Youth criminality and future adult criminality

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In this essay I will be studying youth criminality and future adult criminality and finding out whether there is a connection between the two.

Youth criminality is defined as children who act against the law. The usual age that a person is considered a youth in the eyes of the law is between the ages 10 and 18, although a youth is sometimes considered as someone up to their mid twenties. Youth crime is seen as a major issue in today's society as the occurrence of it has risen steadily since the mid twentieth century along with other forms of crime. Williams (2004, p.316) states that there are "Two strong reasons for concentrating on delinquency". The first being that Juvenile delinquency of today is the "Hardened and persistent adult criminal of tomorrow" (Williams, 2004, p.316) The second reason is the scale of which juvenile criminality is rising. Since the Second World War the rise of youth crime has risen faster than other group and now accounts for over one third of all recorded crimes. It is these reasons why youth crime is now scene as a growing social problem for which the concern of the public and government has risen dramatically. The Home Office has come up with 5 major risk factors which can explain why the younger generation of Britain are increasingly committing more crime. These are:

troubled home life

poor attainment at school, truancy and school exclusion

drug or alcohol misuse and mental illness

deprivation such as poor housing or homelessness

peer group pressure

(Great Britain, Home Office, 2006)

The fear of youth criminality is not just because of the scale of which it is occurring. It is as Williams (2004, p.316) stated that "Youths are more often associated with acts of wanton violence and destruction where a motive is often difficult to discover". The increase of this type of crime can be seen by such groups as the Teddy Boys in the 1950's which can be seen as the first type of modern teenage culture developed after the Second World War. Since then many other incidents have occurred were juvenile delinquents have been predominantly involved such as football hooliganism and riots of the 1970's and 80's.

Over the past century many different criminological perspectives on juvenile delinquency have been created by different criminologists. Cohen (1955) created a major piece of work entitled the Delinquent boys. He claimed that the "Crimes committed by the young could be explained by the sub cultural values of the peer grouping." He means by this that different sub groups within the general culture such as middle, upper class will have different perspectives on what is acceptable in their culture. An example of this being that lower class values will often disagree with those of the middle class. These usually include "Toughness, excitement and immediate gratification" (Williams,2004,p.317) Cohen also argues that for the working class boy being socialised at home can clash with that of school and so confusion can occur. This he states can lead to 3 solutions, two of them being extracted from Whyte's (1955) work. They are:

That the youth takes in the values of middle class socialism and so strives to match or beat them.

That the youth will settle with the fact that his own limitations will prevent him from success over the other middle class and will make the most of what he gets.

The youth will become engaged in negative and malicious behaviour and so will be seen as the delinquent as he is reacting against the school and middle class values.

The third is the problem solution for the youth, as the first two are conformative. If the youth takes the third solution then it can cause problems for them and for the rest of society as they are more likely to be involved in behaviour that does not conform to the rules of the school or with the law and so youth offending begins.

What Cohen is theorising is what is known as the 'Strain theory', stating that different social cultures within society may encourage citizens to commit crime. An earlier theory on this subject was created by another criminological theorist called Robert Merton. In 1938 he developed the anomie theory as stated by Jones (2001) which indicated that there are "Several possible forms of reaction by individuals who had suffered from the strain of being unable to attain society's ultimate goal by the institutionalised means made available to them". This could then lead onto engaging in deviant and criminal behaviour. The use of subcultures within society has been around for many years before these studies, as seen in medieval England by the labelling of Peasants, Knights and Barons each holding a different status and so being seen as having a different importance to society. This can still be seen in modern day society by the labelling of classes, upper, middle, working etc. In today's society a subculture is also applied to the youth, especially to those who are involved in juvenile delinquency and gang culture. On the subject of how teenage culture has developed since the end of the second world war, it has been shown through research that the "Loosening of the parental shackles on children and the greater influence that came with the growing prosperity of the post war era" (Jones,2001) has had a major effect on the development of teenage culture. Jones also discusses about what is seen as one of the best accounts of social disorganisation, that of Frederick thrasher (1927). On his study of 1,313 Juveniles gangs he noted that there were four types of gang, each having a different likeliness on becoming career criminals. These were:

Diffuse gang - had loose leadership and little solidarity

Solidified gang - high degree of loyalty

Conventionalised gang - similar to a sports club

Criminal gang - had the highest chance of becoming career criminals

(Jones, 2001)

This leads onto the concept of a criminal career, were involvement in criminal activity begins at some point in a person's life and then continues throughout their life for a certain time and then ends. There are certain characteristics to this concept. The offender normally commits their offences at a certain rate and they are usually a similar type of offence. A large study done by the Home Office, Development and Statistics Directorate in 2006 show how the rates of criminality increase over a person's lifetime. The study was done over the period of 40 years on a sample of 411 males in a London community, although by the end of the study only 93% were still alive. The convictions of the men were recorded from age 10 to age 50 and excluded motoring offences. The results showed that the average criminal career started at age 19 and ended at 28 and contained only 5 convictions. It was found that a small group of the men (7%) were responsibility for over half of the officially recorded crime of the entire sample. Each of this group has at least 10 convictions, and had a career last from on average 14 to 35 years old. The study also found that those who started their criminal career at an earlier age tended to have the longest career and the most convictions, showing that your behaviour as a youth in many cases will affect how you act as an adult looking at the figures found in this study.

This is further shown in the study by how successfully the lives of the men were after ending their criminal career's compared to the age in which they started. This was measured against nine criteria of life success compared at ages 32 and 48 and found that:

The percentage of men leading successful lives increased from 78% at 32 years old to 88% at 48.

Those convicted both before and after age 21 improved from 42% to 65%

Those convicted only before age 21 improved from 79% to 96%

Those convicted only after age 21 improved from 69% to 84%

Similar to the idea of a criminal career is a career criminal. The career criminal is the person that is actually making a living through criminal means. The main debates on the subject of a criminal career and the career criminal started in the 1980's and are still occurring today. The arguments are between those that believe it is worth studying why people persist with their criminal careers and other don't and those that don't believe it is worth studying. There are also those that believe that the number of offenders remains the same throughout time, they will just commit less crime as they get older. This concept has been researched into greatly over the years as it has been noticed that criminal offending is linked to the life course. Smith (2002) states that crime is mostly committed by young people such as adolescents and adults in their twenties. He goes on to mention that the frequency of crimes committed by a person reaches a peak in their adolescence or early adult life. Statements such as these are usually based on someone counting the number of offences someone commits at different stages of their life such as in the Home Office survey that has already been mentioned. Through research by such criminologists as Goffredson and Hirsch (1990) and Farrington (1986) it is evident that although studying the age of an offender can provide you with a predictable sequence of development and an indicator of their social standing, it cannot alone provide personal characteristics of that person. It has been stated by Smith (2002) that the research done by Rutter shows that the explanation for 'age effects' cannot be based on age itself but by looking at a detailed process of their development and how they have developed meaning and a role within society. He uses the example of the difference between how a person changes their behaviour through causes such as Puberty and from life experience. He argues that age alone is not the crucial factor in a person's development but what they have experienced throughout their childhood.

How a offender changes from the juvenile delinquent to the adult criminal cannot be generalised as everyone has their own personal mindset and experiences, although there is a stability in the differences between individuals at different stages of the lifestyle. It has been argued that the most disruptive child is likely to be the most serious and persistent adult offender. This is seen in the curve on the graph of crime over age, were the participation in anti social behaviour begins at early childhood and peaks at between the late teen stage and the early twenties. The prevelence of this behaviour in the person drops dramatically after this until the middle twenties were it levels out. This graph is a good indicator of how an individuals behaviour changes over time, from a young age to adulthood.

The causes of this type of behaviour have been throroughly research into over the past century. Although criminal behaviour is so diverse, generalising it is impossible. All criminologists can do is come up with the main concepts concerning the change in behaviour of offenders.

Studying someones criminal behaviour can be done via two sources of information, official statistics such as criminal records of a person and self reporting of crimes to the researcher about the crimes he has committed which may not have been officialy recorded by the authorities. The researcher will need a combination of both of these as only using the first method may not cover those crimes not recorded.

The factors which usualy affect the rate of offending of someone are age effects, period effects and cohort effects. Age effects look at how the offender's criminal behaviour changes throughout their life cycle regardless of time while period effects look at how their behaviour changes over time. Cohort effects are those that affect individuals sharing common experiences for example a particular age group. These 3 effects have been proven to be very hard to disentangle, as when "One variable is held constant; the resulting trends confound two of the effects" (Smith, 2002, p.716). Criminologists would then either use cross sectional data or longitudinal data comparing to analyse the results collected from studying the three factors. An example of this is "The cross sectional data from official records in the second half of the twentieth century which showed a very sharp peak in offending around the age of fourteen to eighteen in England and the US" (Smith, 2002, p.716) This then leads back onto the graph of crime over age already mentioned which showed this sharp peak in offending which then declines steeply later on continuing into old age.

In conclusion I have found that their is a connection between youth criminality and future adult criminality. Through research I have found that it is popular opinion that concentrating on juvenile delinquency and what causes it has become very important in the years since world war two ended as the development of teenage culture has strengthened. It is so believed that the juvenile delinquency of today is the Hardened and persistent criminal of tomorrow, as shown in the Home Office survey. It was found the findings of this survey, which studied a group of men for 40 years that the younger the age of the first offence, the longer the criminal career was and the more persistent his crimes were. Looking at juvenile delinquency and its causes has led us to believe that for the underprivileged working class child, being educated alongside, middle class children can have one of three effects on him. It is the 3rd effect as has already been mentioned, which can be used to explain delinquency at a young age, as the child reacts against the school and the middle class values. Juvenile delinquency then leads onto the concept of a criminal career were criminal activity begins at some point in a persons life and then continues throughout at varying levels of severity, until it ends later on in life. The extent of this career has been seen to differ from person to person.


Cohen, A. (1955) Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. New York: the free press

Gottfredson,M and Hirshi,T.(1986) The True Value of Lambda Would Appear to be Zero: An Essay on Career criminals, Criminal careers, Selective Incapacitation, Cohort studies and related topics, Criminology, 21:213-33

Great Britain. Home Office (2006) Criminal Careers Up To Age 50 And Life Success Up To Age 48: New Findings From The Cambridge Study In Delinquent Development. London: Communications and Development Section. [Online[ Available at: (Accessed: 18th February 2010)

Jones,S.(2001) Criminology. 2nd edn. UK: LexisNexis

Smith,D.J.(2002) 'Crime and The Life Course', in Maguire,M. Morgan,R. and Reiner,R. The Oxford Handbook of Criminology. Oxford: Oxofrd University press, pp.702-745

Whyte, W.F. (1955) Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. 2nd edn. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press

Williams, K.S.(2004) Textbook On Criminology.5th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.