Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Criminal Careers and Cognitive Scripts: An Investigation into Criminal Versatility

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Criminal Careers and Cognitive Scripts: An Investigation into Criminal Versatility

Article excerpt


Some offenders commit a diverse range of offences during their criminal life span; others specialise, or exhibit diversification within a defined range of offence type. The "criminal career" paradigm is concerned with the development of deviant behaviour over time, usually from an early age, and the versatility of, and specialisation in, the crimes that are committed (Piquero, Farrington, & Blumstein, 2007). It has important implications in gaining a greater understanding of criminal behaviour and how that behaviour develops. "Criminal career" is defined as "the longitudinal sequence of offences committed by an individual offender" (Farrington, 1995, p. 511) and offences committed under the label of "criminal career" are usually amongst the most commonly occurring crimes - burglary, car theft, vandalism, and acts of violence. An examination of criminal careers needs to be both a longitudinal undertaking as well as cross-sectional.

West and Farrington (1977) conducted one of the first longitudinal studies on criminal careers, examining approximately four hundred boys, born between 19511954 in a working class area of London, over a fourteen-year period. In interviews conducted between 1971-1973, cross-referenced with official delinquency records, 101 (of the 389 remaining in the study) had official convictions for one or more offences. By 1974, the participants were 20-21 years old, and the number with convictions had increased to 120, with 360 separate convictions. The types of offences were labelled "crimes of dishonesty" (88% of juvenile, 76% of adult convictions) or "crimes of aggression" (6.8% juvenile, 10.6% adult). These labels represent a wide variety of crimes and most of the offenders were convicted of more than one type of offence from either or both of the broad category classifications.

Such studies as these represent seminal works in this area. There have been numerous others concentrating on the offences and types of offences. Klein (1984) reviewed 33 separate studies on career criminals, covering 60 cohorts of juveniles. He concluded that there existed a "cafeteria style" of offending, postulating how an offender could browse an array of offences, choosing to commit burglary, theft, vandalism, or violence. For Klein, the ordering of offences was random and not necessarily committed in a specific order, such as escalating seriousness. Four of the reviewed studies provided supporting evidence for patterns of specialisation, but eight showed ambiguous results offering inconclusive evidence for either specialisation or versatility. The remaining 21 failed to identify any evidence of a pattern of offending and supported the view of versatility.

An alternative examination was carried out by Farrington, Snyder and Finnegan (1988), who conducted a very comprehensive study in the USA, using a (then) new technique of measuring offence specialisation known as the "Forward Specialisation Coefficient" (FSC). The FSC is a measure of the probability of the transition from offence i to offence j, given by the following expression:

[FSC.sub.ij] = [n.sub.ij] - [n.sub.j] [n.sub.i] / [n.sub.i] / n - [n.sub.j] [n.sub.i] / n

Where: n(i,i) is the observed frequency n(j) is the column total, n(i) is the row total n is the total number of observations.

The FSC can take a value between zero and one. It is zero when there is complete versatility in offending and one when there is complete specialisation.

The study was based on the complete juvenile court careers of nearly 70,000 offenders. A key feature was the "new measure" of the strength of specialisation, combined with a fine-grained classification of 21 offences. In addition, transition matrices of offending careers were also studied, showing a small but significant degree of specialisation on offending, which was superimposed on a great deal of versatility. Furthermore, the degree of specialisation tended to increase with successive referrals. …

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