Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 301–311 | Cite as

Understanding the Relationship Between Onset Age and Subsequent Offending During Adolescence

  • Sarah Bacon
  • Raymond Paternoster
  • Robert Brame
Empirical Research


This article examines the well-documented relationship between early initiation or onset of criminal behavior and a heightened risk of involvement in offending. Previous research examining this question conducted by Nagin and Farrington (Criminology 30:235–260, 1992a; Criminology 30:501–523, 1992b) used data from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development and found that: (1) onset age was correlated with offending involvement; and (2) the correlation could be explained by stable individual differences in the propensity to offend rather than a causal effect of early onset age. In this study, similar analytic methods are applied to data from the Second Philadelphia Birth Cohort. This data set consists of all 13,160 males born in Philadelphia in 1958 who resided in the city continuously from ages 10 to 18, slightly more than half of whom were non-white. Information from each of the youths was collected from schools, juvenile justice agencies, other official sources and surveys. In a model that mimics previous analyses, we initially found that an early age of onset is associated with greater subsequent involvement in delinquent behavior. When unobserved criminal propensity was controlled, however, we found that a late rather than an early onset of delinquency was related to future offending. In finding a state dependent effect for age of onset, our findings are contrary to propensity theory in criminology. In finding that it is late rather early onset which puts youth at risk for future offending, our findings are contrary to developmental/life course theory. Our results are more compatible with traditional criminological theory that is friendly to state dependence processes, though they too have not to date articulated why a late onsetting of offending might be particularly criminogenic.


Onset age Criminal careers Developmental criminology 


  1. Blumstein, A., Cohen, J., Roth, J. A., & Visher, C. A. (1986). Criminal careers and career criminals (Vol. 1). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.Google Scholar
  2. Elder, G. H. (1998a). The life course and human development. In R. M. Lerner (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology, Volume 1: Theoretical models of human development. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  3. Elder, G. H. (1998b). The life course as developmental theory. Child Development, 69, 1–12. doi: 10.2307/1132065.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Elliott, D. S. (1994). Serious violent offenders: Onset, developmental course and termination. Criminology, 32, 1–21. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1994.tb01144.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Farrington, D. P., Loeber, R., Elliott, D. S., Hawkins, J. D., Kandel, D. B., Klein, M., et al. (1990). Advancing knowledge about the onset of delinquency and crime. In B. B. Lahey & A. E. Kazdin (Eds.), Advances in clinical child psychology (Vol. 13). New York: Plenum.Google Scholar
  6. Glueck, S., & Glueck, E. (1952). Delinquents in the making. New York: Harper and Brothers.Google Scholar
  7. Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Healy, W. (1915). The individual delinquent. Boston: Little Brown.Google Scholar
  9. Kurlychek, M. C., Brame, R., & Bushway, S. D. (2006). Scarlet letters and recidivism: Does an old criminal record predict future offending? Criminology & Public Policy, 5, 483–504. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9133.2006.00397.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Kurlychek, M. C., Brame, R., & Bushway, S. D. (2007). Enduring risk? Old criminal records and predictions of future criminal involvement. Crime and Delinquency, 53, 64–83. doi: 10.1177/0011128706294439.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Le Blanc, M., & Loeber, R. (1998). Developmental criminology updated. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and justice: An annual review of research (Vol. 23). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  12. Loeber, R. (1982). The stability of antisocial and delinquent child behavior: A review. Child Development, 53, 1431–1446. doi: 10.2307/1130070.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Loeber, R., Farrington, D. P., & Waschbusch, D. A. (1998). Serious and violent juvenile offenders. In R. Loeber & D. P. Farrington (Eds.), Serious and violent juvenile offenders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  14. Loeber, R., & Le Blanc, M. (1990). Toward a developmental criminology. In M. Tonry & N. Morris (Eds.), Crime and justice: An annual review of research (Vol. 12). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  15. Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life-course persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674–701. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.100.4.674.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Nagin, D. S., & Farrington, D. P. (1992a). The stability of criminal potential from childhood to adulthood. Criminology, 30, 235–260. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1992.tb01104.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Nagin, D. S., & Farrington, D. P. (1992b). The onset and persistence of offending. Criminology, 30, 501–523. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1992.tb01114.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Nagin, D. S., & Paternoster, R. (1991). On the relationship of past to future delinquency. Criminology, 29, 163–189. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1991.tb01063.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Patterson, G. R. (1996). Some characteristics of a developmental theory for early onset delinquency. In M. F. Lenzenweger & J. J. Haugaard (Eds.), Frontiers of developmental psychopathology. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Patterson, G. R., & Yoerger, K. (1993). Developmental models for delinquent behavior. In S. Hodgins (Ed.), Mental disorder and crime. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  21. Snyder, H. N. (1988). Court careers of juvenile offenders. Washington, D.C: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.Google Scholar
  22. Thornberry, T. P. (2005). Explaining multiple patterns of offending across the life course and across generations. Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science, 602, 156–195. doi: 10.1177/0002716205280641.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Thornberry, T. P., & Krohn, M. D. (2005). Applying interactional theory to the explanation of continuity and change in antisocial behavior. In D. P. Farrington (Ed.), Integrated developmental and life-course theories of offending. Advances in criminological rheory (Vol. 14). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.Google Scholar
  24. Tolan, P. H. (1987). Implications of age of onset for delinquency risk. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 15, 46–65. doi: 10.1007/BF00916465.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Tracy, P. E., & Kempf-Leonard, K. (1996). Continuity and discontinuity in criminal careers. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  26. Tracy, P. E., Wolfgang, M. E., & Figlio, R. M. (1988). Delinquency in two birth cohorts. New York: Plenum.Google Scholar
  27. Wilson, J. Q., & Herrnstein, R. J. (1985). Crime and human nature. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah Bacon
    • 1
  • Raymond Paternoster
    • 2
    • 3
  • Robert Brame
    • 4
  1. 1.College of Criminology and Criminal JusticeFlorida State UniversityTallahassee USA
  2. 2.Department of Criminology and Criminal JusticeUniversity of MarylandCollege Park USA
  3. 3.Maryland Population Research CenterCollege Park USA
  4. 4.Department of Criminal JusticeUniversity of North Carolina CharlotteCharlotte USA

Personalised recommendations