Lecture 4: General Characteristics of Crime and Criminals

General Characteristics of Crime and Criminals: Lecture Overview

Crime is not random; it isn’t committed by just anybody and random people are not its targets. Next week we’ll turn to the question of predictability in crime victims; this week we consider regularities in the commission of crime.

Before you start to review this lecture, be sure to read Hagan’s Chapter 3, and listen to author Frank Hagan’s brief audio podcast describing Chapter 3 and summarizing the essentials of some of its content.

Our lecture subjects this week are:

First Exam: a Study Guide

Before the first exam in any course I teach, I like to provide a study guide to help you feel a little more comfortable moving into the exam process.  I won’t, of course, tell you what the questions on the exam will be, but you should know what sort of questions there will be and how the experience will work.

As you already know from having read and agreed to the syllabus, all exams in the course are completed using pen and paper and will be proctored, requiring you to travel to an ITV site, University Center or another location near you to take the exams. During the first two weeks of the semester, as the syllabus explains, you should have visited the website http://www.learn2.maine.edu/exam and chosen a location at which to take your exam (or, if you live out of state, you should have already made arrangements with a proctoring service and then contacted me with specific information about those arrangements).

It is also your responsibility to contact the location you’ve chosen, before each exam, to arrange a specific day and 3-hour block of time within the period September 26 – September 30.  The day and time you schedule needs to be practical for you but also for site staff, so be sure to allow for some time to find the mutually agreeable slot you and they can work with. If you need help contacting any UMA campus or Maine center to arrange a specific day for your exam, you should have let me know by e-mail (james.m.cook@maine.edu) by now — again, all these details are laid out in the syllabus.

What will the exam look like?  It will be a stapled packet of about five pages, and you’ll write your answers right on the exam. There will be no true or false questions, no matching, and on the other end of the complexity scale no essay questions either. The semester’s two papers and many discussion tasks offer you a chance to express yourself in the long-form; the exams will test your command of facts, concepts and theories.  The first section will consist of 8 multiple choice questions.  The second section will contain 8 “short answer” questions requiring a few sentences for each response — you will be able to choose 6 of the 8 questions to answer.  The third section of the exam will contain 8 terms, and I will ask you to define 6 of them.  The choices you make in the second and third sections will allow you some flexibility and I hope will stave off some test anxiety.

What material am I liable to test you on?  The answer: all written and lecture material from the first four weeks (although I’m asking you to read Hagan Chapter 4 for next week, I will not test you on that material). What from that material is particularly important? Look first for terms that appear in bold in the chapters you’ve read.  Be able to define each of these terms.  Look especially for terms that appear in chapters and also in my online lectures.  Second, look for material that does not appear in your textbook but that does appear in online lectures — when a professor includes extra material in lecture, it’s usually a hint about what s/he feels the textbook missed.  Third, know what I am not liable to test you on: memorization of names and dates don’t matter to me.  It’s much more important for you to know theories, terms, and evidence regarding patterns in the definition and commission of crime than it is for you to know who Emile Durkheim was or what year George Herbert Mead wrote  his most seminal works.

If you’re looking for a way to test your command of course knowledge, consider visiting Frank Hagan’s Chapter Resources and trying out his online quizzes.  Where he tests you on dates and names, don’t worry so much about your result, but if you can’t tell me what “operationalization” means or what the difference between the catharsis hypothesis and the precipitation hypothesis is, look out!

The exam is closed-book: this means that you will only be able to bring your mind and your pen in to the exam.

Age and Crime

The remarkable relationship between age and crime is one of the strongest and most consistent in criminology. In the following video segment, I consider some examples of the “age-crime curve,” the sharp peak of observed criminality between 18 and 24 years of age, and connect this observation to the criminological theories of Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, the two criminologists who are perhaps most responsible for popularizing tales regarding age and crime:

September is like Christmastime for criminologists in America, because it’s in September that the FBI’s annual statistical report based on the Uniform Crime Reports system is published. Crime in the United States 2015 is so close to being released that as of September 18, 2016, the FBI has added the text of a link and is getting ready to release that link any day now.  Last year’s Crime in the United States, for the year 2014, offers us the opportunity of testing our expectations against harsh and sometimes surprising reality. I made that video you see above a while back; do the same trends connecting age and crime hold true in 2014 arrests? Let’s find out, grouping arrest data into the two prime categories of violent crime and property crime. The following graph is created using data in Crime In The United States 2014 Table 38:

Age-Crime Curves for Violent and Property Crime, Source: FBI Crime in the United States 2014


By gum, the age-crime curve holds for another year.

Age may be one of the best predictors of criminality, but it is topped by gender, which is the best predictor of them all. Among observed criminal acts, a strong majority of them are carried out by males; this is true for both property crime and violent crime. This is not to say that virtually all arrests are of males; many women are arrested each year, primarily for property crimes but occasionally for violent crimes as well. The following chart is based on Table 33 from Crime in the United States 2014:

Arrests by Gender, Source FBI, 2005 and 2014


For all categories and years, male arrests are strongly higher than female arrests, even though the representation of women and men in the population is roughly equal.  However, it’s worth noting that from 2005 to 2014, the number of violent crime arrests and property crime arrests for males decreased, even though the U.S. population increased by 8.0%.  Over the same period, the number of female property crime arrests rose by 12.6%, a greater rise than the rise in the rate of population increase.  Although the male-female gap in arrests is still strong, it seems to be narrowing.

Explanations for the gender gap in criminal behavior are varied, with no one explanation dominant. Look for an introduction to theories of gender in crime in next week’s lecture on victims and a later lecture on critical theories of criminology.

As in the case of economic class, youths of different races appear to self-report similar levels of delinquent activity (Lauritsen 2005). Yet arrest rates for black youth have been markedly higher than for white youth in the past generation, bringing them in greater numbers into the criminal justice system for processing as labeled criminals (OJJDP 2014):

Arrest rate for White and Black Juveniles per 100,000 population, 1980-2012

What are some of the factors accounting for the difference? Part of the issue is that, because of the relationship between poverty and race in America, black youth are more vulnerable to the disproportionate police pressure placed on poor communities and neighborhoods. Another part of the issue is that in the United States black people have been found experimentally to be treated with greater suspicion and surveillance as they proceed through daily activities, such as shopping (Schreer et al 2009). In addition, repeated studies have shown that black Americans are stopped at a higher rate by police than white Americans — and even though the percent of black Americans stopped by police who are arrested on criminal charges is lower than the percent of white Americans stopped by police, the sheer number of black Americans stopped by the police is so large that black Americans are processed through the criminal justice system in larger numbers (Fagan and Davies 2000; Fagan et al 2012; Harris 1999; Kochel et al 2011; Novak and Chamlin 2008; Withrow 2006). After arrest, research by criminologist Cassia Spohn (1994) demonstrates that black defendants are at an especially harsh disadvantage in sentencing when the victims of their alleged crimes are white.

Finally, before any individuals are detained or arrests are made or sentences handed down, decisions about what is and is not criminal are made in the racialized arena of drugs. In the 1980s, working from alarmist but incorrect information, legislators followed a moral panic regarding crack cocaine, imposing harsh mandatory sentences for crack possession that were one hundred times harsher than those for powder cocaine possession. Crack cocaine is a drug disproportionately used in black communities; powder cocaine is more heavily used in white communities (Hartley and Miller 2010). Despite early hype to the contrary, research indicates that the two forms of cocaine are no different in their addictiveness or harm to children (Reinarman and Levine 1997).

Time and Crime

Visit the Trulia Trends blog and you can find a visualization of federal arrest data at various times of day for cities across the United States. Here’s a sample, with graphs for each city starting at 12 midnight and progressing through the hours of the day:

Trulia Trends Blog time of day data for crime

It’s no fluke: visit the Springfield, Missouri police department’s homepage and you’ll be shown a similar pattern of police calls received by hour:

See any pattern in those trends? They have the same general pattern as auto traffic by hour (source: U.S. Department of Transportation):

… or of website visits by hour:

or of citizens’ calls to the New York City Municipal services phone number by hour (thanks, Wired Magazine):

Or calls and texts by Glasgow, UK high school students using mobile phones, again by hour (McDiarmid, unpublished paper):

These are all activities whose rhythm is driven by the availability of human beings to engage in voluntary pursuits. We wind down and go to sleep during the late evening, we don’t tend to commit crimes when we’re likely to be asleep, and it takes us a bit of time to get going in the morning. These are all routine activities shaped by our availability in the biographical sketch of our daily lives. Can crime be a routine activity, just like watching TV or making phone calls? Marcus Felson and Lawrence E. Cohen think so, and you’ll read more about their Routine Activities Theory of crime next week in Chapter 4.

The idea that criminals get sleepy and go to bed just like the rest of us may seem uncontroversial… but we should remember the push for curfews for juveniles in communities across the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, buoyed by a wave of popular opinion and of TV shows featuring menacing teens hiding in alleyways late, late at night. The problem was, while the curfews were popular, they didn’t seem to have a demonstrable effect on crime (Adams 2003). In response to the curfew wave the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has looked at patterns of juvenile delinquency and determined that the highest spike in offending for teens is the hour after school gets out — the hour when kids are most free and looking for something to do before their parents get home. After-school diversion activities, the OJJDP asserts, may therefore be much more effective in preventing youth crime (Snyder and Sickmund 2006):

Activity for the Week: Diving into the Uniform Crime Reports


We’ve been talking about crime differences according to gender and age. But can you figure out what differences in the crime rate might be evident according to the place you live?  Here’s your homework for the week:

Activity 4: Diving into UCR Data

  1. Click here to find Table 8 from the FBI’s Crime in the United States report for 2014, the last year for which a full report is available.
  2. Find the crime statistics listed for the city or town you live in (or if you live in a very small community, statistics for the nearest city or town listed).
  3. Name the city/town, and using a combination of the city/town’s population and crime count, calculate the property crime rate per 100,000 population for that city/town.
  4. Without looking, think of another city/town that you think will have a higher property crime rate. Name that city/town and explain why you think it will have a higher property crime rate.
  5. Now look: calculate the property crime statistics for that second city/town. Was your guess correct?

To receive credit for Activity 4, log in to Blackboard and upload your work to “Activity #4: Diving into UCR Data” in the “Activities” section of our course’s Blackboard page. Activity 4 is due by September 24.



Adams, Kenneth. 2003. “The Effectiveness of Juvenile Curfews at Crime Prevention.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.” 587: 136-159.

Fagan, Jeffrey and Garth Davies. 2000. “Street Stops and Broken Windows: Terry, Race, and Disorder in New York City.” Fordham Urban Law Journal 28: 457-504.

Fagan, Jeffrey, Garth Davies, and Adam Carlis. 2012. “Race and Selective Enforcement in Public Housing.”
Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 9: 697-728

Harris, David. 1999. “The Stories, the Statistics and the Law: Why ‘Driving While Black’ Matters.” Minnesota Law Review 84: 265-326.

Hartley, Richard D. and J. Mitchell Miller. 2010. “Crack-ing the Media Myth: Reconsidering Sentencing Severity for Cocaine Offenders by Drug Type.” Criminal Justice Review 35: 67-89.

Kochel, Tammy, David Wilson and Stephen Mastrofski. 2011. “Effect of Suspect Race on Officers’ Arrest Decisions.” Criminology 49: 473–512.

Lauritsen, Janet. 2005. “Racial and ethnic differences in juvenile Offending.” In Our Children, Their Children:
Confronting Racial and Ethnic Differences in American Juvenile Justice. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

McDiarmid, Alisdair, Stephen Bell, James Irvine, and Jamie Banford. “Nodobo: Detailed Mobile Phone Usage Dataset.” Unpublished paper, accessed at http://nodobo.com/papers/iet-el.pdf on 9-21-2013.

Novak, Kenneth J. and Mitchell B. Chamlin. 2008. “Racial Threat, Suspicion, and Police Behavior: The Impact of Race and Place in Traffic Enforcement.” Crime & Delinquency 58(2): 275-300.

OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book. 2014. Online. Available: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/JAR_Display.asp?ID=qa05260. December 09.

Reinarman, Craig and Harry G. Levine, eds. 1997. Crack In America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sampson, Robert J. 1986. “Effects of Socioeconomic Context on Official Reaction to Juvenile Delinquency.” American Sociological Review 51: 876-885.

Schreer, George E., Saundra Smith and Kirsten Thomas. 2009. “Shopping While Black: Examining Racial Discrimination in a Retail Setting.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 39: 1432–1444.

Snyder, Howard & Sickmund, Melissa 2006. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Spohn, Cassia. 1994. “Crime and Social Control of Blacks: The Effect of Offender/Victim Race on Sentences for Violent Felonies.” In Inequality, Crime and Social Control. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Tonry, Michael. 1994. “Racial Politics, Racial Disparities, and the War on Crime.” Crime & Delinquency 40: 475-494.

Withrow, Brian L. 2006. Racial Profiling: From Rhetoric to Reason. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall

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