The term criminal career describes an individual’s total involvement in criminal activity, from the point of onset, through continuation, ending at the last incident of criminal activity. Specifically, a criminal career charts an individual’s long-term sequences and patterns of criminal behaviors. Instead of focusing on aggregate crime rates, the criminal career perspective explores the causes of criminal behavior by placing emphasis on individuals and individual long-term patterns of offending (Blumstein et al. 1986). This perspective is an important framework within which the life-course perspective can be studied with regard to crime. While life-course perspectives are concerned with the duration, timing, and ordering of transition events and their effects on long-term social development and trajectories (Sampson and Laub 1992), the criminal career perspective focuses on the origins, continuation, and cessation of an individual’s criminal activity. Although the criminal career perspective is interested in the causes and patterns of criminality, another goal central to this perspective is to aid in developing crime control policies that would focus on interrupting or altering criminal careers (Blumstein and Cohen 1987).

There are four main components to the criminal career paradigm: participation, frequency, seriousness, and career length. The first two, participation and frequency, are considered the primary components. Participation separates those who have offended from those who have not. In other words, this component operates as a filter, making the necessary distinction between those individuals who engage in crime from those individuals who do not (Blumstein et al. 1986). The point at which the criminal career begins is referred to as the age of onset. The end of the criminal career is generally called desistance. Research on the participation component of criminal careers has shown that males have higher participation rates than females, that blacks have higher participation rates than whites, and that the probability of onset is strongest between the ages of thirteen and eighteen (Piquero, Farrington, and Blum-stein 2003). Once the subset of criminally active individuals has been identified, the other components of the criminal career perspective can be utilized to characterize the offender population.

Among those who have criminal careers, there is variation in the intensity of offending. Therefore, the second component, frequency (represented by the Greek letter lambda, l), indicates the rate of criminal activity for an active offender. It is measured by the number of criminal offenses committed during a specified period of time (Blumstein et al. 1986). Often, it is measured as the number of crimes committed during a one-year period per individual offender. This dimension of the criminal career is often considered to be the most significant of the four components, and research on criminal careers has identified notable variation in individual offender frequencies. While some criminal careers are marked by low frequencies of offending, other individuals have high frequency rates. Criminal career research has indicated a relationship between age of onset and offending frequency, with individuals exhibiting an earlier at age first offense having higher offending frequencies. In terms of gender, research on frequency has indicated that, among active offenders, frequency rates are similar for males and females (Piquero, Farrington, and Blumstein 2003).

The third component, seriousness, describes the severity of offenses. This element of the criminal career perspective refers to the severity of the criminal act committed, as well as the patterns and sequences of seriousness from one offense to another (Blumstein et al. 1986). In other words, this dimension focuses on whether, during an individual’s criminal career, criminal acts escalate in severity, de-escalate in severity, or are intermixed and display no apparent patterns. Within this element, there is also a concern about crime type and crime specialization. The term generalist refers to offenders who commit a variety of crimes, while the term specialist refers to offenders who tend to repeat and engage in the same type of offense (Benson 2002). Research in this area of the criminal career perspective has found that while there exists some small tendency to specialize in a small range of crimes, most offenders display generality in their offenses. The research has also indicated differences in crime type specialization among adults and juveniles, with adult offenders being more likely to specialize than juvenile offenders (Piquero, Farrington, and Blumstein 2003).

The fourth and final component of the criminal career is career length, which describes how long the offender is actively committing crimes. This dimension is measured as the time between age of onset and desistance (Vold, Bernard, and Snipes 2002). Criminal career lengths can vary to a large extent. For one-time offenders, the duration of the career is short, whereas for chronic offenders the duration of the criminal career is much longer (Blumstein et al. 1986). The research on this dimension has suggested that most criminal careers are brief, and begin and end during the teenage and late teenage years. For a smaller number of individuals, however, career lengths are longer and can continue through the adult years (Piquero, Farrington, and Blumstein 2003).

The criminal career perspective is guided and shaped by two pieces of criminological knowledge. The first is the largely accepted aggregate age-crime relationship. This relationship was first observed in the 1800s, and describes crime rates as reaching their peak during the late adolescent years and subsequently declining with age. Although this finding is accepted at the aggregate level, the interpretation is at the center of criminological debate (Piquero and Mazerolle 2001). While certain scholars view the decline in the aggregate age-crime curve as the result of active offenders experiencing declining offending rates with time, the criminal career perspective holds that this does not necessarily have to be the case. According to the criminal career paradigm, the decline in the aggregate age-crime relationship may also be the result of a change in participation rates. As individuals age, the numbers of criminally active offenders declines, but those who continue to offend, offend at high or stable frequencies (Vold, Bernard, and Snipes 2002).

Second, and also guiding the criminal career perspective, is the knowledge that a small percentage of offenders is responsible for the majority of crime. This piece of information was first identified in a seminal birth cohort study by Wolfgang, Figlio, and Sellin (1972). Similar findings have emerged in many other longitudinal studies that utilize different samples from different cohorts and contexts (Piquero, Farrington, and Blumstein 2003). On this score, the criminal career perspective directs focus to identifying the chronic offenders who are accountable for the largest proportion of crime, and to use this information in order to develop crime control policies (Blumstein and Cohen 1987). These chronic offenders are often referred to as career criminals, but terms such as habitual offenders and persistent offenders are also used (Svensson 2002). Several public policy implications stem from the combination of these two pieces of criminological knowledge.

Policy Implications

The criminal career framework identifies three crime control policies. The first is deterrence, which is a prevention strategy. The goal of deterrence is to dissuade nonoffenders from becoming offenders in the first place. The second crime control strategy is modification. The goal of this strategy is to reduce offending among active offenders by modifying their current behaviors. The third crime control strategy is incapacitation. The criminal career perspective has given incapacitation the greatest amount of consideration and attention. The goal is to separate active offenders from general society, normally through incarceration, during the duration of the criminal career.

Incapacitation efforts can be either general or selective. In other words, collectively incapacitating all offenders, or selectively incapacitating chronic offenders (Blumstein et al. 1986; Piquero, Farrington, and Blumstein 2003). Selective incapacitation, in theory, would identify and confine those offenders who commit a high frequency of more serious offenses. According to Blumstein and Cohen (1987), this method of crime control could reduce ”wasted” sentencing on offenders who would desist from crime naturally and end their criminal careers. Instead, selective incapacitation would target ”career criminals,” those offenders who have longer and more active criminal careers. Unfortunately, it has been difficult to identify prospective career criminals.

Unresolved Issues

There are a number of unresolved issues in the criminal career literature. Five of them are highlighted here. First, due to lack of longitudinal data, there exists very little information on patterns of participation, frequency, and desistance past the third decade of life. To obtain true estimates of desistance, lengthier data collection efforts are required. Second, because much of the early data collection efforts in criminology employed samples of white male offenders, there exists no long-term information on patterns of offending across sex and race. Third, much of the information about criminal careers comes from official records (arrests and convictions). Self-reported information obtained from individuals over the life course is necessary. Fourth, the effect of incapacitation policies shows that offenders are oftentimes incarcerated for lengthy periods when they would otherwise likely not offend. A review of current sentencing policies appears relevant. Finally, very little information on the nature of criminal careers exists in a cross-national context. Future studies should attempt to document the natural history of offending using data from around the world.

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