Mapping the Age of Official Desistance for Adult Offenders: Implications for Research and Policy

  • Elaine Eggleston DohertyEmail author
  • Bianca E. Bersani



The age-crime curve is a well-known “fact” in criminology; yet, historically, attention to the interplay between chronological age and offending has focused almost exclusively on the first half of the curve (i.e., onset, rapid escalation, and peak in mid to late adolescence). This study advances understanding of the relationship between offending and age for the second half of the age-crime curve (i.e., during the decline in offending) by studying when desistance happens in young adulthood and beyond.


Synthesizing data from 15 US-based longitudinal studies, this research triangulates the timing of official desistance by systematically mapping the age of last criminal justice contact (e.g., arrest, police contact) by age of last follow-up for offenders who continue offending beyond “normative” adolescent offending.


On average, official desistance occurs within a tightly clustered period early in the life course (i.e., late 20s to early 30s). Even among those followed well into adulthood (age 30 or older), the average age of last criminal justice contact was 35 with later ages of desistance driven by arrests for drug offenses. Observed patterns hold when data are disaggregated by sex, race, type of sample, source of data, and accounting for incarceration. Data censoring (i.e., length of follow-up) strongly impacts estimates of desistance.


The finding that official desistance largely occurs in early adulthood is inconsistent with US criminal justice policy. We discuss these policy considerations (e.g., sentencing and incapacitation) as well as methodological (e.g., data collection efforts) and theoretical (e.g., identification and meaning of desister or persister) implications.


Desistance Longitudinal data Criminal career Termination Review 



We would like to extend our gratitude to Margaret Ensminger, Peggy Giordano, John Laub, Roland Neil, Robert Sampson, Ryan Schroeder, Brandon Welsh, and Steven Zane for sharing their longitudinal data with us. We would also like to thank Alysa Kaiser for her research assistance with this paper.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Criminology and Criminal JusticeUniversity of Missouri – St. LouisSt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyUniversity of Massachusetts BostonBostonUSA

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