Early Adult Outcomes of Male Arrest Trajectories: Propensity versus Causation Effects

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study examined early adult outcomes of differing arrest trajectories across childhood through early adulthood that were identified in prior research for 197 at-risk young men. Early adult outcomes were assessed at ages 27-28 to 29-30 years. Predictive effects of arrest trajectory membership on outcomes were examined after controlling for various factors, including prior levels and early antisocial propensity. As early adults, both chronic offender groups showed poorer adjustment in terms of deviant peer affiliation, education, and work domains than did the Rare Offenders; High-Level Chronic Offenders stood out from all other groups in terms of mental health problems and physical aggression toward a partner. These effects represent plausible causal effects of developmental pathways of offending on the outcomes. Evidence for propensity effects on the outcomes was more limited. Theoretical and prevention implications are discussed.

Keywords: early adult outcomes, life span, offending, trajectories


Criminologists have long been interested in the characterization of developmental patterns of antisocial behavior and crime across the life course. Recent advances in statistical methods (e.g., Muthén and Shedden 1999; Nagin 1999) have been highly instrumental in rejuvenating interest in this topic and have resulted in several long-term studies demonstrating considerable heterogeneity in offender pathways across the adolescent and early adult years (for an overview, see Piquero 2008). Interestingly, the existing hypothesized dual taxonomies of antisocial and criminal behavior across the life course (e.g., Moffitt 1993, 1997; Patterson and Yoerger 1993, 1997) have received only moderate support. Key differences in recent findings include the lack of a clear adolescent-limited trajectory, a much more pronounced adolescent peak for the most severe offender trajectory than posited, and the lack of predictive value of age of onset in distinguishing between the higher and more moderate offender pathways (Wiesner, Capaldi, and Kim 2007). Furthermore, studies often found more than two trajectories when using self-reports of offending (Piquero 2008).

By comparison, the linkage between differing offender pathways and subsequent outcomes has received limited attention in empirical work. There is preliminary evidence that different offender pathways show differences in levels of problematic outcomes in a broad range of early adult-life domains, but these effects are difficult to interpret if researchers do not control for prior levels of the respective outcomes and propensity factors. Without controls for either early antisocial behavior or underlying propensities, it is difficult to rule out the counter argument derived from propensity theory (e.g., Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990) that differential early adult outcomes of distinctive offender pathways merely reflect stable individual differences in antisocial behavior or an underlying, shared propensity factor, such as poor self-control. This is a highly relevant theoretical issue because it speaks to the on-going debate of whether population heterogeneity, state dependence, or a mixture of both processes offers the best explanation of such findings. The purpose of this prospective study was to address this issue using official records data on arrest trajectories from an at-risk sample of young men. The study extends prior research that had identified three arrest trajectory groups for this sample: High-Level Chronic, Low-Level Chronic, and Rare Offenders (Wiesner et al. 2007).


In prior research, we hypothesized that high levels of chronic involvement in antisocial behavior are related to cumulative developmental failures (Capaldi 1991, 1992; Patterson and Capaldi 1991). Specifically, antisocial behavior and developmental failures lead to restriction of environmental options (e.g., rejection by socially skilled peers, academic failure, and high school dropout), that subsequently limit future social interaction, education, and employment opportunities (Capaldi and Stoolmiller 1999). …


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