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Research on delinquent and criminal careers is one of the major interests of criminologists and policy-makers in many countries, including the USA, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, and others. In criminal careers research, the focus of interest is on the development of criminal behaviour over the offender’s lifetime, and particularly during the formative years. The theoretical rationale for criminal careers research draws on developmental psychology (Farrington, 1997), social capital theory (Hagan and McCarthy, 1997), and life-course sociology (Sampson and Laub, 1993; Laub and Sampson, 2003). Briefly, it proposes that people become involved in delinquency and crime because of deficiencies in their psychological and social development, particularly during childhood and youth, but that criminogenic tendencies acquired early in life can be modified or overcome by later life-course developments. Its implication is that criminology should attempt not to describe and explain individual crimes, but rather the delinquent or criminal career: that is, the sequence of delinquencies and crimes in a person’s life.

Research on delinquent and criminal careers has been extremely fruitful, both in providing new ways of describing crime and delinquency (e.g. the onset, duration, intensity, quality, and termination of the career), and in supporting theorizing about the causes of involvement in, and desistance from, criminal activity. The theoretical and empirical literature is voluminous. It was recently reviewed by Farrington (1997) and Piquero, Farrington and Blumstein (2003). Key sources are by Wolfgang, Figlio and Sellin (1972), Blumstein, Cohen, Roth, and Visher (1986), Wolfgang, Thornberry, and Figlio (1987), Tracy, Wolfgang, and Figlio (1990), Tracy and Kempf-Leonard (1996), Sampson and Laub (1993), and Laub and Sampson (2003). The main empirical studies are summarized in Table A1.

Little of this type of research has been done in Canada. A notable exception is the “Montreal study”, which used official and self-report data to follow a small sample of boys in Montreal from childhood through young adulthood during the 1970’s and 1980’s (LeBlanc and Fréchette, 1989). In a precursor to the present study, Lee (1999, 2000a, 2000b) used data from the Youth Court Survey to analyze the “youth court careers” (sequences of youth court cases) in British Columbia of a cohort born during 1972 to 1975. Whereas criminal careers research follows careers from a chosen point in time into the future, several Canadian studies have analyzed recidivism using a retrospective design, in which the previous offending history of a sample of offenders is analyzed (Moyer, 1992; Carrington and Moyer, 1995; Doherty and de Souza, 1995; Matarazzo, Carrington and Hiscott, 2001; Thomas, Hurley and Grimes, 2002; Carrington and Schulenberg, 2004). The relationship between the offender’s age and the type of offending has also been studied in Canada, using a cross-sectional design (Carrington 1996, 1999).

This report presents a descriptive profile of the criminal careers from the 12th to the 22nd birthday, as revealed by charges filed in court,1 of Canadians born in 1979/80. Six provinces — Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta — accounting for approximately 78% of the population of Canada, are included in the study; the other jurisdictions are omitted because of insufficient time-series data to support analysis. The report describes the criminal incidents in relation to which the cohort were charged and referred to youth court and adult criminal court, and in many cases found guilty. In common with other studies of criminal careers, this report addresses the following questions:

  • Prevalence: what proportion of the entire cohort had a court career, i.e. were ever referred to court between their 12th and 22nd birthdays? What proportion were convicted of an offence?
  • Frequency: how many criminal incidents make up the court career between the 12th and 22nd birthdays?
  • Onset and termination: at what age(s) do court careers tend to begin and end?
  • Duration: what is the average length of a court career, i.e. the time which elapses between its onset and termination?
  • Rate of offending: on average, in relation to how many alleged criminal incidents per year are individuals referred to court?
  • Specialization and versatility: do court careers show a tendency to specialization in one type of crime, or are individuals usually versatile in their alleged offending?
  • Changes over time in the seriousness of alleged offences: do the incidents for which alleged offenders are referred to court tend to become more, or less, serious as the career develops and the offender ages, or is the level of seriousness fairly stable?
  • Types of careers: what proportion of court careers are limited to the young offender age range (12 to 17 years); what proportion are limited to the adult years (18 to 21 years); and what proportion show persistence over the entire 10 year period?



1. By “criminal career”, we refer to the sequence of incidents in which an individual is involved, which result in charges being laid, and a referral to court, whether or not the individual is convicted of the charge(s). This usage is consistent with the criminological literature on “criminal careers”, which generally relies on records of police contacts or court referrals as evidence of criminal activity.

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Date modified: 2005-12-09 Important Notices
Online catalogue 85-561-MWE Online catalogue - Court Careers of a Canadian Birth Cohort Main page Background Findings Tables and figures Methodology Bibliography More information PDF version Previous issues of the Crime and Justice Research Paper Series