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Stability of crime over the life course

Updated on March 6, 2018

Crime that is persistent over the life course has been studied by many different scholars. There are many different theories for why this occurs in some individuals and not others. Dysfunctional families are often thought to be one major contributing factor of this occurrence. However; some studies seem to show conflicting opinions on this subject. Poverty, neglect, and genetic disadvantages are usually other factors that can come into play when it comes to someone ending up a career criminal.

Some of the most significant data on the subject of crime over the life course and its possible cause is that pertaining to mental health problems. Most people at some point in their life experiment with some type of criminal act. However; many do not get into trouble and end their delinquent behavior before getting caught up in the cycle of a life of crime. Furthermore; even people who do get into trouble with the law usually do not turn out to be career criminals. It is common that most criminals will at some point in their lives stop committing criminal acts.

Problematic behaviors such as being disruptive have been found to show moderate to strong levels of stability for those exhibiting such features from a very early age (Campbell et al., 2000, p. 474). Furthermore; Loeber (1982, p. 9), has came to a similar conclusion, noting that early signs of bad behavior seem to signal that a future pattern of criminal behavior is likely. However; it is important to note that the stability and persistence of life course criminality is not found in the majority of the population but in only about 5% of it (Nagin & Tremblay, 1999). The extremes of antisocial behavior personalities, those being very high or low in these traits, have been found to sustain stability the best. Yet pro-social behavioral traits are still by far the most stable trait of all (Wright et al., 2008, p. 28).

Reasons for stability can be attributed to many different things from early onset of aggression to genetic and environmental factors. Genetics has been proven to play an important role in anti-social personalities and stability of criminal behavior (Wright et al., 2008). In one study of twins the environment was proven to have little effect on delinquency compared to that of genetics (Rowe, 1986).

In conclusion, while criminal behavior seems to be a very stable over a person’s life course as mentioned earlier this is not the case for the majority of the population. Reasons for stability are primarily due to the fact that there are many contributing factors to this trait. Wherefore; there is not just one variable that can be changed which would alter this behavior but many. Deeply ingrained personality dysfunctions are hard enough to alter, but when coupled with a genetic disposition, and an environment riddled with anti-social personalities, life course criminal behavior becomes highly stable (Wright et al., 2008).


Campbell, S. B., Shaw, D. S., & Gilliom, M. (2000). Early externalizing behavior problems: Toddlers and preschoolers at risk for later maladjustment. Development and psychopathology, 12(3), 467-488.

Caspi, A., & Silva, P. A. (1995). Temperamental qualities at age three predict personality traits in young adulthood: Longitudinal evidence from a birth cohort. Child development, 66(2), 486-498.

Loeber, R. (1982). The stability of antisocial and delinquent child behavior: A review. Child development, 53(6), 1431-1446.

Nagin, D., & Tremblay, R. E. (1999). Trajectories of boy’s physical aggression, opposition, and hyperactivity on the path to physically violent and nonviolent juvenile delinquency. Child development, 70(5), 1181-1196.

Olweus, D. (1979). Stability of aggressive reaction patterns in males: A review. Psychological bulletin, 86, 852-875.

Rowe, D. C. (1986). Genetic and environmental components of antisocial behavior: A study of 265 twin pairs. Criminology, 24(3), 513-532.

Wright, J. P., Tibbetts, S. G., & Daigle, L. E. (2008). Criminals in the making. Criminality across the life course.


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