The Social Dynamics of Adolescent Co-offending

Published date01 December 2023
AuthorSally-Ann Ashton,Anna Bussu
Date01 December 2023
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
Youth Justice
2023, Vol. 23(3) 350 –371
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/14732254221136044
The Social Dynamics of
Adolescent Co-offending
Sally-Ann Ashton and Anna Bussu
This paper explores the social dynamics of adolescent co-offending and decision-making processes among
co-offenders; and to investigate co-offending roles in relation to the nature of a specific crime. The sample
consisted of 15 young people who were purposively sampled from a group of 14- to 17-year-old males who
had been identified as at risk of criminal group involvement and referred to a community-based programme.
Using a social identity framework, a thematic analysis was undertaken to investigate how the participants
viewed their role in co-offending as part of a criminal group. Participants identified their roles in criminal
groups as instigators, followers and group members. Planned crimes were either targeted or capitalised
as part of other delinquent activities. Impulsive offending was opportunistic, impetuous or reactive.
Furthermore, a new theoretical model to explain the social dynamics of co-offending was developed and the
implications for co-offending prevention and intervention programmes are discussed.
co-offending, crime planning, group influences, qualitative research, youth offending
Co-offending and roles
Co-offending is a crime that is committed with others. The number of co-offenders can
range from another individual to a much larger group, but typically entails a temporary
association between two or three offenders (Reiss, 1988; Reiss and Farrington, 1991;
Uhnoo, 2016). During adolescence, this process is seen to reflect the social role of peers
(Goldweber et al., 2011; Piquero et al., 2002). It can be a means of social exchange and a
way to elevate status (Calvó-Armengol and Zenou, 2004; Harding, 2014; Weerman,
2003). For adolescents in particular, co-offending offers the opportunity to acquire new
skills with more experienced criminals (Van Mastrigt and Farrington, 2011). According to
Gardner and Steinberg (2005), young people can be more vulnerable to involvement in
occasional deviant behaviours because of their developmental stage and impulsive deci-
sion making (Galvan et al., 2006; Steinberg, 2008, 2010 in Thomas and McGloin, 2013).
Corresponding author:
Sally-Ann Ashton, Texas Juvenile Crime Prevention Center, Prairie View A&M University, Prairie View, TX 77446, USA.
1136044YJJ0010.1177/14732254221136044Youth JusticeAshton and Bussu
Original Article
Ashton and Bussu 351
Co-offending decreases as individuals age, become more autonomous and less depend-
ent on the leadership or skills of others (Moffitt, 1993). However, the transition from co-
offender to solo offender is not consistent across all categories of crime, it can be prolonged
for some types of violent offending (Andresen and Felson, 2012). Not surprisingly, indi-
viduals who have protracted criminal careers demonstrate flexibility in their offending
style (McCord and Conway, 2002; Reiss, 1986; Reiss and Farrington, 1991). For Moffitt
(1993), the transition to solo offender (and so mixed-style offending across the lifespan)
differentiates persistent adult and adolescent limited offenders. More recently, researchers
identified that prolific offenders vary their style much earlier in their trajectories (Hodgson,
2007), with prolific adolescent offenders operating alone and as part of a group during the
same phase of their lives (Ashton et al., 2020; Goldweber et al., 2011).
Although co-offending trajectories have been studied in some detail, the decision-mak-
ing processes of temporary deviant groups are less researched (Hochstetler, 2001). There
are relatively few qualitative studies on co-offending (Uhnoo, 2016) and limited empirical
research on decision-making involving deviant peer groups. However, several important
experimental works, focusing on co-offending and decision-making processes, were
recently published (McGloin and Rowan, 2015; McGloin and Thomas, 2016; McGloin
et al., 2021; Thomas and McGloin, 2013).
The criminological literature in this field has highlighted that adolescent traits such as
impulsivity (Thomas and McGloin, 2013) and peer facilitation (Ashton and Bussu, 2020)
both play an important role in deviant behaviour. However, it is not clear why and how per-
sonal characteristics moderate peer influence and how situational temptations can impact
and/or influence different peer groups of young people (Thomas and McGloin, 2013).
For understanding the decision-making processes, we cannot simply adopt ‘traditional
rational choice models’ for group crime, given that such models typically do not consider
the interdependent nature of decision-making when in the ‘presence of others’ (Granovetter,
1978; McCarthy et al., 1998; McGloin and Rowan, 2015). In this regard, Thomas and
McGloin (2013) and McGloin and Rowan (2015) have elaborated theoretical models (see
Threshold Model of Collective Crime and Dual-System Approach) for understanding how
young people engage with group offending and their decision-making processes in ‘the
presence of others’.
McGloin and Thomas (2016: 459) have also established that the ‘presence of others
shifts decision-making about risky/deviant behavior’. Young people are not only more
likely to take risks, they are more vulnerable to peer influence on risk decision and prefer-
ence (Galvan et al., 2006; Gardner and Steinberg, 2005; Steinberg, 2008, 2010; Thomas
and McGloin, 2013). Nevertheless, it has been suggested that it is important for future
research to explore ‘how young people draw on situational information to adjust their
rational calculus before deciding to engage in deviance’ (McGloin and Thomas, 2016:
479). One such study (McGloin et al., 2021: 738) indicated that socially interdependent
decision-making processes may be situation specific and also the importance of acknowl-
edging the social context in offending decisions.
Several studies have identified different roles within co-offending groups; instigators/
recruiters, who are often older and can include family members (Reiss, 1988; Van Mastrigt
and Farrington, 2011) and joiners/followers (Moffitt, 1993; Reiss, 1988). Lopez (2008)

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