Adolescents and young adults are often stereotyped as law-breakers or ‘troublemakers’. Based on crime statistics, these assumptions have some validity. Arrest rates are very low among some age groups (e.g. the very young and very old), while they are far higher in other age groups.
In the United States and Canada, offense rates are very low for prepubescent children under the age of 12. In Canada the youngest recorded group, 5 year old children, have a very low crime rate (about 37 offenses per 100,000 population). This obviously conforms to general expectations about young children. Nobody expects 5 year old children to commit serious criminal offenses. Canadian crime statistics show that the rate of offenses rises gradually as children get older, reaching 890 offenses per 100,000 by the time kids reach the age of 11.
After the age of 11, the crime rates rise with increasing speed, peaking around the age of 16 or 17. Crime rates for girls tend to peak around on year earlier than boys. Arrest rates for girls typically peak at the age of 16 in the United States. Arrest rates for boys usually peak at the age of 17 or 18. After the mid to late teens, arrest rates decline steadily with age. According to American statistics, the most significant declines come after the mid-40s. Arrest rates for people over the age of 60 are usually lower than those of children under the age of 12.
With these statistics in mind, the question is, why does age influence crime and arrest rates in the way it does? Why are people more likely to commit crimes (or be arrested for crimes) at certain ages than others? There are, no doubt, many different factors involved. But some factors are fairly evident. Younger children are generally too immature to commit serious crimes. Another factor is that smaller children are usually given more leeway, in terms of behavior, than older people are. A 5 year who hits another 5 year old on the playground probably will not be arrested or charged by the police. If the school authorities feel the need to reprimand him or her, they may simply give the child a verbal warning, report the incident to the parents, give the child a detention, or have him or her suspended. The child is unlikely to be charged criminally, and end up in official crime statistic reports. If, on the other hand, a 35 year old physically attacked a co-worker, he or she would be much more likely to be formally charged and arrested.
Adolescents and young adults, by contrast, are typically stereotyped as potential law-breakers by authorities. They are more likely to be viewed as threats and targeted accordingly. Once a child becomes an adolescent they are more likely to be formally charged by police for offenses than small children would be. A teenager who physically assaults another teenager is more likely to be arrested by police than a 6 year old who punches or kicks another child. But that is obviously not the only reason why arrest rates are higher among these age groups. Adolescents and young adults tend to be impulsive, rebellious, and risk-takers. People in these age groups are more likely to engage in behavior that can get in trouble with the law than people in younger or older age groups.
As people get older they tend to ‘mellow out’. They become less likely to engage in risky or impulsive behavior that is likely to get them arrested. As a result crime rates drop steadily as people get older.
Crime rates rise slowly among pre-pubescent children as they get older. Crime rates rise much more rapidly after the ages of 11 or 12, peaking in the mid to late teens. After that crime rates decline slowly in older age groups. The most significant drops come after the mid-40s, continuing into the 50s and 60s. As people become elderly, arrest rates drop below those of prepubescent children.
The reason that age influences crime in this way is that certain behaviors are more typical of some age groups than others. Teenagers are typically the most energetic, impulsive, risk-taking age group. This is reflected in the arrest rates of this age group. As people get older the type of behaviors that are likely to get people arrested diminish steadily, as do arrest rates.