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Social change and cohort differences in group-based arrest trajectories over the last quarter-century

NCJ Number
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Volume: 118 Issue: 31 Dated: 2021
Date Published

This article draws on official criminal histories for multiple birth cohorts spanning a 17-year difference in birth year to study how social change can alter our understanding of influential theories and policies about criminal offender groups.



Arrest histories are linked to comprehensive longitudinal measurement on over 1,000 individuals originally from Chicago. Using group-based trajectory modeling, we investigated the magnitude and type of cohort differences in trajectories of arrest over the period 1995 to 2020. Our results show that trajectory group membership varies strongly by birth cohort. Membership in the nonoffender group is nearly 15 percentage points higher for cohorts born in the mid-1990s as compared to those born in the 1980s; conversely, older cohorts are more likely to be members of adolescent-limited and chronic-offender groups. Large cohort differences in trajectory group membership persist after controlling for a wide-ranging set of demographic characteristics and early-life risk factors that vary by cohort and that prior research has identified as important influences on crime. Not only does the effect of social change on cohort differentiation persist, but its magnitude is comparable to—indeed larger than—differences in trajectory group membership associated with varying levels of self-control or by whether individuals grew up in high-poverty households. These results suggest that changes in the broader social environment shared by members of the same birth cohort are as powerful in shaping their trajectory group membership as classic predictors identified in prior research, a finding that carries implications for crime-control policies that rely on prediction. (Publisher Abstract)

Date Published: January 1, 2021