AGE AND CRIME (police)


The relationship between aging and criminal activity has been noted since the beginnings of criminology. For example, Adolphe Quetelet (1833) found that the proportion of the population involved in crime tends to peak in adolescence or early adulthood and then decline with age. This age-crime relationship is remarkably similar across historical periods, geographic locations, and crime types. That the impact of age on criminal involvement is one of the strongest factors associated with crime has prompted the controversial claim that the age-crime relationship is invariant (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1983). However, considerable variation exists among offenses and across historical periods in specific features of the age-crime relationship (for example, peak age, median age, rate of decline from peak age). A claim of ”invariance” in the age-crime relationship therefore overstates the case (Steffensmeier et al. 1989).

Arrest data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) on ordinary crimes (e.g., robbery, 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 most crimes reported in the FBI’s UCR program, and rates begin to decline in the late teenage years for more than half of the UCR crimes. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), self-report studies of juvenile and adult criminality, and interview data from convicted felons also corroborate the robust effect of age on crime patterns (Rowe and Tittle 1977; Elliott et al. 1983).

Explaining Youthful Offending

A variety of social, cognitive, and physical 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 1998). 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 (Wilson and Herrenstein 1985; Steffensmeier et al. 1989). 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 1987; Hagan et al. 1998).

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 et al. 1989):

1. Greater access to legitimate sources of material goods and excitement: jobs, credit, alcohol, sex, etc.

2. 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.

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. 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 of things; and seeing their casual delinquencies of youth as childish or foolish.

5. Increased legal and social costs for deviant behavior.

6. 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.

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. In addition, early adulthood typically involves a change in peer associations and lifestyle routines that diminish the opportunities for committing these offenses. Furthermore, at the same time when informal sanctions for law violation are increasing, potential legal sanctions increase substantially.

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 at least two circumstances: (1) cultures and historical periods in which youth have greater access to legitimate opportunities and integration into adult society and (2) types of crime for which illegitimate opportunities increase rather than diminish with age.

Cross-Cultural and Historical Differences

In nonindustrial 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 Greenberg 1979; Steffensmeier and Allan 2000).

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, today teenagers typically work at marginal jobs that provide little self-pride or opportunities for adult men-torship, and instead segregate them in a separate peer culture. 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 1978, 241). Unfortunately, reliable age statistics on criminal involvement are not available over extended historical periods.

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 such as aggravated assault and homicide tend to have somewhat ”older” age distributions (median age in the late twenties), as do some of the public order offenses, public drunkenness, and certain of the property crimes that juveniles have less opportunity to commit, like embezzlement, fraud, and gambling (median age in late twenties or thirties).

Older people may also shift to less visible criminal roles such as bookie or fence (Steffensmeier and Ulmer 2005). Or as a spinoff 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 1984; Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1991). Evidence also suggests that the age curves for lucrative crimes in the underworld such as racketeering or loan-sharking not only peak much later but tend to decline more slowly with age (Steffensmeier and Allan 2000; Steffensmeier 1986).

Sex Differences in the Age-Crime Relationship

There appears to be considerable similarity in the age-crime relationship between males and females (Steffensmeier and Streifel 1991). To the extent that age differences between the sexes exists for certain crimes (e.g., prostitution), the tendency is for somewhat lower peak ages of offending among females—apparently because of their earlier physical maturity, the gendered age effects of marketability of sexual services, and the likelihood that young adolescent females might date and associate with older delinquent male peers. Also, the trend toward younger and more peaked age-crime distributions holds for both sexes.

”Aging Out” of Crime

Research suggests that exiting from a criminal career is more likely with the acquisition of meaningful bonds to conventional adult individuals and institutions such as a good job or strong adult relationship (Irwin 1970; Shover 1983, 1996). Other bonds that may lead people away from crime include involvement in religion, sports, hobbies, or other activities (Steffens-meier and Ulmer 2005). 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 (Meisenhelder 1977; Shover 1983, 1996). They may also have experienced a long prison sentence that jolts them into quitting or that entails the loss of street contacts that make 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 (Prus and Sharper 1977; Adler and Adler 1983; Shover 1983, 1996; Steffensmeier 1986; Steffensmeier and Ulmer 2005).

Older offenders who persist in crime are more likely to belong to the criminal underworld. These are individuals who are relatively successful in their criminal activities or who are extensively integrated into subcultural or family criminal enterprises. They seem to receive relational and psychic rewards (e.g., pride in their expertise) as well as monetary rewards from lawbreak-ing and, as a result, see no need to withdraw from lawbreaking (Steffensmeier and Ulmer 2005). 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 1983; Adler 1993; Steffensmeier and Ulmer 2005). 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.


Age is a consistent predictor of crime, both in the aggregate and for individuals. The most common finding across countries, groups, and historical periods shows that crime—especially ”ordinary” or ”street” crime—tends to be a young person’s activity. However, the age-crime relationship is not invariant; in fact, it varies in its specific features according to crime types, the structural position of groups, and historical and cultural contexts. On the other hand, relatively little is known about older chronic offenders. Clearly, the structure, dynamics, and contexts of offending among older individuals is a rich topic for future research.

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