Persistent versus Late Onset among Female Offenders: A Test of State Dependent and Population Heterogeneity Interpretations*

By Gunnison, Elaine; McCartan, Lisa M. | Western Criminology Review, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Persistent versus Late Onset among Female Offenders: A Test of State Dependent and Population Heterogeneity Interpretations*


Gunnison, Elaine, McCartan, Lisa M., Western Criminology Review


Abstract: Research into female offending has begun to explore the utility of different offending trajectories for females. The current research extends this new line of inquiry by employing both population heterogeneity and state dependent interpretations of offending. Using data on a sample of females collected from a southwestern prison, the results indicate that there are significant differences between persistent and late onset offenders. While many theoretical variables did not distinguish between late onset and persistent offenders, sexual abuse did. This research further suggests that prior sexual abuse may be a key factor in explaining the persistence of female offending. Additionally, substance abuse problems and affiliation with deviant peers were also important factors in explaining female persistence. The results also find support for both population heterogeneity and state dependent approaches to understanding female criminality.

Keywords: persistent offending, late onset offending, female offending, population heterogeneity, state dependent, sexual abuse

Over the past several decades, female offenders have been receiving increased attention in the criminological literature (Belknap 2007; Belknap and Holsinger 2006; Chesney-Lind and Pasko 2004; Chesney-Lind and Shelden 2004; Gunnison and McCartan 2005; Naffine 1996; Pollock 2002; Steffensmeier and Haynie 2000). While early researchers viewed female offenders as a product of their sexual promiscuity (see Odem 1995), currently, female offending is viewed within the context of traditional criminological theories. Research on female offending highlights two consistent findings: First, females offend at lower rates than their male counterparts although their rates are increasing (Chesney-Lind & Pasko 2004; FBI 2009); and second, female offenders report 2-3 times higher rates of sexual abuse than the general population (Harlow 1999). In addition, there is an emerging third research area that is consistent with the findings within the literature on male offending: there may be discrete groups of female offenders.

While there is still some debate as to the exact number of discrete offender groups, with estimates ranging from two to five (see Fergusson and Horwood 2002), several researchers agree that there are at least two: chronic or persistent offenders and late onset offenders (Blumstein, Cohen, and Farrington 1988; Moffitt 1993; Patterson and Yoerger 1993).1 Persistent offenders are offenders who begin offending earlier in the life course and who generally fail to age out of crime with their peers (Blumstein et al. 1988). Late onset offenders, on the other hand, begin offending later in the life course (Blumstein et al. 1988). Research into offending trajectories, largely guided by the work of Moffitt (1993), Sampson and Laub (1993), and Patterson and Yoerger (1993), have substantiated the existence of these discrete groups, with mostly male samples.

Research into female offending has also begun to extend into the identification of discrete groups of offenders (see Aguilar et al. 2000; Fontaine et al. 2009; Gunnison and McCartan 2005; Landsheer and van Dijkum 2005; Odgers et al. 2008; Silverthorn and Frick 1999). As is the case with male offenders, these discrete groups of offenders are qualitatively different from one another and demonstrate different offending trajectories.2 Landsheer and van Dijkum (2005:744) have identified persistent female offenders in their examination of male and female adolescent delinquency trajectories. The researchers found that persistent female offenders are a smaller group when compared to persistent male offenders; however, they are "strongly involved in delinquent activities." Most recently, Haapanen, Britton, and Croisdale (2007:142) noted that the "rate of arrest for females is also very high suggesting that persistence is not simply a male phenomenon."

The current paper seeks to extend research on the differing female offending groups by employing both state dependence and population heterogeneity interpretations of offending trajectories. …

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