Debut crimes and chronic offenders in Queensland

Published date01 December 2023
AuthorMichael Townsley,Benjamin Hutchins
Date01 December 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Debut crimes and chronic
offenders in Queensland
Michael Townsley and Benjamin Hutchins
Grifth Criminology Institute, Grifth University, Nathan, Queensland,
We investigate whether the type of crime committed early in an individuals career has a bear-
ing on patterns of subsequent offending (the so-called debut hypothesis) in an Australian set-
ting. Police-recorded crime data from 2008 to 2020 were used and partitioned into cohorts
based on the year of the rst offence. We computed, for each cohort, the rate at which indi-
viduals progressed to established criminal careers conditioned by their rst recorded offence.
Individuals who commit burglary, vehicle theft, or robbery as their rst recorded offence were
observed to become chronic offenders at higher rates than those who comm it other types of
rst offences. We also demonstrated that this relationship exists for other dimensions of the
criminal career and is time stable. The policy implications of our ndings suggest that a com-
bination of opportunity reduction and diversionary policies has the potential to substantially
reduce the prospects of chronic criminal careers and their societal impact.
Debut crime, criminal career, chronic offending, crime drop
Date received: 11 May 2023; accepted: 28 July 2023
Youth crime is a concern for communities around the world. The fact that each criminal justice
contact increases the chance of future criminal justice system involvement (Bales & Piquero,
2012; Cullen et al., 2011), combined with the observation that young people are at the highest
risk of offending (Dennison, 2011; Farrington, 2003), means there is considerable upside in
preventing youth crime. While many grow out ofand desist from crime, a small number
go on to become chronic offenders, accounting for a disproportionate amount of crime.
While the overall youth offender rates have been decreasing, several studies have shown
Corresponding author:
Michael Townsley, Grifth Criminology Institute, Grifth University, Nathan, 4111, Queensland, Australia.
Journal of Criminology
2023, Vol. 56(4) 377395
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/26338076231195947
chronic youth offending rates have increased (McCarthy, 2019, 2021; Payne et al., 2018; Payne
& Piquero, 2020; Weatherburn et al., 2014).
Most youth justice policies and interventions have focused on the individual and/or their
interactions with the youth criminal justice system to prevent continuation into chronic offend-
ing patterns (Freiberg & Homel, 2011). An alternative (and complementary) approach has been
proposed to identify so-called gateway crimes, those crimes early in criminal careers that lead
to continuing or more serious criminality (Svensson, 2002). The rationale is that rather than
trying to prevent all crime youth commit, prioritise preventing or disrupting the types of
crimes that are most likely to facilitate extended criminal histories.
This study shows that individuals who commit burglary, vehicle theft, or robbery as their
rst crime are more likely to become chronic offenders with a longer and/or more prolic crim-
inal career than those who commit other types of debut crimes. Through analysis of Queensland
Police Service (QPS) recorded crime data, we found 22% of individuals who committed
burglary, vehicle theft, or robbery as a debut offence went on to become chronic offenders,
compared to a baseline of 5%. This information provides guidance for targeted early interven-
tion and diversionary approaches. Additionally, our ndings suggest that opportunity reduction
strategies focused on burglary, vehicle crime, and robbery have the potential to decrease the
size of the active offender population and their level of activity and result in sustained crime
Criminal careers, agecrime curve, and offending trajectories
The criminal career literature concentrates on the patterns and trajectories of criminal behaviour
over time (Piquero et al., 2003). This literature is distinguished from others in its focus on the
individual offender and their behaviour, rather than on the characteristics of the crime itself
(Clarke, 2017) or the social and environmental factors contributing to criminal behaviour
(Agnew & Brezina, 2019). Typically, a criminal career is decomposed into several dimensions:
onset, duration, seriousness, and offending rate. Each of these has been the subject of consid-
erable empirical research (Piquero et al., 2003).
One of the key ndings of the criminal career literature is the agecrime curve (Britt, 2018;
Piquero et al., 2003), the observation that criminal behaviour peaks in adolescence and declines
in early adulthood. This pattern is observed across different countries, cultures, and historical
periods (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1983) and is thought to be related to changes in brain devel-
opment, socialisation, and life events during this stage of life (Britt, 2018).
The agecrime curve has led to the classication of individualsoffending trajectories into
adolescence-limited, life-course-persistent, or late-onset offenders (Jolliffe, Farrington, Piquero,
Loeber et al., 2017; Jolliffe, Farrington, Piquero, MacLeod et al., 2017; Moftt, 1993; Zara &
Farrington, 2020). Adolescence-limited offenders are individuals who desist from offending as
they leave adolescence (more recently dened as the early 20s), while late-onset offenders are indi-
viduals that commit their rst offence in adulthood (Jolliffe, Farrington, Piquero, Loeber et al.,
2017; Jolliffe, Farrington, Piquero, MacLeod et al., 2017; Moftt, 1993). Life-course-persistent
offenders begin offending in adolescence but continue to offend into adulthood and have a
longer criminal career than other individuals (Jolliffe, Farrington, Piquero, Loeber et al., 2017;
Jolliffe, Farrington, Piquero, MacLeod et al., 2017; Moftt, 1993).
378 Journal of Criminology 56(4)

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