Criminal careers and the crime drop
Rates of recorded crime have been falling in many countries in Western Europe, including Scotland, since the early 1990s. This marks the reversal of a trend of increasing levels of crime seen in Scotland and elsewhere since the 1950s. Despite this important recent change, most analyses of the ‘crime drop’ have focused on recorded crime or victimisation rates aggregated to national or regional level. It is, as yet, little known how patterns of offending or conviction have changed at the individual level. To explore this question my research describes how patterns of convictions have changed over the crime drop in Scotland, drawing on concepts from criminal careers research to analyse convictions trends across a number of aspects of the relationship between age and crime.
This analysis was conducted using the Scottish Offenders Index (SOI)*, a census of convictions in Scottish courts, between 1989 and 2011. Analysis was conducted using a number of descriptive statistical techniques to examine change across age, sex and time. Data visualization methods were used to explore the changing age distribution of convictions in SOI, whilst standardization and decomposition analysis was used to control for the impact of demographic change on conviction rates. Change in variation within the convicted population was explored using Latent Class Analysis to statistically identify groups of high-rate offenders and assess membership of these groups over time.
This thesis finds a sharp contrast between falling rates of conviction for young people, particularly young men, and increases in conviction rates for those between their mid-twenties and mid-forties. These trends are driven primarily by changes in the prevalence of conviction, and result in an increasingly even distribution of convictions over age. Increases in conviction rates for those over 21 are explained by both greater onset of conviction and higher persistence in conviction, particularly in the early 2000s. Comparisons across latent classes shows high rate convictions groups make up a smaller proportion of people convicted under the age of 25, but these groups make up an increasing proportion of older men and women convicted.
The results of this thesis suggest that explanations of the crime drop must have a greater engagement with contrasting trends across age and sex to be able to properly explain falling crime rates. Trying to fit a general explanation of falling crime rates to age groups where convictions are increasing is likely to hinder rather than help our understanding of what is driving these trends. These results also demonstrate that criminal careers research must engage with recent changes in social context to understand how the development of crime over people’s lives has changed over the recent crime drop. For policy-makers, falls in prevalence and increases in persistence of conviction emphasise the importance of strategies such as the Reducing Reoffending programme to help support people stop offending, and suggest that such programmes have become increasingly important over the recent crime drop.
*Access to SOI via a data sharing agreement with Scottish Government. Many thanks to them for their assistance throughout this project.
*Photo istock © djedzura