Journal of Quantitative Criminology

, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 129–153 | Cite as

A Developmental Approach for Measuring the Severity of Crimes

  • Rajeev Ramchand
  • John M. MacDonald
  • Amelia Haviland
  • Andrew R. Morral
Original Paper


There is widespread agreement in criminology that some crimes are more severe than others, but precise definitions of crime severity and straightforward methods for measuring it have been elusive. Public perceptions of crime severity and economic estimates of crime costs to society or willingness to pay offer a variety of metrics for the public’s perceptions of severity, but they may not accurately describe severity as reflected in offender preferences. The behavior of offenders is critical for understanding developmental progressions in criminal careers, as one may assume that typically more severe offenses are not undertaken until less severe crimes have been committed. In the present paper we propose an alternative metric of crime severity, drawing on findings from developmental criminology that indicate that more severe crimes occur after less severe crimes in the criminal life course, and a method for estimating crime severity that uses the generalized Bradley–Terry model of multiple paired comparisons. We demonstrate this approach on two samples of youthful offenders: the National Youth Survey and the RAND Adolescent Outcomes Project. The results suggest that sample-specific estimates of crime severity can be derived, that these estimates provide insight into the developmental progression of crime, and that they correspond well to crime severity rankings produced by the public.


Crime severity Developmental criminology Bradley–Terry 



This research was supported in part by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (grant R49CE000574) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (grant R01DA16722). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official positions of the CDC, NIDA, the RAND Corporation, or any of its clients. The authors would like to thank David McDowall, Ray Paternoster, Greg Ridgeway, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions. All errors and omissions remain those of the authors.


  1. Agresti A (1990) Categorical data analysis. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  2. Akers R (1998) Social learning and social structure: a general theory of crime and deviance. Northeastern University Press, BostonGoogle Scholar
  3. Blumstein A, Cohen J, Roth J, Visher C (eds) (1986) Criminal careers and “career criminals”, vol 1. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  4. Blumstein A, Cohen J, Das S, Moitra SD (1988) Specialization and seriousness during adult criminal careers. J Quant Criminol 4:303–345Google Scholar
  5. Bradley R, Terry M (1952) Rank analysis of incomplete block designs I: the method of paired comparisons. Biometrika 39:324–345Google Scholar
  6. Bureau of Justice Statistics (1984) The economic costs of crime to victims. U.S. Department of Justice, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  7. Caplow T, Simon J (1999) Understanding prison policy and population trends. In: Morris N, Tonry M (eds) Crime and justice: a review of research, vol 26: prisons. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  8. Chesney-Lind M, Pasko L (eds) (2004) Girls, women, and crime: selected readings. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CAGoogle Scholar
  9. Clark W (1922) The Whittier scale for grading Juvenile offenses. California Bureau of Juvenile Research, Whittier State School, Whittier, CA, Bulletin 11. (Out of print)Google Scholar
  10. Cohen M (1988) Some new evidence on the seriousness of crime. Criminology 26:343–353CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cohen M (2000) Measuring the costs and benefits of crime and justice. In: Duffee D (ed) Measurement and analysis of crime and justice, vol 4: criminal justice. National Institute of Justice, Washington, D.C., pp 263–315Google Scholar
  12. Cohen M, Rust R, Steen S, Tidd S (2004) Willingness-to-pay for crime control programs. Criminology 42:89–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Collins Mark F (1988) Some cautionary notes on the use of the Sellin-Wolfgang index of crime seriousness. J Quant Criminol 4:61–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cullen F, Link B, Travis L, Wozniak J (1985) Consensus in crime seriousness: empirical reality or methodological artifact? Criminology 23:99–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Davidson R (1970) On extending the Bradley–Terry model to accommodate ties in paired comparison experiments. J Am Stat Assoc 65:317–328CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. DiIulio J (1995) The coming of the super-predators. Wkly Std (Nov 27)Google Scholar
  17. Durea M (1933) An experimental study of attitudes toward juvenile delinquency. J Appl Psychol 17:522–534CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Durea M (1936) A quantitative method for diagnosing the seriousness of asocial behavior of juvenile delinquents. J Gen Psychol 14:412–421Google Scholar
  19. Durea M, Pataky J (1937) A clinical method for diagnosing the seriousness of juvenile delinquency. J Crim Law Criminol 28:232–238Google Scholar
  20. Elliot D (1994) Serious violent offenders: onset, developmental course, and termination. Criminology 32:1–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Elliot DS, Huizinga D, Menard S (1989) Multiple problem youth: delinquency, drugs and mental health problems. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  22. Erikson K (1966) Wayward puritans: a study in the sociology of deviance. John Wiley & Sons, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  23. Farrington D (1986) Stepping stones to adult criminal careers. In: Olweus D, Block J, Radke-Yarrow M (eds) Development of antisocial and prosocial behaviour: research, theories and issues. Academic Press, OrlandoGoogle Scholar
  24. Feld B (1999) Bad kids: race and the transformation of the juvenile court. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  25. Figlio R (1975) The seriousness of offenses: an evaluation by offenders and nonoffenders. J Crim Law Criminol 66:189–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Firth D (2005) BradleyTerry models in R. J Stat Softw 12:1–12Google Scholar
  27. Fox JA (1996b) The calm before the juvenile crime storm. Popul Today 4–5Google Scholar
  28. Gorsuch J (1938) A scale of seriousness of crimes. J Crim Law Criminol 29:245–252Google Scholar
  29. Gottfredson SD, Young KL, Laufer WS (1980) Additivity and interactions in offense seriousness scales. J Res Crim Delinq 17:26–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Huang T, Weng RC, Lin C (2006) Generalized Bradley–Terry models and multi-class probability estimates. J Mach Learn Res 7:85–115Google Scholar
  31. Lancaster J, Quade D (1983) Random effects in paired-comparison experiments using the Bradley–Terry model. Biometrics 39:245–249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Laub JH, Sampson RJ (2001) Understanding desistance from crime. In: Tonry M (ed) Crime and justice: a review of research, vol 28. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 1–70Google Scholar
  33. Lauritsen JL (1998) The age-crime debate: assessing the limits of longitudinal self-report data. Soc Forces 77:127–155CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Le Blanc M, Loeber R (1998) Developmental criminology updated. In: Tonry M (ed) Crime and justice: a review of research, vol 23. The University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  35. Lynch J, Danner M (1993) Offense seriousness scaling: an alternative to scenario methods. J Quant Criminol 9:309–322CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Miethe TD (1984) Types of consensus in public evaluations of crime: an illustration of strategies for measuring “consensus”. J Crim Law Criminol 75:459–473CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Miller T, Cohen M, Wiersema B, National Institute of Justice (1996) Victim costs and consequences: a new look. National Institute of Justice, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  38. Moffitt T (1993) Adolescent-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: a developmental perspective. Psychol Rev 100:674–701CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Morral A, Jaycox L, Smith W, Becker K, Ebener P (2003) An evaluation of substance abuse treatment services for juvenile probationers at Phoenix Academy of Los Angeles. In: Stevens S, Morral A (eds) Adolescent substance abuse treatment in the United States: exemplary models from a national evaluation study. Haworth Press, Binghamton, NYGoogle Scholar
  40. Morral AR, McCaffrey DF, Ridgeway G (2004) Effectiveness of community based treatment for substance abusing adolescents: 12-month outcomes from a case-control evaluation of a Phoenix Academy. Psychol Addict Behav 18:257–268CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Nagin D, Paternoster R (1991) On the relationship of past to future participation in delinquency. Criminology 29:163–189CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Parton D, Hansel M, Stratton J (1991) Measuring crime seriousness: lessons from the national survey of crime severity. Br J Criminol 31:72–85Google Scholar
  43. R Development Core Team. R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. ISBN 3-900051-07-0 (
  44. Raudenbush SW, Johnson C, Sampson RJ (2003) A multivariate, multilevel Rasch model for self-reported criminal behavior. Sociol Methodol 33:169–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Rose GNG (1966) Concerning the measurement of delinquency. Br J Criminol 6:414–421Google Scholar
  46. Rossi PH, Waite E, Bose C, Berk R (1974) The seriousness of crimes: normative structure and individual differences. Am Sociol Rev 39:224–237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Sampson R, Laub J (1993) Crime in the making: pathways and turning points through life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  48. Samuelson P (1938) A note on the pure theory of consumers’ behaviour. Economica 5:61–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Sellin T, Wolfgang ME (1964) The measurement of delinquency. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  50. Stigler S (1994) Citation patterns in the journals of statistics and probability. Stat Sci 9:94–108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Thurstone L (1927) A law of comparative judgment. Psychol Rev 34:278–286Google Scholar
  52. Tonry M (1995) Malign neglect. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  53. Wellford C, Wiatrowski M (1975) On the measurement of delinquency. J Crim Law Criminol 66:175–188CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Wilson J (1995) Crime and public policy. In: Wilson J, Petersilia J (eds) Crime. Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  55. Wolfgang ME, Figlio RM, Tracy PE, Singer SI (1985) The national survey of crime severity. U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  56. Zimring F (1998) American youth violence. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rajeev Ramchand
    • 1
  • John M. MacDonald
    • 2
  • Amelia Haviland
    • 3
  • Andrew R. Morral
    • 1
  1. 1.RAND CorporationArlingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of CriminologyUniversity of Pennsylvania/RAND CorporationPhiladelphiaUSA
  3. 3.RAND CorporationPittsburghUSA

Personalised recommendations