Age of Onset of Criminal Behavior: Its Meaning and Significance

Sarah Bacon, University of Maryland at College Park
Robert Brame, University of South Carolina
Raymond Paternoster, University of Maryland at College Park

ABSTRACT
The positive association between past and future offending behavior is an enduring fact in criminology. Early onset of delinquent behavior, in particular, is predictive of more persistent offending in the future. What is the meaing of this relationship between the early initiation of a criminal career and its duration, seriousness, and persistence?

Two explanations for the continuity of criminal behavior have emerged. Persistent population heterogeneity theories attribute variation in criminal behavior to time stable differences in individual's criminal propensity. State dependence theories assert that past offending behavior can have causal implications for future offending.

The Philadelphia Birth Cohort Data will be examined in order to address the question: Once criminal propensity is controlled, does age of onset make a difference in the course of the subsequent criminal career? Findings that point to a causal effect of early onset on subsequent offending would support a state dependence explanation for the continuity of criminal behavior over time. Evidence of a spurious relationship between early onset on subsequent offending would support a state dependence explanation for the continuity of criminal behavior over time. Evidence of a spurious relationship between early onset and subsequent offending would support the role of persistent population heterogeneity ine xplaining the relationship between past and future offending. The relative contributions of each will be assessed.

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Updated 05/20/2006