Studying the costs of crime across offender trajectories


  • Mark A. Cohen,

    1. Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future. He also serves as the Justin Potter Professor of American Competitive Enterprise and Professor of Law at the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University and as Honorary Visiting Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of York (U.K.).
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  • Alex R. Piquero,

    1. Professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University and Co-Editor of the Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
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  • Wesley G. Jennings

    1. Assistant Professor in the Department of Justice Administration at the University of Louisville.
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Direct correspondence to Mark A. Cohen, Resources for the Future and Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University, 1616 P Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036 (e-mail: or; Alex R. Piquero, Florida State University, College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Hecht House, 634 W. Call Street, Tallahassee, FL 32306 (e-mail:; Wesley G. Jennings, University of Louisville, Administration of Justice, Brigman Hall Rm. 215, Louisville, KY 40292 (e-mail:


Research Summary

Longitudinal studies of delinquency and crime have generated an important source of descriptive information regarding patterns of offending across the life course, and have helped inform and spur theoretical and methodological contributions. One particular method that has received considerable attention is based on offending trajectories, but applications of this method have not extended much beyond descriptive accounts of offending. This study links offender trajectories to monetary costs associated with criminal offending by members of the Second Philadelphia Birth Cohort. Results indicate that chronic offenders who frequently commit crimes when they are young turn to more serious crimes when they are adults and impose far greater costs than low-frequency chronic offenders and those whose offending peaks during adolescence.

Policy Implications

Preventing individuals from becoming high-rate chronic offenders would yield significant cost savings of more than $200 million. In terms of overall costs, offending frequency accounts for the bulk of costs in the juvenile years, whereas the seriousness of individual crimes drives total costs in the adult years. Moreover, because some trajectory groups impose higher costs in their juvenile years, whereas others impose higher costs in their adult years, policies that target particular (high-rate chronic) trajectory groups as opposed to all at-risk youth, for example, have the potential to provide significantly greater benefits at lower costs. These findings suggest that the allocation of prevention and intervention efforts should be targeted differentially across the offender population, with those individuals exhibiting early, frequent, and chronic offending deserving the most attention. Promising programs aimed at such individuals include early childhood prevention programs, such as those based on family–parent training, self-control improvement, and cognitive therapies.