• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Friday 29th February, 2008

The young and the damned – and the statistics

Young people today! – almost any taxi driver will tell you that their behavior is going from bad to worse – more crime, more serious crime and no respect. But where’s the evidence except in the golden haze of nostalgia for more innocent times?In truth, solid evidence has been sparse, and tracking change over generations has been bedeviled by problems of comparison. Until now that is. A research team from the Centre for Applied Statistics at Lancaster University, UK has been using sophisticated statistical methods to examine changes in the official offending behavior of 16-20 year olds in England and Wales from the early 1970s to the late 1990s.Previous work has produced important typologies of behavior – distinguishing, for example, between adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent anti-social behavior. But there has been little study of typologies of criminal offending patterns, and the way justice systems respond.The Lancaster authors claim that too little attention has been paid to changes in offending over the life course. The best longitudinal research like the Cambridge and Pittsburgh studies have focused on one cohort only.The Lancaster authors further claim that little attention has been paid to changing patterns of offending over time. Most longitudinal research has focused on one cohort only – most obviously the prospective Cambridge study of 400 males born in the early 1950s.To begin to address these shortcomings, the team analyzed data from the Offenders Index – a database of all “standard list” criminal convictions from 1963 to today. The study focused on six birth cohorts – a sample of all offenders born in four specified weeks in 1953, 1958, 1963, 1968, 1973 and 1978, with conviction histories recorded until the end of 1999. The sample comprises over 30,000 individuals who were convicted when they were 16-20 (mostly males).Thirty-eight categories of offense were created to capture the criminal participation of these offenders. A form of cluster analysis known as “latent class analysis” was used to group together those who share similar conviction characteristics when aged 16-20. For the males this produced 16 clusters, which in turn were summarized in terms of four umbrella groups.Two are of particular interest here. The first, “specialist”, encompassed clusters in which a particular offense was defining; in other words, these young adults are specialized in their behavior (eg. theft, or burglary, or criminal damage) and unlikely to commit any other type of offense.The second group, “versatile”, comprised offenders who exhibit a range of offenses, with no one type dominant. Thus, the “versatile acquisitive” cluster is characterized by offenders who use crime to gain money and property, whether by burglary or theft or other means, and who are also likely to be involved in violent behavior against people or property.Now for the really interesting bit: the researchers show how the pattern of offending has changed over time. They claim that there has been no previous numerical attempt to do this.What they find is fascinating. First, the proportion of males reaching the courts and being convicted is falling. It peaked for the 1963 birth cohort at 19% (the proportion of this cohort convicted when aged 16-20), falling to 13% for those born in 1978. The pattern is almost identical for females, albeit with lower participation rates.Second, the proportion of young adults in the specialist clusters declines over the same period for males, although not females, while the proportion of those in the versatile clusters increases for both. Thus, one in 25 males aged 16-20 were involved in highly versatile offending in the late 1990s, compared to just one in 50 in the early 1970s; the increase for females is even more dramatic. Persistent offenders fall into this group.Taking these two points together, the authors conclude that there has been a trend “towards smaller numbers of convicted offenders but with more (and more varied) convictions”. But what explains this shift?The authors speculate that it is caused by a combination of behavioral and system changes. It is true that young adult behavior has changed, but there are also more court diversionary schemes than previously and policing has become more targeted, focusing on offender rather than offense.The general perception in society is that the situation regarding crime by young adults is deteriorating. This study shows that the truth is more complex.There has been a significant decline in the numbers and proportions of young adults avoiding the stigma of a criminal conviction. But the mix of cases coming before the magistracy and judiciary is changing. Higher proportions of those who are convicted have a far wider repertoire of criminal behavior. The nature of their criminal behavior is also changing; most obviously, drug offenses have gone from rare to pervasive. The result is that a small number of young offenders are having a bigger impact.The Lancaster team show that it is possible to measure changes in patterns of offending over time (notwithstanding obvious limitations, including the focus on official conviction data within the court system). This is an important step forward. More important, their analysis helps to explain prevailing doom-laden perceptions about youth crime. Bad news invariably makes the best headlines but it can mask the underlying reality, which in this case is better news.• Summary of Soothill, K., Francis, B., Ackerley, E. and Humphreys, L. (2008) ‘Changing patterns of offending behaviour among young adults’, British Journal of Criminology 48 (1), pp75-95.

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