Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 42, Issue 6, pp 921–938 | Cite as

Age and the Explanation of Crime, Revisited

  • Gary Sweeten
  • Alex R. PiqueroEmail author
  • Laurence Steinberg
Empirical Research


Age is one of the most robust correlates of criminal behavior. Yet, explanations for this relationship are varied and conflicting. Developmental theories point to a multitude of sociological, psychological, and biological changes that occur during adolescence and adulthood. One prominent criminological perspective outlined by Gottfredson and Hirschi claims that age has a direct effect on crime, inexplicable from sociological and psychological variables. Despite the attention this claim has received, few direct empirical tests of it have been conducted. We use data from Pathways to Desistance, a longitudinal study of over 1,300 serious youthful offenders (85.8 % male, 40.1 % African-American, 34.3 % Hispanic, 21.0 % White), to test this claim. On average, youths were 16.5 years old at the initial interview and were followed for 7 years. We use multilevel longitudinal models to assess the extent to which the direct effects of age are reduced to statistical and substantive non-significance when constructs from a wide range of developmental and criminological theories are controlled. Unlike previous studies, we are able to control for changes across numerous realms emphasized within differing theoretical perspectives including social control (e.g., employment and marriage), procedural justice (e.g., perceptions of the legitimacy and fairness of the legal system), learning (e.g., gang membership and exposure to antisocial peers), strain (e.g., victimization and relationship breakup), psychosocial maturity (e.g., impulse control, self-regulation and moral disengagement), and rational choice (e.g., costs and rewards of crime). Assessed separately, these perspectives explain anywhere from 3 % (procedural justice) to 49 % (social learning) of the age-crime relationship. Together, changes in these constructs explain 69 % of the drop in crime from ages 15 to 25. We conclude that the relationship between age and crime in adolescence and early adulthood is largely explainable, though not entirely, attributable to multiple co-occurring developmental changes.


Age Crime Offending Multilevel regression Time-varying covariates 



The research was supported by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2000-MU–MU-0007), the National Institute of Justice (199-IJ-CX-0053), the National Institute of Drug Abuse (R01 DA019697-01), the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Center for Disease Control, The William Penn Foundation, The Arizona Governor’s Justice Commission, and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. We are grateful for their support. The content of this paper, however, is the sole responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of these agencies.

Author Contributions

GS and ARP conceived of the study, participated in its design and coordination and drafted the manuscript; GS, ARP, and LS participated in the interpretation of the data and the finalization of the manuscript; LS and ARP participated in the design and coordination of the study and GS performed the statistical analysis. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gary Sweeten
    • 1
  • Alex R. Piquero
    • 2
    Email author
  • Laurence Steinberg
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Criminology and Criminal JusticeArizona State UniversityPhoenixUSA
  2. 2.Program in CriminologyUniversity of Texas at DallasRichardsonUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

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