketability of sexual services are strongly linked to both age and gender: Older women become less able to market sexual services, whereas older men can continue to purchase sexual services from young females or from young males (Steffensmeier and Streifel).

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