Criminal Onset in Emerging Adulthood

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Mainstream life course and developmental research focuses on the criminal careers of primarily youthful, male offenders. More recently, the increased feminist interest in gendered trajectories has shifted the research focus to the gendered criminal careers of adults. Forgotten among this research is a discussion about the criminal careers and influencing risk factors of a highly unstable population, emerging adults. In this study, I use a descriptive approach to determine if an emerging adult onset offending group exists in a nationally, representative sample of U.S. youth. Additionally, I explore the possibility of gendered offending trajectories and risk factors.

Emerging adulthood is characterized as a state of constant change and self-exploration. Yet, it is unknown whether this instability results in criminal onset. Additionally, it is unknown which emerging adult risk factors influence the offending of emerging adults. I use data from the National Youth Survey to explore these issues. Group-based trajectory and between-wave comparison models are used to determine whether multiple, gendered and age-graded offending typologies exist among this nationally representative sample of youth. Conventional statistical tools and logistic regression models are used to identify influencing risk factors. Delinquency is measured using a ten-item variety scale.

I identify 10 gendered trajectories, five male and five female, and an emerging adult onset group made up of a very small number of individuals. For the most part, the offending trajectories and the associated risk factors of males and females are similar. However, two stable offending groups are found among the males and a group of low level risers are found among the female offending group. Gendered, emerging adult risk factors are also identified. Serious, long-term male offenders are influenced by employment variables. Serious, female offenders are influenced by their relationships with criminal associates. Emerging adult onset offending appears to be influenced by more proximate adolescent and emerging adult onset risk factors. Implications for criminal career research are discussed.