Adult-onset offending: A cross-national comparison

Dr Carleen Thompson1, Dr Steve van de Weijer2, Professor Lisa Broidy3, Professor Anna Stewart1
1Griffith University, Mount Gravatt, Australia, 2The Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, , The Netherlands, 3University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, USA

A considerable number of offenders have their first contact with the criminal justice system in adulthood. Despite this, adult-onset offending is poorly understood. Although adult-onset offenders are typically treated as one homogeneous group, emerging evidence suggests heterogeneity in the seriousness and persistence of adult-onset offending, which may be associated with important etiological differences. In this research we conduct a cross-national comparison of the nature and heterogeneity adult-onset offending using two population-based cohorts, the 1984 Queensland Linkage Project Cohort (adult-onset offenders = 10,457) and the Dutch 1984-birth cohort (adult-onset offenders = 17,084). Using latent class analysis, we detail heterogeneity in the frequency and nature of adult-onset offending for each cohort. Classes of adult-onset offenders are subsequently compared on age of onset, type and frequency of offending, gender and ethnicity. Comparisons of findings across the Queensland and Dutch cohorts suggest marked similarities in the number and characteristics of adult-onset offending classes. For both the Queensland and Dutch cohort, an onset of offending in adulthood signifies the beginning of strikingly different criminal careers. These distinct patterns of adult-onset offending likely have different causal pathways and necessitate different justice system responses. Findings challenge current conceptualisations of adult-onset offenders as one homogeneous group and suggest that failure to disaggregate adult-onset offenders may mask meaningful etiological differences. Implications for policy and practice, and life course theories of offending are discussed.


Dr Carleen Thompson is a lecturer in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University. Her research explores early and contemporaneous factors associated with offending and reoffending using socio-ecological and life-course frameworks. Carleen has led projects advancing this research agenda in the areas of risk assessment, stalking, violence and, most recently, adult-onset offending. Carleen’s research has had considerable impact on policy and practice in Queensland, leading to state-wide changes in risk assessment practices across child protection, youth justice and adult corrections.


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