Age and Crime

Statistics show that younger people get involved with crime more often than older people. Can you think of possible sociological explanations for this? 

Age and Crime Age and Crime

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Table of contents
    • We will look at the patterns regarding age and crime in the UK.
    • We will start with some statistical data, then we will move on to prison records and discuss sociological theories about them.
    • We will consider the functionalist theory of inadequate socialisation, Albert Cohen’s subcultural theory and finally, the Marxist perspective of Paul Willis.

    Age and crime in sociology

    Official statistics show that there are certain patterns regarding age and criminal activity. Younger people are more likely to behave deviantly than older people, especially younger men. The 2015 statistics show that in England and Wales, more men between the ages of 15 and 20 were arrested or given police caution for serious crimes (indictable offences) than men aged 21 or older.

    Percentage of crime by age

    The table below shows how many people were found guilty or were cautioned for serious offences per 100,000 population in 2005 and in 2015 in England and Wales. The table shows age and gender groups separately. The data is based on the 2016 statistics from the Ministry of Justice.

    2005

    Males aged 10-11

    Males aged 12-14

    Males aged 15-17

    Males aged 18-20

    Males aged 21 and over

    320

    1684

    4489

    4707

    1104

    Females aged 10-11

    Females aged 12-14

    Females aged 15-17

    Females aged 18-20

    Females aged 21 and over

    27

    371

    780

    639

    187

    2015

    Males aged 10-11

    Males aged 12-14

    Males aged 15-17

    Males aged 18-20

    Males aged 21 and over

    44

    573

    2000

    3031

    1171

    Females aged 10-11

    Females aged 12-14

    Females aged 15-17

    Females aged 18-20

    Females aged 21 and over

    5

    125

    325

    421

    226

    Table 1 - Crime offences per 100,000 people, separated by age - 2005 vs 2015. Source: Ministry of Justice

    According to self-report studies, most young people do not get involved with crime. If they do act deviantly, they usually commit smaller offences. In the 2004 Offending, Crime and Justice Survey, 74% of interviewees aged between 10 and 25 claimed that they did not commit any of the offences they were asked about in the previous year. The young people who admitted to committing offences, referred to minor crimes and usually did not offend regularly.

    Age and crime: effects on criminal justice

    Why is there an increasing number of older people in prison?

    Older people in prison

    Older people are much less likely to be arrested for a crime than teenagers. However, the Prison Reform Trust shows that the fastest growing age group in the prisons of England and Wales is peopled aged over 60.

    A part of this group are offenders who committed a crime when they were young and are now serving their decades long (or life-long) sentences in prison, which means they are ageing there. Some are repeat offenders, who have been in and out of prison during their lifetime. Lastly, there are some people who offended for the first time when they were already aged 50-60 years.

    Demographic changes in the UK are one of the reason for the growing number of older prisoners. The average life expectancy of British people is higher than previously, so people have more time to get involved with crime during their lifetime.

    Age and crime: theories

    One explanation for young people’s high involvement in crime can be that they seek excitement and adventure, which can sometimes get them into trouble with the authorities. Breaking the rules come with a certain excitement, which young people are especially interested in feeling.

    Let's look at some sociological theories explaining the relationship between age and crime.

    Functionalism and inadequate socialisation

    Functionalist sociologists believe that primary and secondary socialisation is crucial in people’s lives and personal development. They see both the failure of primary and secondary socialisation as the breakdown of social control in young people’s lives, which eventually lead to criminality.

    Inadequate primary socialisation

    Primary socialisation happens in the family, and functionalists believe that in order for it to be perfect it has to happen in a nuclear family. The traditional nuclear family is the best family form to teach children the right values and rules.

    Functionalists believe that when young people are engaged in crime, it is because they did not learn the appropriate behaviour and value system from their families.

    Age and Crime, a Black family of two parents and three children in the garden, StudySmarterFig. 1 - According to functionalists, adequate socialization can only happen in the traditional nuclear family.

    In families where the parents do (or cannot) not pay attention to the correct socialisation of their children, teenagers are more likely to turn to deviant behaviour and crime. Teenagers committing crimes are seen as inadequately socialised into society. They define inadequate socialisation as poor parenting, lack of supervision and the lack of one parent (especially a father) in numerous instances.

    Inadequate secondary socialisation

    The institutions of secondary socialisation, such as schools, the media and religious organisations can also fail at socialising teenagers into society. Functionalists claim that there is a lack of discipline in schools, and religion’s decline also contributes to the increasing delinquency of children and young people. Many sociologists point out that the media is also to blame for glamorising gun violence and street crime.

    Albert Cohen's subcultural theory

    Subcultural theory argues that certain popular and youth subcultures have a value system that encourages crime and delinquency.

    Juvenile delinquency

    Sociologist Albert Cohen (1955) researched young working-class people (especially boys) and delinquency in the 1950s in North America. He found that individuals do not carry out offences such as vandalism or violence on their own. According to Cohen, juvenile delinquency is a group phenomenon.

    Young people first get involved with youth groups and gangs, where violence is seen as the ‘thing to do’. To gain status among their peers, they become involved with criminality. He pointed to urban gangs, where vandalism and violence is incorporated in the value system.

    Status frustration

    Cohen researched how these urban gangs developed and why they glamorise violence and vandalism. He argued that it is the fault of the American education system. Schools set middle-class values and expectations to their students, from which working-class students feel alienated. Working-class students find it harder to compete and succeed in this education system.

    As a result, they feel status frustration. Since they cannot gain status through educational achievement, they turn to criminality to gain status through, and ‘take revenge’ on the institutions that discriminated against them in the first place.

    Criticisms of Albert Cohen

    • Some sociologists argue that Cohen is misled in his research by his middle-class bias. He assumes that working-class students automatically accept the middle-class values and means of success.
    • Feminists sociologists criticise Cohen for solely focusing on boys and delinquency, ignoring girls’ experiences. They claim that Cohen makes no reference to how his theory would apply to girls.

    The Marxist perspective

    Paul Willis (1977) carried out a similar study in Britain with working-class boys. He interviewed 15-16 year-old pupils in a group setting and carried out participation observation to find out what those boys thought about school's role in their future careers.

    He found strong anti-school attitudes in the teenagers, who thought that what school was teaching them would be useless in their future jobs in comparison to the strength and connections they would gain through joining subculture groups and gangs. Consequently, Willis too, linked juvenile delinquency to the flawed education system.

    You can read about the study in more detail in our 'In-School Processes Affecting Achievement' article.

    Age and Crime - Key takeaways

    • Younger people are more likely to behave deviantly than older people, especially younger men.
    • The Prison Reform Trust shows that the fastest growing age group in the prisons of England and Wales is the over 60 years. Demographic changes in the UK are one of the reason for the growing number of older prisoners.
    • Teenagers committing crimes are seen as inadequately socialised into society. Functionalists define inadequate socialisation as poor parenting, lack of supervision and the lack of one parent (especially a father) in numerous instances.
    • Subcultural theory argues that certain popular and youth subcultures have a value system that includes and cheers crime and delinquency.
    • Paul Willis also linked juvenile delinquency to the flawed education system that disabled working-class pupils to compete on the same grounds as middle-class students.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Age and Crime

    Is there a relationship between age and crime?

    Official statistics show that there are certain patterns regarding age and criminal activity. Younger people are more likely to behave deviantly than older people, especially younger men. The 2015 statistics show that in England and Wales, more men between the ages of 15 and 20 were arrested or given police caution for serious crimes (indictable offences) than men aged 21 or older.

    Why does crime decrease with age?

    One explanation for young people’s high involvement in crime can be that they seek excitement and adventure, which can sometimes get them into trouble with the authorities. Breaking the rules come with a certain excitement, which young people are especially interested in feeling. This may not apply as much to older people.

    What age group is most likely to commit crime?

    According to the statistics of the Ministry of Justice (2005-2015), the group that is most likely to commit crimes is the groups of 15-20 year old men.

    What theory explains the age crime curve?

    There are several sociological explanations for the patterns regarding age and crime. Functionalist sociologists believe in the theory of inadequate socialisation. The other major theory is subcultural theory by Albert Cohen, which suggests that working-class students feel alienated from middle-class values and thus turn to delinquency.

    Why is age such an important aspect of crime?

    Sociologists have noticed demographic patterns around criminality and deviancy. They noted patterns around four important aspects: gender, ethnicity, age and social class. Age is an important aspect of crime, as more young people commit crime than older people.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The 2015 statistics show that in England and Wales, more men between the ages of 15 and 20 were arrested or given police caution for serious crimes (indictable offences) than men aged 21 or older.

    In the 2004 Offending, Crime and Justice Survey, 74% of interviewees aged between 10 and 25 claimed that they did not commit any of the offences they were asked about in the previous year.

    Functionalists believe that in families where the parents do (or cannot) not pay attention to the correct socialisation of their children, teenagers are more likely to turn to deviant behaviour and crime. 

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