Criminal Behavior and Age: A Test of Three Provocative Hypothesis

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Issues about age and crime are among the most important in criminology. This is due largely to Hirschi and Gottfredson,(1) who contend that the familiar inverted J-curve association between age and crime is invariant, inexplicable with social science variables, and involves no interaction between age and any variable that explains or correlates with crime.

These three hypotheses bear on several trends and issues. First, they challenge the criminal careers perspective that life cycle patterns of offending take many forms, each requiring specific explanations and longitudinal research for testing.(2) If all people, including frequent offenders, commit more crime in the late teen years than later, then career offending is different only in amount, and the necessity of explaining different trajectories with special theories is vitiated. Moreover, if the causes of crime are the same at all ages, the call for longitudinal research inherent in the career criminal perspective is irrelevant.(3)

Second, the Hirschi-Gottfredson position casts doubt on developmental perspectives that portray the determinants of crime as age-graded and variable over the life course.(4) If the causes of crime do not interact with age and the age-crime relationship is inherent, invariant, and inexplicable, then criminologists need only identify the general causes of crime and apply them to explain constant differences among individuals and categories in likelihood of criminal behavior, without reference to age patterned increases and decreases in the probability and volume of criminal behavior.

Third, these hypotheses challenge practices of organizing criminological work around age differentiations such as juvenile, adult, and aged, or alternatively, of seeking age comprehensive samples in testing theories about crime.(5) If the causes of crime are the same at all ages, and if age patterns are inexplicable, then dividing labor to study crime within specific age categories and seeking age-comprehensive samples for research makes no sense.

Finally, if age and crime are related in constant ways across all conditions, and inexplicable except by the biology of aging itself,(6) then the adequacy of numerous general social theories that imply an ability to account for age variations is in doubt and the import of social, relative to biological, influences is potentially diminished.



Evidence concerning "invariance" is difficult to judge because Hirschi and Gottfredson were not entirely clear about their definition. Three types of invariance have been investigated--parametric, mathematical form, and individualistic. Parametric concerns details of the relationship between population characteristics and crime rates, including means, standard deviations, and skewness of the distribution, as well as ages of onset and peaks for different crimes and populations.(7) Steffensmeier et al.,(8) Greenberg,(9) and others(10) have reported such work. Results show that the relationship between age and crime is not exactly the same in all details for all crimes and all populations. Thus, if Hirschi and Gottfredson meant to assert parametric invariance, they are clearly wrong. However, it is doubtful they meant such particularism, since they acknowledge variation in details, emphasizing their concern with a "remarkably robust age effect" and not with "statistical noise" indicating "trivial variations"(11) or with "an occasional factoid apparently contrary to the thesis."(12)

A second type of invariance, and the one that Hirschi and Gottfredson seem to propose, concerns the shape of the curve describing the relationship between age and crime in any population. The evidence they review,(13) as well as subsequent research,(14) and even the data examined by Steffensmeier and his associates,(15) is consistent with the contention that relationships between age and many kinds of crime for various populations follow a similar pattern characterized by a single peak occurring fairly early in the life cycle (usually in the late teens for most offenses) with steady declines thereafter. …