Explore Sampson and Laub’s age-graded theory, and learn about the academic research it’s based on. Get insight into the theory’s meaning to criminology as a whole so you can better understand factors that affect the committing of adolescent and adult crimes.

The Age-Crime Curve

Imagine a sixteen-year-old boy who is caught shoplifting. Soon word begins to spread throughout the small town in which the boy lives. Some of his elementary school teachers aren’t surprised by the news. He had frequently been in trouble in his younger days. Many others who are familiar with the boy’s behavior issues begin to speculate that he will continue to break the law throughout the entire course of his life.

Events like the one we just imagined have caused many to believe that deviant behavior is the result of personal characteristics. The age-graded theory developed by Sampson and Laub refutes this idea.

In the late 1980s, Robert Sampson and John Laub stumbled across the files from a decades-old research project conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck of the Harvard Law School. This study followed young boys from childhood into early adulthood and led them to question previous criminological research practice and develop their age-graded theory, which stated, in short, that criminal behavior may largely be determined by unstable transitions in individuals’ lives.

It’s been said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Therefore, it’s no surprise that when criminologists study adult offenders they discover almost all of them committed crimes as an adolescent. However, it isn’t logical to assume that everyone who engages in crime as an adolescent will commit crimes as an adult. Moreover, if one continues this faulty line of reasoning in a study on adult offenders, one might come to believe that all adult offenders must have begun their criminal careers prior to adolescence. The reality is that, out of all adolescent offenders, only a small number of them have committed crimes prior to adolescence and will continue to commit crimes into adulthood.

Criminologists have created graphs depicting at what age offenders commit crimes during the life course. These graphs, which all take the same general shape and are referred to as the age-crime curve, reveal that a high percentage of offenders begin and end their criminal careers during adolescence. Conversely, very few offenders begin committing crime at a young age, and very few offenders continue to break the law into adulthood.

It’s therefore imperative that criminologists, when studying crime, examine crime throughout the entire life course of offenders. This is why Sampson and Laub’s age-graded theory is so significant. It pioneered the study of crime across the life course.

Sampson and Laub flipped the script on traditional methods of examining criminal careers. Instead of looking back on a criminal’s life, they began with an individual’s childhood and followed their life into adulthood to see how beginning to commit crimes and desisting from crimes came about. Looking at the entire life of an offender gives a complete understanding of a life of crime.

The Age-Graded Theory

After reviewing the Gluecks’ research, Sampson and Laub concluded that an offender persists in crime due to a lack of social controls, a lack of routine and structure, and intentional choice. They also concluded that the exact opposite causes are responsible for the cessation of crime: an increase in social controls, achieving routine and structure in life, and intentional choice.

Sampson and Laub found that the most consistent and strongest effects on adolescent crime were related to family, school, and peers. Characteristics within the family that were found to increase the likelihood of crime were a lack of parental supervision, inconsistent and extreme discipline, and low levels of parental attachment. They also found that the more a child or adolescent was attached to their academic endeavors, the less likely they were to commit a crime. Also, delinquent peers were shown to increase the chances that an adolescent was involved in crime. However, it has been hard to tell whether the child was delinquent because of his peers or whether the child had delinquent peers because he or she was delinquent.

Sampson and Laub also believe each individual has a unique trajectory, a sort of roadmap for where a person’s life is headed. These trajectories differ from the age-crime curve because every person is unique. This idea is central to Sampson and Laub’s rejection of efforts to label offenders as ‘life-course persistent’ offenders. They recognize that each individual is unique. Even if one were to exclusively study life-course persistent offenders, each trajectory found would be different from the age-crime curve. However, when taken together, all trajectories will create the age-crime curve.

Sampson and Laub theorize that transitions or turning points are key to understanding why offenders cease committing crimes as adults or, in rare cases, begin to commit crimes as adults. When a person gets married, finds steady work, or has other forms of informal control on his or her life, the costs associated with committing crime increase. These transitions have four effects that increase the likelihood of desistance from crime:

  1. New situations ”knife off” offenders from scenarios that are conducive to crime. Here Sampson and Laub borrow from criminologist Terrie Moffitt.
  2. New sources of support and supervision are introduced.
  3. Structure and routine are changed or introduced.
  4. The opportunity to redefine one’s self becomes available.

Yet new life situations are just part of the desistance from crime. Sampson and Laub emphasize that agency, or personal choice, plays a role as well. In their theory, criminals cannot stop a life of crime without continuously making the personal choice to no longer engage in a life of crime.

Lesson Summary

Sampson and Laub’s age-graded theory, which stated, in short, that criminal behavior may largely be determined by unstable transitions in individuals’ lives, changed the way criminologists thought about studying criminological behavior. Previously, it was assumed that life trajectories, or roadmaps for where people’s lives are headed, were stable for offenders, but after Sampson and Laub developed their theory that they built from Glueck and Glueck’s law study, criminologists began to see that transitions, or turning points in a person’s life, can alter where their life is headed. They found that these transitions had four effects:

  1. New situations ”knife off” offenders from scenarios that are conducive to crime.
  2. New sources of support and supervision are introduced.
  3. Structure and routine are changed or introduced.
  4. The opportunity to redefine one’s self becomes available.

Furthermore, Sampson and Laub have made it clear that a person can’t desist from crime unless they exercise their agency, or making a choice to do so.