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This research paper reviews literature on group crime and co-offending. This includes occurrence, possible causal significance, and group formation. It restricts the subject matter to discrete, short-lived street crimes committed by two or more principals in close collaboration while in each other’s immediate proximity. It argues that shared memories between participants and the meaning attributed to them (group identities) influence many criminal decisions in groups. The paper reviews what is known of leadership and on function and form of crime groups with an eye toward demonstrating that groups alter individual calculus in criminal decisions in many ways.
This research paper is about group crimes, or co-offending. For conceptual convenience it restricts the subject matter to discrete, short-lived street crimes committed by two or more principals in close collaboration while in each others’ immediate proximity. This definition is useful because it eliminates a great many acts that might otherwise be termed group crime. A person who trades in stolen goods with thieves arguably commits group crime and co-offends in each transaction, but does not meet the close collaboration, level of organization, and distance criteria. An offender who retaliates alone against an insult upon his gang has motive that might lead some to conclude that the avenger commits group crime, but this gangster is excluded. A drug dealer distributing to a loose network of smaller-scale dealers is excluded. White-collar offenders often collaborate, but are not street offenders. An accessory who disposes of a killer’s firearm might be called a co-offender by some; likewise, a conspirator who lays plans but does not accompany the principals to a crime scene might be included in more expansive discussions than used here. Set these complications aside in favor of a narrow focus.
The study of co-offending has a long and theoretically central role in the development of criminology, a field that traditionally is closely linked to sociology. Because many offenders do not commit crime alone, friendship groups often commit crime together, criminal activities are learned by socialization, and interaction plays a significant role in many criminal decisions, the topic of group crime begs theoretical inquiry. Obviously, the study of crime groups bears upon many key theories about how criminal motivation forms. Empirical interest in the topic is long-standing not only for theoretical reasons but also because of the recurring observation that explanations that focus exclusively on the formation of individual intent may be imperiled by the prevalence of offending groups. Use of aggregate data that does not account for co-offending risks misinterpretation, and therefore attention to the prevalence co-offending is important. For example, the involvement rates of youth in crime or the youthfulness of the offenders responsible for crimes that occur in a given territory may be exaggerated by failing to account for the fact that youth are more likely to co-offend than others.
Another reason that examining and problematizing group crime is the suspicion that many offenses occur as a result of processes of collective behavior where individuals may sacrifice capacity to make personally rational decisions to an emergent collective will. Most crime groups are small groups, so literature on crowds is not especially relevant, however. Nevertheless, there is a rich literature in sociology showing that group decision-making is shaped by processes of social interaction in small groups. Put differently, the decisions of groups are much more complex than a simple aggregate of the preferences of the individuals that compose them. In example, group polarization is a tendency of group decision-making. This is where the decisions that a group makes are more extreme (sometimes more risky) than are the decisions of the individual members. In addition, even short deliberations in a group can shift individual opinions, and those who are adamant and outspoken or thought by group members to be knowledgeable of how to handle the problem at hand exercise the most influence. Individuals shift their opinions most dramatically when interaction or their preconceptions lead them to believe that they hold a minority opinion in the group. There are dozens of well-established findings about how decision-making in groups alters the decisions that the individual members would make if alone, but here it will suffice to point out that decisions made by groups and individuals differ significantly in process and outcome. When an offender rationalizes that a personal decision to engage in crime would not have been made if not for the presence of co-offenders, there is a scientific leg to stand on.
Group crime is common. As early as 1931, criminologists were aware that more than 80 % of offenders in Chicago’s Juvenile Courts offended with others (Shaw and McKay 1931). This and later findings from victimization surveys revealed that the young are the most likely to offend in group, that solo offending is comparatively uncommon at young ages, and that lone offending is not the modal form of crime until the late teens (Reiss 1986). Offenders under the age of 13 are more likely to commit crime in groups than are those in later teenage years; about 40 % of juvenile offenders commit the majority of their crimes with others (Gonzales et al. 2005). Of course, young people compose a disproportionate share of the population of active offenders, and this age distribution of criminal offending is partially responsible for the fact that much crime is group crime. Despite its concentration among the young, the group nature of offending is seen in many offenses both trivial and deadly, and group offending is not rare in any age group.
An examination of personal robberies in England and Wales revealed that 62 % had multiple offenders and in 30 % of robberies there were more than two offenders (Smith 2003). A descriptive 1999 study of US carjacking revealed that 55 % were committed by two or more offenders and 45 % by a lone offender (Klaus 1999). Somewhat more surprisingly, one US state’s analysis of domestic violence incidents revealed that 18 % involve two or more offenders acting in concert (Idaho State Police 2003).
As can be seen, the mean level of co-offending varies considerably by offense. Generally, levels of co-offending are high for acquisitive crimes including burglary, robbery and theft (especially for motor vehicle theft), and for arson. (The latter is an acquisitive crime in some cases.) Group offending levels are low for sexual assault and similar sex crimes and, perhaps counter-intuitively, they also are low in drug offenses (Carrington 2009). Findings are not altogether consistent when it comes to which crimes are most often group crimes, and results seem conditional on data sources; for example, some studies indicate that violent offenses have a higher number of offenders than nonviolent crime (Mcgloin and Piquero 2009).
Group crime undoubtedly is common, but the preceding discussion illustrates that lone offenders are responsible for a great many crimes, so the group nature of crime perhaps should not be overstated. In 2004, of all completed violent crimes reported in the National Criminal Victimization Survey where victims could estimate the number of offenders, 79 % were committed by a lone offender, 9 % by two offenders, 5 % by three, and 4 % by four or more. It is probably safe to say that the lion’s share of crimes (as measured by the ratio of group crimes to total crimes) is committed by lone offenders, but it is abundantly clear that the extent to which individuals offend in groups is ignored at peril to the analyst of crime in part because a group offense must have at least two offenders, but in 9 % of crimes there are three or more (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005). Interaction with co-offenders certainly influences many criminal decision-makers.
Crime group composition largely reflects what is known of the distribution of criminal offending. For example, crime groups disproportionately are composed of the young and of males. In 2009, of the violent crimes involving multiple offenders, 32 % all were under the age of 20, 19 % all were 20–29, 10 % were all 30 or older, and 28 % involved offenders of mixed age (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2009). Female offenders are more likely to commit crime in groups than their male offender counterparts so that a higher percentage of female crimes are group crimes (Mastrigt and Farrington 2009). Nevertheless, in 2009, 62 % of group crimes had all male offenders and only 11 % contained all female offenders, reflecting the disproportionate distribution of criminal participation by gender (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2009). It is self-evident that females are much more likely to offend in mixed sex groups than males. Perhaps, this is because by most measures females are less criminal than males, and being with males, therefore, enhances chances of offending. Males score high on many of the troublesome psychological attributes related to crime and externalizing problem behavior. Moreover, they may be particularly susceptible to the temptation to show off by sensation-seeking and risk-taking behaviors, characteristics easily linked theoretically to crimes committed both alone and with others.
The discussion of co-offending is part of the larger theoretical exchange in criminology as it speaks to the most important questions about why individuals offend. Co-offending may be a mechanism whereby criminal attitudes are passed along, where offenders learn the rewards and costs of crime, and for transferring criminal knowledge, as well as a context where social backgrounds impinge on decisions. Perhaps the thorniest question concerning real-world crime groups, as opposed to decision-making groups in laboratories or experimental vignettes, is whether or not they are greatly significant in shaping individuals’ decisions or are incidental/ instrumental gatherings of criminally inclined individuals. To speak to this issue, it is important to understand what is known about how crime groups are formed and proceed.
Significance Of Group Effects
A primary reason for skepticism about the importance of groups is belief that crime groups are mere instruments for carrying out individual motivations. A related issue is that what are seemingly group effects may be an artifact of the types of individuals selecting into crime groups. This discussion is similar to the flocking or feathering debate that occurs in the study of peer effects. Scholars continue to debate whether the influence of peers shape criminal choice or if it just seems to be the case because those inclined to crime select friends with similar predisposition, although evidence for the former is very strong (Haynie 2002). Likewise, considerable ink has been spilt contesting whether co-offending is a significant means of criminal socialization, primarily important only in its effects on individuals’ situational calculations of criminal payoff, or an incidental outcome of individual criminal predisposition. This debate continues although the most obvious reconciliation is an integrated acknowledgement that crime develops from individual proclivities, group selection and socialization, and from situational inducements and altered decision-making that can occur in groups.
Because solo offending is common and because youths are gregarious and do many activities in groups, not just crime, it is easily argued that groups should not be viewed as particularly significant in the development of crime or as a form of criminal tutelage. To the extent that groups do have effects, some believe that their influence is straightforward; group effects exist because the copresent can change situational inducements to crime at the margins and not because crime groups have lasting, particularly influential, or decisive effects on individual decision-making (Stolzenberg and D’Allesio 2008).
On one hand, there is something to be said for caution against exaggerating the place of groups in criminal decisions. It is apparently true that many persons are unlikely to find themselves in circumstances where friends recruit them to burglary or shift their willingness to take the risk of an armed robbery. Stable personality characteristics and attributes that predate group interaction take causal precedence. Few become repeat felons without subtle, and often, lifelong inculcation of attitudes that make such behaviors seem, at least circumstantially, acceptable. Thus, individual attitudes probably serve as a more central means for transferring criminal disposition socially than situational interaction in crime groups. Therefore, becoming a burglar has little to do with the group that accompanies to any given offense – rather birds of a feather flock together.
It is true also that offenders change their accomplices often as their criminal careers unfold. This implies that the influence of any particular group is at best transitory and adds credence to the view that the influence of crime groups in most cases is best understood as a moderately significant situational inducement.
On the other hand, there is good reason to think that co-offending plays a significant role in socialization to crime. For example, the majority of offenders in their first co-offense commit delinquency with an older accomplice, suggesting that crime groups are an important mechanism of socializing younger youth into the delinquent ways of their older peers (McCord and Conway 2002). In further evidence, once a youth co-offends with a violent offender, the chances of that youth subsequently committing a violent crime increase (McCord and Conway 2002). In fact, the distribution of co-offending across crime types is more varied than the distribution of solo offenses (Andresen and Felson 2011).
Moreover, the importance of criminal capital, usually construed as the abilities and networks to accomplish crime, increasingly is seen as being a significant exogenous factor shaping the development of criminal careers and decisions. It would be difficult to imagine that co-offending does not contribute to the development of criminal capital. This suggests that co-offenders have lasting influence on criminal careers even if no single event is transformative. Peer attitudes and behaviors conducive to crime via socialization probably go hand-in-hand with the formation of successive crime groups and operate reciprocally. Indeed, satisfactorily isolating effects of peer socialization, incident-level group effects, and individual characteristics in surveys to discover why or how criminal friends and associates are important would be an extremely difficult problem to handle empirically.
Without undermining the flocking perspective, or diminishing the fact that even the young often offend alone, it is safe to say that persons belonging to peer groups that share and instill crime-conducive attitudes likely will find themselves in a crime group eventually and that their behaviors will be more likely to conform to those of willing and copresent friends as the group decides whether to seize a particular criminal opportunity. Groups may be important in forming predisposition to offend, teaching attitudes and techniques for offending, and for determining whether or not an individual decides to commit a crime on a particular day. The relative importance of competing theoretical characterizations of groups in explaining crime and how crime group membership should be cast in causal modeling remains to be sorted out. It would be precipitously premature, therefore, to discount the longstanding contention in criminology that direct exposure to others’ criminal behavior serves as a significant form of tutelage and criminal motivation.
While investigators have devoted considerable empirical attention to general selection of criminal peers, they have devoted far less to the process of assembly, selection, and recruitment of co-offenders. This is regrettable as the decision to enter a group that eventually commits a crime may be a more significant decision point in shaping criminal decisions than consideration of foreground variables like target characteristics. Background characteristics that predict criminality may work their way into the foreground of discrete criminal choices by way of the decision to join a crime group.
Certain environments are fertile for the formation of crime groups, partially explaining why some areas produce more crime than others. For example, crowded impoverished neighborhoods also are those where young persons and adults congregate on public street corners and engage in unstructured activities, like “hanging out” most often. Of course, open air drug markets where unemployed gangsters, dealers, users, and chronic addicts congregate are the perfect social and spatial setting for robbery and burglary groups to form. The degree to which unstructured activity pervades in an area amplifies the opportunity for crime and the formation of crime groups and thereby affects the local rate of group crime (Osgood and Anderson 2004). Crime in the form of co-offending often springs from “offender convergence spaces” (Felson 2003). These settings allow offenders to find and recruit each other to crime and thereby offer an ongoing local structure for criminal cooperation even though most crime groups may be short-lived and informally organized. Clearly some settings are conducive to crime group formation, but thus far the correlates of these locales are not thoroughly understood; for example, some preliminary evidence suggests that on the whole urbanity (urban environments) decrease co-offending behavior. One possible reason is that where people are interpersonally estranged and close to few, they have a more difficult time recruiting co-offenders; this may offset the socio-spatial conveniences of the city that make group crime likely (D’Allesio and Stolzenberg 2010).
The activities that persons engage in routinely and lifestyles that persons carry out shape the formation of their social networks and the persons they contain. Persistent offenders often devote their days and nights to drug and drink and avoid structures of disciplined work lives. They inhabit social spheres where they are sure to encounter others who do the same, and therefore, it comes as no surprise that many criminal schemes are hatched in the context of shared drugs and drink. In these immediate environments, say inner-city heroin shooting galleries or rural swimming holes where midday partying occupies the time, offenders are likely to encounter friends and potential co-offenders. A great many crimes begin with groups of unemployed young men driving aimlessly about town or loitering on street corners while others are at offices, factories, and construction sites. The foreground circumstances and preceding activities where crime groups form probably have as much to do with how most crimes develop than explicit and intentional recruitment to carry about previously formed criminal intentions.
It should come as no surprise that very little thought goes into planning the typical crime. This spontaneity of crime means only that crime is seldom preceded by careful attention to detail or lengthy deliberation and discussion. One reason is that some of the members in crime groups might have offended together in the past, making criminal opportunity in the group implicit and the intent to commit crime partially formed by the mere assembly of compatriots. In addition, persistent offenders often are at the ready to commit crime as they carry on with their daily lives should the opportunity arise, sometimes even having a tentative mental list of particular targets that they are considering. Should they encounter willing accomplices or a need, they already have loosely laid plans. These realities qualitatively alter the meaning of any statement that crime seldom is planned or that crime groups typically form without criminal intentions.
Crime groups often move toward crime incrementally by way of decisions where the possibility becomes increasingly clearer to members, but crime’s occurrence often is far from a foregone conclusion up to the last instant. Groups that begin the day partying together may change composition as they move toward crime, for example. The reluctant and cautious may drop away as trouble becomes increasingly likely. Males may leave behind more cautious females; revelers who have responsibilities to attend to may depart, leaving the more fully committed to continue their misbehavior. The stage is set for crime by framing a shared understanding of the potential found in a group’s members and in how activities transform its composition (Hochstetler 2001). Young men with growing arrest records who are 2 days into a methamphetamine binge and unready to sleep can be fairly certain that their current associates see criminal possibility in the group; those still present are likely to mark the rewards of emergent criminal opportunities as attractive. These incremental developments are noted here to provide a qualitative sense of how crime groups form and to point out that the preceding activities of a group contribute to the decisions it makes.
Like individuals, groups have identities. Crime can be a significant shared secret that overshadows other meanings and expectations ascribed to particular company. It is not easily forgotten once a group commits a crime. The next time the group gets together after each offense, criminal possibilities need less consideration. The coming together of the group may be construed as the first indications of criminal possibility or opportunity. This is more than conjecture. Empirically, it appears that crime groups can be typified by offenses that their members are willing to commit, and this leads to specialization beyond what would be expected if crimes were selected randomly by groups (Warr 1996). In other words, groups perceive criminal opportunities based on what they already have done. Law enforcement detectives also can tell that they often know when they have an active criminal group in a community not only because crime reoccurs but also because of the way it is done (modus operandi), and because apparent division of labor replicates recent events. Interviews with offenders reveal that sometimes friendship groups have been gathering for some time without offense but become active crime groups that offend frequently after successfully committing a first crime together (Hochstetler 2001). One might say that criminal possibility and modus operandi become primary parts of the group’s repertoire or identity.
The background of individual members may play a large part in crime group formation (Thornberry et al. 1993). Individuals select compatriots based on proximity, family and neighborhood ties, education, and other cultural similarities. They often prefer to associate with people who have similar life experiences. It is not uncommon for siblings or other relatives to offend together or for young people to first encounter those who will be co-offenders in the future while playing in their neighborhoods. The familiarity of many offenders with their co-offenders is reflected in the fact that co-offenders within a group typically match each others’ race. Among the juveniles in one study, the ethnic identity of co-offenders and accomplices matched for 96 % of black offenders, 83 % of white offenders, and 83 % of Hispanic or other offenders (Mccord and Conway 2002). Crime groups are predominantly unisexual and tend to be age homogenous. This homogeneity reflects that crime groups form from those close at hand.
Although many offenders know their crime partners well, this need not be the case. Longtime and frequent offenders often have little trouble finding and selecting willing and able accomplices. They are aided in doing so by the identifiable signs of cultural and criminal capital. For example, body markings (scars, tattoos), dress, language patterns, and interests allow offenders to solve the special dilemma they face in identifying and recruiting willing crime partners and associates. Fashions change but cultural markings may nevertheless indicate not only that one is potentially willing to commit crime but also those who portend to abide by codes of the underworld (Gambetta 2009).
For the same reasons, some of us avoid certain persons the potential criminal collaborator may be attracted to signals of criminality. The offender may be drawn to persons whose social and legal histories imply criminal willingness and repelled by indicators of intolerance for crime. In many instances, criminal reputation precedes and this obviously aids in recruitment of accomplices. Just as criminal opportunity is associated with the assembly of criminally experienced groups, it is also found in the presence of persons known or thought to be offenders individually. Possible criminal interpretations of emergent situations and opportunities are contingent in large part on meanings ascribed to the presence of certain people, the history of the group, the nature of one’s contacts, and the form of situations and companions in activities immediately preceding criminal situations.
Those heavily engaged in crime are likely to know many potential accomplices and therefore have little difficulty recruiting. Unsurprisingly, persons who commit crime frequently have large networks of potential accomplices (Warr 1996). Offenders who belong to open networks, as opposed to networks where there is a great deal of redundancy in members’ relations, exhibit greater offending diversity in the group crimes they commit (McGloin and Piquero 2010). This suggests that open networks free offenders to engage in diverse pursuits by expanding collaborative potential. Offenders that have many crime partners also are more likely to commit violent crime (McGloin and Piquero 2009). Because the larger network structure surrounding group formation shapes opportunities, it is important for the analyst of crime groups to remember that they are not only an immediate context but also part of the larger context of offenders’ networks.
Peers’ crime-condoning attitudes and criminal behavior have powerful effects on friends’ attitudes and behaviors, evidencing the importance of peers for criminal socialization. Membership in some criminal groups also predicts offending patterns. For example, gang-involved youth are more criminally active than other youth by far (Espensen and Huizinga 1993). In addition, entering a gang elevates individual offending by comparison to prior levels, and offending decreases upon leaving a gang (Thornberry et al. 1993). It is arguable that street gang membership and participation in informally organized crime groups are analytically distinct behaviors, but what is found of gangs is at least illustrative of general processes that probably are present in other crime groups.
Traditionally, law and criminal justice procedure recognize the hazards of criminal association in both criminal organizations and in ordinary interactions. Socialization between criminal offenders has long been discouraged in a variety of rules that govern who known offenders associate with and allowable activities in these interactions. For example, states grant parole with the stipulation that the parolee not associate with anyone that they know to have a felony record; one reason for this clearly is that when a person who is predisposed to crime encounters or socializes regularly with others who are the same, the chances of parole failure increase. Risk assessment instruments used to classify offenders as more or less dangerous often include the degree to which a person socializes with offenders as compared to more upstanding associates as considerations.
Instigators, Leaders, And Followers
Recall that one of the reasons for focusing on the group nature of many crimes is that making decisions in groups affects what individuals decide to do. In other words, the collaborative nature of many offenses suggests that explanations based solely on the psychological characteristics of offenders fall short inevitably. As the small group decision-making tradition of inquiry has shown, some members have more influence over the decisions that a group will make than do others even when members occupy equivalent positions. In crime groups, participants may be consistent instigators or relatively reluctant across crime events. Some may be leaders while others are inclined to follow.
Instigators are those who spark the motivation for crime by presenting criminal ideas and opportunities, by assembling tools for crime, by persuading and allaying fears or encouraging, and by taking actions that constrain options for the copresent so that crime becomes a more attractive option. Leaders are those who exercise disproportionate influence over group actions. As Warr (1996, p. 17) explains of delinquency, “conventional theories of delinquency seem to portray delinquent groups as mere aggregates of like-minded or similarly motivated individuals. Yet it is difficult to believe that all group members are equally motivated or inclined to break the law on any given occasion” (Warr 1996, p. 17). What makes a leader or instigator can vary from crime to crime, but it is clear that such roles exist. Indeed, for group sex offending by juveniles, 1/3 of the crimes reportedly had a clear leader who orchestrated the crime as it happened (Bijleveid et al. 2007). Most youthful offenders who commit crime in groups assert that one person first suggested the crime, reflecting the rather obvious reality that groups seldom act with completely collective and mutual will (Warr 1996).
The extent to which there are consistent group instigators and leaders across multiple crimes is a different matter. As crime groups are informally organized, there may not be great consistency in who occupies the leadership or instigator role from crime to crime as a single group continually offends; there may be even less consistency in the role taken as an individual moves from crime group to crime group. The degree that stability exists in roles is a question that has generated an ongoing exchange in contemporary criminology. Much of this discussion centers on the assertion that high-rate offenders are particularly influential in criminal group formation, recruitment, and decision-making and, therefore, “offer a potentially important target for intervention efforts” (Reiss 1988, p. 117). Those offenders who are engaged in frequent offending and who are persistent offenders may train and influence others to commit crime. High-rate offenders may serve a key role in inspiring discrete criminal events and in passing criminal learning across various groups and time; high-rate offenders can serve as role models for peers and influence those who are marginally inclined to offend over their tipping point. For example, life-course persistent offenders are thought by some to not only have distinct patterns of early involvement in crime and background predictors that are different than those of other groups but also to recruit and exercise more decisive influence over criminal decision-making. Low-rate offenders who tend to have fleeting careers in crime and who hail from less disadvantaged circumstances may adopt a more passive role. Low-rate offenders sometimes are portrayed not as the influential but as the influenced in characterizations of offender types and their behavioral manifestations.
Evidence reveals differences between high- and low-rate offenders in co-offending patterns (Warr 1996). Co-offending is most common in youth and decreases with age, perhaps suggesting that as offenders age their need for accomplices diminishes; moreover, this effect is pronounced among low rate offenders as they progress in a career. The relationship between co-offending and offending with high frequency generally is found to be weak or nonexistent (Reiss and Farrington 1991; Piquero et al. 2007), but the relationship between co-offending and age appears consistently and is strong.
When offenders are divided in groups based on offending frequency, high-activity offenders’ co-offending is slightly less common to start and remains at consistent levels as they gain criminal experience (Carrington 2009). Low-activity offenders commit a higher proportion of crimes with co-offenders at the beginning of their careers but commit fewer crimes with others as they gain experience. This suggests that “offending plays a different role in the careers of high and low-activity offenders” (Carrington 2009, p. 1321). One interpretation is that low-rate offenders gain the confidence in their initial criminal forays to go it alone in the future. Another is that they learn that crime pays more when alone as they move from expressive to instrumental motivations. Higher-rate offenders by contrast may have learned early on that certain crimes are better done with others and other crimes work better alone. They may have developed instrumental reasons for crime early in careers, find occasional utility in co-offending, and find partners as needed. Put differently, when it comes to deciding to commit crime in groups or alone, high-rate offenders do not seem to specialize in group or solo crime, but low-rate offenders begin with others and proceed toward lone offending.
Experienced offenders may participate in smaller groups on average. The mean number of co-offenders declines with experience (Piquero et al. 2007, p. 110). When investigators calculate the odds that an offender would be a solo or group offender based on an array of independent variables including criminal experience, they find that the mean number of offenders and offenses are negatively correlated (Van Mastrigt and Farrington 2009). If co-offending helps in the commission of some crimes but is not viewed as necessary in most, it makes sense that group size declines with criminal experience. Typically, few accomplices are needed for crime so that in crimes with instrumental motives as opposed to expressive motives, the payoff is likely to be greater and risks lower with fewer partners.
Offenders who commit crimes with a large number of co-offenders as they move from crime to crime are deemed “recruiters” in one study (van Mastrigt and Farrington 2011). These tend to participate in groups that are heterogeneous and stable, to commit property crimes, and to be older than other offenders. The profile of the recruiter, therefore, resembles somewhat that of the persistent offender or persistent property offender. This group already is known to be particularly troublesome and difficult to integrate into conventional life, but evidence that they recruit those who are different means that they are even more costly than most suppose. If this group of offenders could be turned to more conventional pursuits, the results on aggregate rates of crime potentially could be exponential across generations.
Evidence for identifiable roles in crime groups and that some individuals tend to occupy them across groups should not be overstated. In group crime incidents roles are unequal, a fact that is apparent and recognized in centuries of laws dealing with differential legal culpability in crime. But, roles in crime groups may not be associated consistently and strongly with types of persons. It is doubtful if consistent and reliable psychological constructs will be found that clearly distinguish leaders from followers in group crimes in any prospectively predictive sense. One reason is that variation in measureable and stable psychological traits is constrained by the fact that all who commit group crime are offenders, and thus the comparison group of lone offenders is similar in most respects.
In addition, identification of psychological differences would be surprising given that group crimes emerge from dynamic and informal decision-making and action processes. The person who ends up being a leader and a follower in a group may be highly contingent on situational development. Indeed, one can easily imagine that the persons considered leaders or followers may shift from second to second as individuals’ enthusiasm for the offense is likely to fluctuate as the situation unfolds. Before finding stable characteristics of leaders and followers, or instigators and followers, we will at least need to come to agreement on firm definitions and measurements for these terms. Nevertheless, common sense should tell us that there are persons with individual characteristics that contribute to the development of criminal situations and that these characteristics can make them more likely to play instigator and leadership roles.
Functions And Form
There may be very rational components to the formation and use of some crime groups assembled by individual participants. This clearly is true of the very rare professional thieving and drug distribution crews who may put together the best team that they can for the task they need to accomplish. Although this sort of organization makes for great caper movies, it is exceedingly rare. More common is for crime groups to have only some design elements that evidence intent and functionality. The opportunity for some crimes clearly is contingent on the number of co-offenders present, for example. Offenders likely consider whether they have the ability to overcome their adversaries in muggings and street fights where the number of allies matters. Some burglars will not go into a home or to the second floor without an outdoor lookout or getaway driver. It takes two to tangle with an ATM machine, a strong chain and a pickup truck in tow-chain ATM heists.
Persistent offenders may assemble a crew with some consideration of the best persons available to them to accomplish certain tasks or some consideration of their partners’ trustworthiness. Although many crime groups form without careful consideration and some form in an instant, it may be wise for criminologists to keep in mind that there are some criminally connected and crafty individuals in street life; these persons may go so far as to deceptively distance themselves from the more unpleasant and risky tasks when putting together a crime. In addition to the functional advantages for such manipulators, committing crime in a group may have material and psychological advantages such as increased confidence gained from planning and committing crime together that one was fearful to do alone. Among the robbers in one study, co-offenders reported a greater sense of control during their crimes and co-offending led to increased planning (Alarid et al. 2009).
Overrepresentation of the young and of males in crime groups may shape the typical processes of crime group decision-making. In some tasks, male risk-taking is enhanced by the presence of other males, while in others the presence of a female increases the tendency to show off. Females already known to males, such as girlfriends, may be a restraining influence, but in other circumstances the desire to impress other males and females is apparent (see Frankenhuis et al. 2010 for a review). There can be little doubt that the desire to impress others by engaging in what is perceived to be bold and fearless behavior is often associated with being masculine, and this has a great deal to do with how group effects can influence crime, particularly for the young.
It would defy logic and the findings from decades of small group research to think that group dynamics are not shaped by cross-age interactions in one way or another. Street offenders also exist in very patriarchal worlds, and it is likely, therefore, that the influence of male offenders in mixed gender crime groups may be disproportionate. Role assignment also may reflect this fact; in robberies with mixed gender groups, participating males surely are more likely to wield weapons while females more often are assigned to serve as getaway drivers or lookouts. Age composition also may shape crime group interaction. Younger persons often defer to older ones, and older persons may take on characteristics of the young in their presence, such as enhanced risk-taking. Age and other indicators of experience or skill may lead other offenders to defer equal participation in decision-making. One thing is clear: there is much to be learned about the process of co-offending and how it alters individual criminal calculus.
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