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Age and Crime

Variations In Criminal Careers

The youthful peak and rapid drop-off in offending that constitutes the most common societal pattern for conventional crimes is actually but one of a number of patterns identified when criminal careers are tracked for individual offenders (Jolin and Gibbons).

"Aging out" of crime. Research suggests that exiting from a criminal career requires the acquisition of meaningful bonds to conventional adult individuals and institutions (Sampson and Laub; Shover; Steffensmeier and Allan; Warr). One important tie to the conventional order is a job that seems to have the potential for advancement and that is seen as meaningful and economically rewarding. A good job shifts a criminal's attention from the present to the future and provides a solid basis for the construction of a noncriminal identity. It also alters an individual's daily routine in ways that make crime seem less likely. Other bonds that may lead people away from crime include involvement in religion, sports, hobbies, or other activities.

The development of conventional social bonds may be coupled with burnout or a belated deterrent effect as offenders grow tired of the hassles of repeated involvement with the criminal justice system, and the hardships of a life of crime. They may also have experienced a long prison sentence that jolts them into quitting or that entails a loss of street contacts which makes the successful continuation of a criminal career difficult. Or offenders may develop a fear of dying alone in prison, especially since repeated convictions yield longer sentences. Still other offenders may quit or "slow down" as they find their abilities and efficiency declining with increasing age, loss of "nerve," or sustained narcotics or alcohol use (Adler and Adler; Shover; Steffensmeier).

Older criminals. Older offenders fall into two categories: (1) those whose first criminal involvement occurs relatively late in life (particularly in shoplifting, homicide, and alcohol-related offenses); and (2) those who started crime at an early age and continue their involvement into their forties and fifties and beyond. What evidence is available on first-time older offenders suggests that situational stress and lack of alternative opportunities play a primary role. The unanticipated loss of one's job or other disruptions of social ties can push some individuals into their first law violation at any age (Jolin and Gibbons).

Older offenders who persist in crime are more likely to belong to the criminal under-world. These are individuals who are relatively successful in their criminal activities or who are extensively integrated into subcultural or family enterprises. They seem to receive relational and psychic rewards (e.g., pride in their expertise) as well as monetary rewards from lawbreaking and, as a result, see no need to withdraw from lawbreaking (Steffensmeier). Alternatively, such offenders may "shift and oscillate" back and forth between conventionality and lawbreaking, depending on shifting life circumstances and situational inducements to offend (Adler and Adler). These older offenders are also unlikely to see many meaningful opportunities for themselves in the conventional or law-abiding world. Consequently, "the straight life" may have little to offer successful criminals, who will be more likely to persist in their criminality for an extended period. But they, too, may slow down eventually as they grow tired of the cumulative aggravations and risks of criminal involvement, or as they encounter the diminishing capacities associated with the aging process.

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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