Empirical Research

Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 42, Issue 6, pp 848-860

First online:

The Age–Crime Curve in Adolescence and Early Adulthood is Not Due to Age Differences in Economic Status

  • Elizabeth P. ShulmanAffiliated withPsychology Department, University of PennsylvaniaDepartment of Psychology, Temple University Email author 
  • , Laurence D. SteinbergAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Temple University
  • , Alex R. PiqueroAffiliated withSchool of Economic, Political, and Policy Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas

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One of the most consistent findings in developmental criminology is the “age–crime curve”—the observation that criminal behavior increases in adolescence and decreases in adulthood. Recently, Brown and Males (Justice Policy J 8:1–30, 2011) conducted an analysis of aggregate arrest, poverty, and population data from California and concluded that the widely-observed adolescent peak in rates of offending is not a consequence of developmental factors, but rather an artifact of age differences in economic status. Youngsters, they argue, offend more than adults because they are poorer than adults. The present study challenges Brown and Males’ proposition by analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY97; N = 8,984; 51 % female; 26 % Black, 21 % Hispanic, 52 % non-Black, non-Hispanic; ages 12–18 at Wave 1), which collected measures of criminal behavior and economic status at multiple time points. Consistent with scores of other studies, we find that criminal offending peaks in adolescence, even after controlling for variation in economic status. Our findings both counter Brown and Males’ claim that the age–crime curve is illusory and underscore the danger of drawing inferences about individual behavior from analysis of aggregated data.


Age–crime curve Juvenile offending Crime Developmental Longitudinal