31.03.2020 in Law
Developmental Theory of Crime


The purpose of this paper is to describe and analyze a specific family theory by explaining the typographies of crime including violent, property, enterprise and public order offences as well as the prevention strategies advocated for by the theory. The selected family theory for discussion in the paper is the developmental theory of crime, which views criminality as a dynamic process determined by individual characteristics and social experience.


A key feature of the developmental theory of crime is its emphasis on offending behavior with respect to changes that take place in individuals over time as well as to their circumstances in life. Developmental theories of crime place considerable attention to the issues of change and continuity in behavior such as the desistence from, the onset of, and the patterns of criminal behavior in the long run. In fact, the developmental theory is contrasted with other criminology theories that are mostly static because they do not account for the variation in the criminal behavior during the various life stages. In this regard, the developmental theory is dynamic and more concerned with three primary aspects including the development of antisocial and criminal behavior; the protective and risk factors of crime at various ages; and the impacts that life events have on the course of changes. Additionally, developmental crime theories focus on documenting and explaining within-individual variations in criminal behavior throughout life rather than between-individual differences. Developmental theories explain crime by stating that life experiences can mold a person and place him/her in a trajectory towards criminality. In general, developmental theorists propose that the baggage that an individual carries from the past (continued impacts of earlier experiences like child abuse or happy childhood) have an effect on their present behaviors.


Numerous theorists have contributed towards the developmental theories of crime. Among the most prominent scholars, there are Terrie Moffitt, David P. Farrington, David Hawkins and Richard F. Catalano, John H. Laub, and Robert J. Sampson. These theorists differ in explaining crime desistance. For instance, Farrrington argues that desistance is contingent upon a reduction in the antisocial potential attributed to life events such as stable employment and marriage. Catalano and Hawkins views desistance to crime as influenced by the changes in costs, rewards, and opportunities – all of which depend on life events. Moffit posited that desistance to criminal behavior is as a result of teenage offenders achieving their adult goals and life events, while life-course persistent criminals do not desist partly because they choose antisocial jobs and partners.

The developmental theories of crime are based on a number of principles. The first principle is that criminal propensity/antisocial potential varies over age. Secondly, developmental theorists posit that the offending frequency at any age is dependent on the environmental factors, such as opportunities, as well as decision-making (cognitive processes). Thirdly, developmental theories place considerable attention to life experiences that are likely to have an influence on the individual and expose him/her to criminality. A consensus among developmental theorists relates to the fact that human development is influenced by four dimensions that are fused and interrelated. The relative plasticity is the first principle, which posits that the potential for an individual to change occurs across the entire lifespan. The second assumption is that the individual change is influenced at various levels including sociocultural (churches, schools, and governments), social relational (social networks, peer groups, and families), individual/psychological, and biological. The third statement refers to the fact that these levels are interrelated and that none influences the individual in isolation. Lastly, the dynamic aspect of the interactions between these levels implies that criminality changes during the various stages of the human development. In essence, the developmental theory of crime suggests that offending behavior is overly heterogeneous to be explained using a universal set of variables. The developmental theory presumes that diverse factors might have different impacts on an individual criminal at different stages of life. Therefore, in striving to elucidate the stability and continuity of criminal behavior, developmental theorists examine the interactions between individual attributes (such as temperament and individual abilities) and age-graded development contexts (like employment, school, peer and family relations), which have a mediating effect on both antisocial and pro-social trajectories.

The family of developmental theories of crime is different from other families in the sense that they are dynamic. Other crime theories are static, which means that they do not take into consideration the variations in the patterns of offending behavior across different ages. For example, other theories do not analyze why some young individuals do not engage in criminal behaviors and why some give up criminal behavior at an early age, while the small fraction of offenders continue with delinquency up to adulthood. Essentially, other theories disregard the relationship that exists between crime and age. Empirical evidence affirms that offending behavior is not common among children aged 10 years and below. In fact, criminal behavior commences during early adolescence and late childhood and peaks during mid to late adolescence and then declines significantly during early 20s. Therefore, developmental theories provide an alternative framework for elucidating crime by adopting a dynamic perspective.

Development approaches to crime have been in existence since the 1920s when Cyril Burt examined adolescent criminal behavior, which was followed by a heightened attention to the role that developmental processes play in influencing criminal behavior. During the 1980s, a key issue in criminology was the relationship that existed between criminal behavior and age.

The developmental theories of crime profoundly explain crime, which can be attributed to the empirical evidence supporting the assertion that the criminal propensity is affected by age and other significant life events. The claim that aging makes people less prone to criminal behavior was supported by the observation that as offenders age, their offending frequency reduces. It was also stated that some people have a higher likelihood of engaging in crime due to their family socialization during their early years that fostered a sense of self-control among them.

The strengths of the developmental approach have been discussed in the literature. The first asset is that developmental approaches identify and explain several crucial aspects associated with crime such as prevalence, age at which crime commences, the duration of criminal career, and desistance from offending behavior. By contrast, all these factors are ignored by non-developmental approaches. The second strength of this theory is that it identifies the categories of offenders depending on human development considerations such as adolescent-limited offending versus life-course persistent offending, which are not identified by non-developmental theories. Thus, developmental theories provide a way of explaining the criminological mystery: while most antisocial children are unlikely to develop into antisocial adults, antisocial adults are more likely to have antisocial childhood. Another strength of the developmental theory is that it examines the precursor behaviors associated with criminal behavior among the young, which is not covered in non-developmental theories. Lastly, this theory has an advantage because it considers the role played by developmental changes, such as life transitions, in causing delinquency.

Despite the abovementioned strengths, developmental theories also have weak points because of ignoring the between-group differences in criminal behavior. Furthermore, the examples of the specific developmental theories include the social development model, the integrated cognitive antisocial potential (ICAP) theory, the age-graded theory of informal social control and cumulative disadvantage, and the developmental taxonomy.


The crime taxonomies include violent, property, enterprise, and public-order crimes. A violent crime is characterized by the offender using or threatening the use of force on a victim. On the other hand, property crime is characterized by taking property devoid of using or threatening to utilize force on the victim. Enterprise crime entails illicit commerce and entrepreneurship such as white collar, organized, and cybercrime. Public order crimes involve actions that are non-conforming to moral values and social behavior and deemed normal in society. The examples of such crimes are prostitution and drug offenses. In examining the application of the developmental theories of crime, it is evident that emphasis is placed on explaining life-course propensity to criminal behavior such as adolescent-limited and life-course persistent criminal behavior rather than categorizing offenders based on the type of offenses such as violent or non-violent. Moreover, the focus of the development theory is on the individual. Therefore, it can be inferred that the development theory can be used to explain all the four types of criminal behavior. For instance, the developmental taxonomy theory categorizes offenders into adolescent limited and life-course persistent offenders. In fact, adolescent limited offenders have a higher likelihood of committing low-level offenses like vandalism, shoplifting, and alcohol abuse, which are akin to rebelliousness and not violent crimes. On the other hand, life-persistent offenders have a higher change of committing violent offenses. The underlying inference is that the ability of the individual determines the type of crime likely to be committed. For instance, young adolescents might not have the capability to commit violent crimes when compared to adult crimes. Moreover, age limits one to engage in enterprise crime. Essentially, developmental theorists can be used to elucidate all typographies of crime.


Developmental crime theories outline the risk factors that are likely to cause offending behavior in individuals at various life development stages and levels. Essentially, the development theories of crime posit that crime prevention should target the risk factors of crime at the various stages of development, wherein people are categorized as at-risk, imminent risk, high risk, and remote risk. The individuals defined as “high risk” have a higher likelihood of experiencing multiple life events in the future, which increases the susceptibility to engage in criminal behaviors. Such an approach is for individuals who are already involved in criminality.

Another aspect of crime prevention emphasized by the developmental crime theories entails strengthening the factors that are likely to act as a buffer between the onset of crime and risk factors. Such factors are referred to as protective factors and are crucial in mediating the outcomes, ensuing exposure to the risk factors of crime, which reduces the likelihood of developing problem behavior. For instance, early family education and support have been found to reduce the likelihood of adolescents to engage in crime and sustain this behavior to adulthood. Therefore, it is evident that development theories recommend that crime prevention efforts should concentrate on the early life stages, especially childhood. However, there is the need to devise an individualized approach to crime prevention because of the within-individual differences and the multiplicity of the risk factors.


Developmental theories of crime adopt a dynamic perspective towards understanding crime, wherein life events and life-course development influence the likelihood of developing antisocial behaviors. The emphasis of developmental theory is on within-individual variations rather the between individuals differences. The developmental crime theory has a number of strengths including explaining various crucial aspects associated with crime such as prevalence, age at which crime commences, the duration of criminal career, and desistance from offending behavior. Moreover, other advantages include the identification of categories of offenders based on human development considerations and examination of the precursor factors related to offending behavior. By contrast, all these aspects are ignored by non-developmental approaches. With its emphasis on the individual and variables on the individual’s environment, the development theory provides a framework that can be used to explain all types of offenses. Lastly, developmental theories advocate for addressing the risk factors of crime at an early stage as a crime prevention approach.

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