Career Criminals and Criminological Theory Research Paper

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In 1986, the National Academies Press published a two-volume compendium entitled “Criminal Careers and ‘Career Criminals’” (Blumstein et al. 1986) that gave expression to the growing interest in both the field of criminology and among policy makers in the career criminal. Although there is no exact agreement on what a career criminal is, in the literature it has generally referred to persons who commit many crimes beginning at an early age and who persist in offending over the life course. Among other things, then, the career criminal is a habitual, persistent, or “chronic” criminal offender, committing criminal acts at every stage of the life course. Blumstein and colleagues’ report was not, however, the first instance of academic interest in the career criminal. From the 1930s to 1950s, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck assembled several large longitudinal data sets that tracked offending from a young age to adulthood. Most notably, the Unraveling Delinquency Study (Glueck and Glueck 1950) which included 500 boys selected from two youth correctional centers in Massachusetts – the Lyman School for Boys and the Industrial School for Boys. Initial data were collected when the average age of the boys was 14, and they were followed up at age 25 and again at age 32. The presence of a persistent or career offender could be deduced from the fact that 55 % of these seriously delinquent boys experienced an arrest at some time between the ages 32 and 45 (Sampson and Laub 1993: 30).

Additional interest in the notion of career criminals was sparked by Wolfgang and colleagues’ Philadelphia cohort studies. In the 1945 cohort, they classified youth with five or more police contacts as chronic or habitual offenders (Wolfgang et al. 1972). While these chronic offenders comprised only 6 % of the total birth cohort of nearly 10,000, they had 52 % of all police contacts and committed 63 % of all recorded index crimes, 71 % of all homicides, 73 % of all the rapes, and 82 % of the robberies. In a subsequent work, they followed a sample of this cohort up to age 30 and identified what they called “persistent” offenders as those who committed offenses both as juveniles and adults. Of the 975 boys who were followed up, 459 had at least one official arrest, and nearly 39 % of these were persistent offenders who had an arrest as juveniles and adults. Further, these persistent offenders committed both more frequent and more serious offenses than those who committed crimes only as juveniles or only as adults (Wolfgang et al. 1987: 24).

Key Issues And Themes

Interest in the career criminal persists today among scholars and policy makers. With respect to the former, Laub and Sampson (2003) have obtained arrest histories for the Glueck boys up to age 70 and identified a small group (less than 5 % of the total) of chronic offenders who were experiencing arrests into their 60s. In a Dutch sample, Blokland (2005; Blokland and Nieuwbeerta 2005; Blokland et al. 2005) identified a small group of offenders (also less than 5 % of the total) who experienced criminal convictions from their teens to their 60s. Finally, Sohoni et al. (2013) found a group of offenders (about 4 % of the total) in the South London data of Farrington and West who experienced convictions from their teens to age 50. With respect to public policy interests, most states have habitual offender statutes that provide for enhanced penalties for offenders with several prior convictions as well as “three-strike” laws that provide for life imprisonment for those repeatedly convicted of serious felonies.

Given the very strong interest in identifying the career criminal, it might perhaps be surprising that an equivalent amount of effort and attention has not been devoted to understanding the cause of persistent offending. The Glueck’s, for example, were loath to provide a comprehensive theoretical account either of delinquents in general or those who persisted in crime throughout their lives arguing that it was “premature and misleading to give exclusive or even primary significance to any one of the avenues of interpretation” (Glueck and Glueck 1950: 281). Instead, they put forward an atheoretical multifactored explanation that simply consisted of a list of the risk factors they empirically found to be related to crime. Wolfgang and his colleagues were silent with respect to how the small group of chronic and habitual offenders they identified could be explained. It was really not until the mid-1980s rebirth of empirical interest in the career criminal that some attention was beginning to be devoted to understanding and explaining the high-rate offender who persists over time. In fact, the empirical work of career criminal researchers was in part responsible for the emergence of developmental and life-course theories of offending, theories that among other things were devised to explain why it is that offending takes place throughout the life course.

Theoretical Explanations For The Career Criminal

There really is no theory of the career criminal in the sense of a separate theory of crime to explain this phenomenon. Rather, there are theories of persistent offending, without speaking to the career criminal, and there are general theories of offending that can be adapted to explain the habitual or persistent offender whose long-term pattern of offending can be described as a career in crime.

Terrie Moffitt (1993) has presented a typological theory of criminal offending that provides some theoretical light on the career criminal. She argues for a distinction between two qualitatively distinct types of offenders: the adolescent-limited and the life-coursepersistent offender. The life-course-persistent offender would qualify as a career criminal since they are described as committing crimes at a high rate over a protracted period of time: as children, adolescents, and adults. They are a small group, comprising approximately of 5 % of any sample of youth, consistent with the Glueck’s high-rate offender and the chronic and habitual offender of Wolfgang et al.

In accounting for the life-course-persistent offender, Moffitt appeals to an integration of constitutional and environmental factors. The life-course-persistent offender suffers initially from neuropsychological deficits that are either prenatal or neonatal in origin and are manifested in profound cognitive and executive function difficulties (impulsivity and poor verbal skills are particularly important). Since infants with these kinds of neuropsychological deficits are frequently born in disadvantaged and criminogenic environments, these deficits frequently go uncorrected and are more often made worse. In a nutshell, a difficult child often overwhelms distressed and poorly resourced parents unable to cope with the challenge who frequently respond with erratic and harsh discipline. Such responses by caregivers only exacerbate the child’s initial difficulties, and as a result of this destructive interaction, the child fails to develop behavioral restraints – they are undersocialized. This negative interaction continues with development, and the poorly controlled toddler becomes the poorly controlled child who becomes the poorly controlled adolescent on into adulthood. As described by Moffitt (1993: 12) the life-course-persistent child becomes ensnared in an ongoing sequence of failed development: “personal characteristics such as poor self-control, impulsivity, and inability to delay gratification increase the risk that antisocial youngsters will make irrevocable decisions that close the doors of opportunity.”

A related theory of the persistent offender, related because it appeals to the same set of empirical facts and develops a similar theoretical argument, was presented by Patterson and colleagues (1990). Like Moffitt, Patterson et al. define two etiologically distinct trajectories of offending. One starts early (the early-onset offender) and persists over the life course into adulthood in a way that would be harmonious with the idea of a career criminal. The behavioral trajectory of the early-starting offender is similar to Moffitt’s life-course-persistent offender. The second starts offending in mid-to late adolescence and ceases offending as they enter adulthood. The behavioral trajectory of the late-starting offender is similar to Moffitt’s adolescent-limited offender.

In Patterson’s typology, the cause of the early-starting and late-persisting offender is a combination of disruptive family practices (harsh discipline, emotional coldness and little intimacy, little parental involvement with the child, and poor monitoring and supervision). The immediate result of these inept child-rearing practices is that the child learns to be coercive and aggressive both directly from parents (modeling their physical violence) or indirectly (parents tolerate or support the child’s violence) which over time culminates in an aggressive poorly controlled child. Although perhaps adaptive in the short term in the home, such verbally and physically aggressive behavior results in both academic and social failure in the school as well as rejection by normal peers and acceptance by equally disruptive peers. Finally, in a process that is reminiscent of Moffitt’s “ensnarement,” these aggressive adolescents are at a great risk for committing serious delinquent offenses as adolescents and criminal offenses as adults.

There is an important common causal thread that runs through the theories of the persistent or career criminal in both Moffitt and Patterson’s work. While Moffitt’s theory admittedly has a neuropsychological component that is lacking in Patterson, both appeal to a disruption in family processes, particularly inadequate training or socialization by parents or caregivers. Caregivers who for various reasons are emotionally uninvolved with their children and therefore inadequately monitor and supervise their conduct create children who are impulsive, poorly controlled, and act in ways that may be in their immediate interest (ex: snatching a toy away from another child, stealing another child’s bike) but is destructive in the long term. Such poorly socialized children are not easily able to make up for past deficits and in fact misplay prosocial opportunities and experiences they confront. In other words, they never catch up and in fact fall further behind developmentally in diverse areas, with the ultimate outcome that they are at high risk for frequent adult criminal offending and other self-destructive behaviors such as drug use, alcohol abuse, long bouts of unemployment, and unhealthy social relationships.

The preceding paragraphs may be very familiar to many criminologists since it describes a causal explanation for repeated offending that is not tied directly to the career criminal paradigm, in fact one that has been hostile to that paradigm – Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) general theory of crime. There are in fact several general theories of crime that provide an adequate theoretical explanation for the persistent offending that characterizes a criminal career.

In 1990, Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi (1990: 117) published what was to be a highly influential book titled A General Theory of Crime in which they presented a theory which could explain “all crime, at all times” and that could also explain behaviors that are as self-destructive in the long term as crime. The key theoretical construct they premised their theory on was the notion of low self-control which, while its precise meaning has changed somewhat over time, is manifested in a person’s inability to consider both the shortand long-term negative consequences of their actions. The person low in self-control, then, is attracted to behaviors which while they may provide gratification in the short term, such as crime and drug and alcohol abuse, have detrimental long-term consequences, and since the costs of actions are generally delayed relative to their benefits, they play a much less consequential role. Very similar to Moffitt’s and Patterson’s theories, Gottfredson and Hirschi trace the origins of low self-control to family disruption. In fact, there is a very close correspondence in the causal mechanisms underlying the person with low self-control and the life-course-persistent and early-starting offender. In each theory, an emotional connection or relationship between caregiver and child is absent, and this affective distance results in inept socialization. Caregivers who are not emotionally attached to the child are unlikely to monitor or supervise the child’s conduct properly and unlikely to correct inappropriate and reward appropriate behavior.

Another important piece of common ground among the theories is that the initial failure to socialize has reverberations down the life course. Moffitt (1993), for instance, speaks about poorly socialized youth becoming “ensnared in a deviant life style by crime’s consequences” because they “will make irrevocable decisions that close the doors of opportunity.” She links poor childhood socialization to teenage pregnancy, school dropout, drug addiction, unemployment, and incarceration such that “the behavior of life-course-persistent antisocial persons is increasingly maintained and supported by narrowing options for conventional behavior.” Patterson (1990: 266) in a process that parallels the notion of “ensnarement” argues that the child who is poorly socialized becomes aggressive and predatory at an early age and that such behavior leads to a lack of success in school and ostracism from normal peers in a causal spiral that over time leads to “school dropout, uneven employment histories, substance abuse, marital difficulties, multiple offenses, incarceration and institutionalization.” Similar to both of these, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990: 96) account for the persistent offender by noting that because they are relatively unaffected by the negative consequences of their actions, the poorly socialized person with low self-control fails to take advantage of opportunities to change throughout life, and they too become ensnared in a cycle of repeated failure and persistent criminality: “The traits composing low self-control are also not conducive to the achievement of long-term individual goals. On the contrary, they impede educational and occupational achievement, destroy interpersonal relations, and undermine physical health and economic well-being.”

There are, however, some important distinctions among the three theories. First, the theory of self-control argues that low self-control and therefore the propensity to become a habitual or career offender lies on a continuum rather than being a typology. They argued (1990: 95) that “though there will be little variability among people in their ability to see the pleasures of crime, there will be considerable variability in their ability to calculate potential pains” (emphasis added). Second, unlike Moffitt’s theory that relies on antecedent neuropsychological mechanisms or Patterson’s that relies on the mediating causal effect of deviant peers, Gottfredson and Hirschi locate the source of poor self-control solely in the family, and involvement with deviant peers has no causal effect on persistent offending but is simply another manifestation of low self-control.

Another general theory of crime that can offer us an explanatory account of the persistent offender is Sampson and Laub’s (1993, 2003) age-graded informal theory of social control. In discussing this theory, one cannot help but be struck with the substantial common ingredients in all of these theories of the persistent offender in spite of their supposed, much ballyhooed differences. Acknowledging the existence of a persistent criminal offender whose numbers may be small but whose maladaptive behavior is quite broad to cover marital problems, unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, and the corporal punishment of children (heterotypic continuity), Sampson and Laub (1993: 123–138) appeal to a causal process that should by now be familiar to the reader. Children who are poorly socialized and antisocial are maintained or ensnared in their behavior through two causal mechanisms. First, antisocial behavior in children calls forth destructive and maladaptive responses by caregivers and others in their social environment, and such responses fuel further antisocial behavior by children, a process termed “interactional continuity” (Sampson and Laub 1993: 124). Second, the antisocial behavior of young children and the delinquent acts of adolescents have “negative structural consequences” for subsequent life chances that “may lead to the ‘closing of doors’ as far as opportunities go (for example, school failure, unemployment),” in a process termed “cumulative continuity.”

In their 2003 book, Shared Beginnings, Laub and Sampson (2003: 150–195) discuss the persistent or habitual offender at some length and make a concerted effort to draw a distinction between their theoretical account and Moffitt’s. Their view of Moffitt’s theory is that it places great weight on early childhood factors (perhaps ignoring Moffit’s explanation of being ensnared in a life of crime over time), and they find little evidence either in the 2003 or earlier 1993 book that childhood risk factors have an effect on adult criminality. Instead, Sampson and Laub put the majority of their eggs in the “adult life events” basket, arguing that persistence in adult crime is due to a weakness in adult social bonds. In point of fact, however, in further differentiating their position from so-called propensity theorists like Moffitt, Sampson and Laub also place great weight on a labeling process to account for the persistent or career offender. In Crime in the Making (1993: 137), they refer to a “structural version of labeling theory and state dependence” in which early arrest and incarceration experiences cut persons off from conventional opportunities: “the connection between official childhood misbehavior and adult outcomes may be accounted for in part by the structural disadvantages and diminished life chances accorded institutionalized and stigmatized youth.” In fact, in an earlier paper, Sampson and Laub (1997) described the criminal career as a “stable pattern of deviant behavior that is sustained by the labeling process.” In other words, contact with both the juvenile and adult criminal justice system creates problems of adjustment (Lemert 1967: 63) for people because it “denies them the ordinary means of carrying on the routines of everyday life open to most people” (Becker 1963: 35). In a reversal of the desistance process they describe, those with histories of imprisonment are “knifed off” from normal lives because of weakening social bonds. Sampson and Laub (2005: 171) in fact subsequently concede that “explanations of desistance from crime and persistent offending are two sides of the same coin.” Just as a strengthening of adult social bonds may knife off a criminal offender from a previous life of crime and criminal associates, so may criminal justice intervention knife them off from a conventional.

It is important at this time to reiterate the similarities among all these theories of the persistent offender. In Moffitt’s, Patterson’s, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s, and Sampson and Laub’s theory, some childhood deviants grow up to be persistent adult offenders because they are all too frequently cut off from many conventional opportunities and fail at virtually every opportunity they are afforded to do good.

In addition, events that occur in childhood are important in initiating that causal process. As such, all of the theories we have discussed thus far reflect Hagan’s (1993) notion of the consequences of “criminal embeddedness.” Hagan (1993: 487) argues that youth crime and contacts with the justice system cut adolescents off from sources of social capital and other social networks that connect to conventional lives. He further asserts that youths in trouble instead acquire “criminal capital,” that is, they have social networks that connect them to illegal labor opportunities such as theft and drug dealing which embed them in a criminal lifestyle: “criminal youths are embedded in contexts that isolate them from the likelihood of legitimate adult employment.”

Other general theories of crime offer their own theoretical account of the persistent, career criminal that are variations of the ones just discussed (with, of course, their own nuances). Farrington (2005) presented what he called an Integrated Cognitive Antisocial Potential (ICAP) theory that is a very eclectic account of criminal offending over the life course, including both desistance from and persistence in crime. According to ICAP, initiation into offending is due to a mixture of short-term and long-term antisocial potential (AP, which is defined simply as the potential to commit criminal acts) interacting with a person’s social environment, while persistence in criminal offending is due to the fact that an initial distribution of long-term AP is relatively stable over time. Reminiscent of Gottfredson and Hirschi, then, persistence in offending in Farrington’s theory is brought about because of the relative stability of an initial distribution of a time-stable individual trait, long-term AP, which consists of impulsiveness, the experience of strain, criminal modeling, socialization, and criminogenic life events.

Thornberry (Thornberry and Krohn 2005) applies his general Interactional Theory of crime to account for the persistent, career offender. In this theory, long-term persistence in crime is accounted for by two developmental processes: (1) the causal factors that produce an introduction into crime are themselves stable over time, and (2) there is a constancy in “negative temperamental traits” that are stable from childhood to adulthood. In a quasi-typological approach, Thornberry and Krohn (2005) suggest that for those who commit their first offense at an early age, the developmental deficits (poor parental supervision and monitoring, weak parental attachments, poor school performance and adjustment) are more extreme than for those whose onset into crime comes later, and since they are more extreme, they are also more stable over time. In addition to this, they describe a state-dependence-like process whereby early offending triggers hostile and maladaptive responses from the environment such as caregivers, teachers, and conventional peers. Essentially, early conduct problems ensnare youths by limiting conventional opportunities and social networks (i.e., they become embedded in a criminal lifestyle), restricting the development of social, personal, and human capital. In their own words, but words that seem to just as easily could have come from Moffitt, Patterson, Hagan, or Sampson and Laub, Thornberry and Krohn (2005: 198) posit that: “individuals who initiate antisocial behavior at very young ages are more likely than average to persist because the causal factors are likely to remain in place (both environmental and personality/trait factors) and because early involvement in antisocial behavior generates cumulative and cascading consequences in the person’s life course. All of this reduces the formation of social bonds and social capital and increases embeddedness in deviant networks and belief systems, foreclosing conventional lifestyles and entrapping the individual in deviant lifestyles.”

This account for persistence in offending for those who onset early is not, however, likely to hold for those whose initiation into offending is more “on time” and occurs during adolescence. Nevertheless, some of these on-time on-setters can also persist in offending in their adult years, and they do so primarily because their involvement with crime puts them at higher risk for school failure, unstable and unsatisfying social relationships, and problems at home and in the workplace and disrupts their successful transition into adult roles. Thornberry and Krohn (2005: 200) place great emphasis (as does Moffitt and Patterson for the adolescent-limited and late-onset offender) on the detrimental consequences of becoming embedded in deviant social networks for the youth who commits his first crime later rather than earlier.

Bouffard and Piquero (2010) recently offered a theory of the career criminal offending that appeals to Sherman’s (1993) notion of defiance as an emotional reaction to labeling. Sherman had argued that when a poorly bonded person responds to the imposition of what they perceive to be an unfair sanction with anger rather than shame and an acknowledgement of harm, they become defiant and resentful and as a result are likely to commit further acts of crime rather than be deterred. Bouffard and Piquero (2010: 233) take this general theory of crime and apply it to the study of desistance and persistence arguing with respect to the latter that persistent offending is a “defiant response of a poorly bonded offender who defines their sanction as unfair and stigmatizing and refuses to acknowledge the shame they feel. These individuals may continue or escalate their offending.” What happens when a poorly bonded person gets labeled, then, is that they react in such a way (with defiance, resentment, and rejection) that their already weak bonds become even weaker in a process that by now should be very familiar. The ingredient that Bouffard and Piquero add to this mix is the role of emotions, a welcome addition since emotions are a neglected factor in criminological research.

Wikstrom and Treiber (2009) presented a theory of the persistent or career offender that is a derivative of Wikstro¨ m’s (2005) Situational Action Theory (SAT). According to SAT, all criminal offending is moral rule breaking with the explicit implication that a key explanatory variable is an individual’s moral values as well as the interaction between an individual’s personal characteristics (such as their moral values) and environmental factors. An individual with a strong moral position against committing a criminal act will not view crime as a viable course of action and will not, therefore, be affected by contingencies in the environment, such as opportunities or the perceived costs and benefits of offending. It is also reasonable to conclude that such individual factors as an individual’s propensity to commit crimes as manifested in their self-control are activated only when crime is perceived to be a morally available course of action. In SAT, then, the interaction between a person’s moral values and their propensity to rule breaking will strongly influence what courses of action are available in a given situation and, therefore, what choices are available to be selected.

With respect to the career criminal, Wikstrom and Treiber (2009: 411) make a distinction between perception, choice, and action in a given setting that is “either habitual or deliberate, depending on the actor’s familiarity with the setting” (emphasis is original). The more familiar an actor is to a given setting, the more their perceptions and behavior are likely to be guided by habit rather than deliberation. Actors who repeatedly find themselves in particular environments, such as one of extreme deprivation or abundant criminal opportunities with low moral restraints and little risk, will respond habitually to such contexts, and their behavior will tend to be highly stable and persistent over time. This constancy of the person-environment interaction and resultant habituation led Wikstrom and Treiber (2009: 411) to conclude that “there may be strong habitual elements in what drives much of persistent offenders’ criminality.”

Finally, it must be noted that there is more than one biologically based theory of the persistent, career criminal, though the common ground seems to be that they all link habitual offending to an early onset of offending and the interaction between biological and environmental factors (see Savage 2009). One such example is Tibbetts (2009: 183) whose initial premise is that “early onset is the most important factor in predicting which individuals are most likely to become chronic, habitual offenders.” The secret to unlocking the origins of the career criminal, therefore, is to understand who onsets their offending early. In explaining the early-on-setting offender, Tibbetts’ account relies on the interaction between a cluster of biological risk factors such as pre-or perinatal brain trauma, lower heart rate, arousal, slower brain wave patterns, deficits in pre-and perinatal nutrition, personality attributes (impulsivity), and a cluster of environ-mental deficits such as poverty, single-parent families, family size, and a criminogenic neighborhood. Whatever their particular composition, Tibbetts’ and other biologically inclined theories of persistent offending are clear in stating that it is not biological factors nor environmental factors that are themselves responsible for the persistent offending of the career criminal but the interaction between the two.

Career criminals, offenders with both a high frequency and long duration of offending, have been the topic of theoretical discussion in criminology for over 20 years. One might get the impression from that fact that there is a great diversity of opinion with respect to the causes of career criminal offending. If so, one is in for a disappointment, for while there are numerous attempts to explain the persistent or habitual offender, for the most part the explanatory schemes are surprisingly similar, despite the many disciplines that have participated. While some theorists do place more of their eggs in an initial biological/psychological basket – those who eventually become persistent offenders have various constitutional, neuropsychological, or personality deficits – and others less, the natural progression to persistent offending is oddly very similar across many theories. The explanatory schemes involve notions of a state-dependent or dynamic process whereby initial developmental failures (hostile relationships with inept caregivers, failure at school, social rejection by normal peers) have reverberations that are felt down throughout the life course. It is not an oversimplification to say that toddlers who get into trouble with parents turn into adolescents who get into trouble with teachers and “good peers” who get into trouble with employers and spouses/partners who then get into trouble with the criminal justice system. In many if not all of these theories, there is a strong labeling component whereby initial antisocial behavior that is responded to informally leads to formal criminal justice system intervention which then leads to a “knifing off” of legitimate and conventional routines of life. The repeat adolescent offender finds it hard in Lofland’s (1969) terms to have access to normal places, others, and hardware; as a result of which, they are only able to secure “criminal capital” and become more and more embedded in a criminal lifestyle (Hagan 1993).

While one may lament the absence of theoretical variety in theories of the persistent offender (many in fact argue that persistence is simply the flip side of desistance), the brute fact is we know very little about how adequate these explanations really are. The extensive empirical work to determine what factors best explain persistent offending or the career criminal has hardly begun. While we know something about the process by which offenders drop out of crime, we know far less about the causal mechanisms behind repeated, habitual criminal offending.


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