Defining and Identifying the Non-Offender: The Forgotten Adolescent in Basic Delinquency Research

Stephen A. Cernkovich, Bowling Green State University
Catherine Kaukinen, The Bowling Green State University
Peggy C. Giordano, Bowling Green State University

Criminologists historically have focused on the average offender, typically ignoring those at either end of frequency/seriousness continuum. This has especially been the case among those studying juvenile delinquency, where the archetypical offender is still a 16-year old boy involved primarily in status, property, and perhaps a few relatively minor violent offenses. While the existence of both non-offenders and serious chronic offenders has always been known to those studying crime and delinquency, the size of both groups is thought to be relatively small, and at least partly for this reason, there has been little interest in them historically. Criminologists also have eschewed those at the extremes because to focus on them would be to paint a distorted picture, suggesting, as the media is routinely accused of doing, that such extreme behavior is somehow the norm. Since the groundbreaking work of Wolfgang, Figlio and Sellin (1972), however, serious chronic offenders have garnered considerable attention, and criminologists have come to accept the public, political and justice system view that this is a group of offenders to be reckoned with. While this recognition of the chronic offender has resulted in a substantial body of new theorizing and research (see, for example, Cernkovich and Giordano, 2001;Moffitt, 1993, 1997; Nagin and Land, 1993; Nagin and Paternoster, 1991; Sampson and Laub, 1993; 1997), those at the other extreme of the behavioral continuum-non-offenders-continue to generate little interest among those studying crime and delinquency. This lack of interest in youthful non-offenders is a serious omission in the criminological literature. Self-report studies consistently suggest that non-offenders are an empirically stable group whose size is comparable to that of the chronic offenders. To the extent that delinquency is normative behavior among youths, the fact that a significant segment of the adolescent population apparently refrains from any delinquency involvement raises a variety of interesting questions about who these youths are and how they might differ from other adolescents. However, we know relatively little about this group, the characteristics of its members, why they are able to avoid involvement in the very behaviors that are so common among their peers, and what the long-term consequences of their non-offending are. More fundamentally, criminologists have failed to even conceptualize, define and identify non-offenders in their work-beyond some vague sense that they actually do exist-and they have been ignored in virtually all analyses of crime and delinquency. For example, to the extent that most indices of delinquency are continuous scale-based measures, the presence of non-offenders is typically obscured. That is, non-offenders are not defined as a qualitatively distinct group in such measures, representing instead an end-point on a continuum of behavior. Further, this end-point is typically of little interest to criminologists in and of itself; rather, it is usually a departure point to other locations on the behavioral continuum that are of the greatest interest to theorists and researchers. Chronic offenders, on the other hand, are increasingly conceptualized as a distinct group, are seen as categorically and qualitatively distinct from less serious offenders, and, as a group, are defined as worthy of specialized study. We believe that non-offenders also merit such study. We know virtually nothing about these youths, yet such knowledge may tell us much about the behavior and characteristics of others at various points along the continuum, as well as being valuable in its own right. We are interested in this research with how non-offenders can most reasonably be defined and identified, what their social and personal characteristics are, how and why the refrain from involvement in the behaviors that are so common among their peers, and what behavioral outcomes await them as they exit adolescence and enter young adulthood.

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Updated 05/20/2006