Relationship Between Age and Offending: Evidence From Federal Prisoners

Neal P. Langan, Federal Bureau of Prisons

Most sociological theories of crime explain the decrease in offending with age as resulting from socially prescribed age-graded role transitions - particularly those associated with the institutions of work and marriage. Gottfredson and Hirschi have challenged these sociological explanations of the relationship between age and crime with their claim that desistence is biologically driven, is invariant across demographic group and type of offense, and occurs regardless of any role changes (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). One method of testing these differing explanations for the relationship between age and crime is to study offending among prisoners. Unlike free persons, prisoners are not more likely to marry or to find stable employment as they age. It is therefore possible to determine whether or not desistence occurs when these factors are absent or constant. Results of analyses of misconduct by more than 250,000 federal prisoners are largely consistent with Gottfredson and Hirschi's predictions. Results show that the age-misconduct curve resembles the age-crime curve. Age-misconduct curves are also found to be similar across demographic group (comparing males, females, blacks, whites, and Hispanics) and type of offense (comparing trivial, illegal, violent, property, drug, and alcohol-related

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Updated 05/20/2006