Security Lancaster Seminar Series IV

Crime Journeys: High-Risk Offending Across Space and Time

  • This is a part of the following series: Security Lancaster Seminar Series.
  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

Prof. Erin Gibbs Van Brunschot of the University of Calgary’s Department of Sociology came in to give a presentation about her work in spatiotemporal tracking of high-risk offenders.

Van Brunschot’s primary interest is in risk and how offenders and victims interact to produce the situations of crime, and her work revolved around analyses of data from a study on the GPS monitoring of high-risk offenders. Lacking the ethics approval required to actaully talk to the offenders themselves, Van Brunschot was limited to using police data only. She began her talk by describing (for the non-sociologists in the room) the notions of: birth cohort, or gpeople grouped by the year they were born in; age, or people grouped by their level of maturational and biological development; and period, or people grouped by the historical circumstances in which they lived (e.g., the Cold War period). In addition, she defined location as the spatial/geographical features that encourage or discourage behaviour.

Her interest piqued by Rachlis et al.’s 2008 paper on drug users and risk environments, which found that those needle users who moved away from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—an epicentre of criminogenic activity—had reduced levels of HIV transmission but increased involvement in other risk activities, Van Brunschot posed her question: are ther particular times or locations that predict different criminogenic outcomes that other times and locations?

High-risk, in this context, referred to those individuals subject to additional monitoriing or otherwise considered a risk to the community. Some had never been charged with a crime, but had been referred to police by the likes of doctors, social workers, etc. Ultimately, Van Brunschot’s n was 409, with the aforementioned variation in the precise levels of high-riskiness. 85 of the 409 were formally considered high-risk, the mean age was 46.2 years and the age range was 19–89 years. Criminal careers varied in length from 0–56 years.

Van Brunschot tracked conviction events, which she considered to be each instance in which an offender went before a judge, regardless of the number of charges laid against them. These charges were categorised as either: violent offences; sexual offences; property offences; driving offences; weapons offences; and administrative/other offences. When multiple charges were presented, the conviction event was categorised in line with the most severe charge. Van Brunschot’s dataset ultimately comprised 5,452 conviction events, or 13,690 charges, with a mean of 13.3 conviction events per offenders.

Examining the breakdown of offences for different cohorts (normalised to the first 30 years of each criminal career), Van Brunschot found that whilst almost half of 1950s births’ crimes were property crimes and 11.6% were violent, by the 1970s births the numbers were 35% and 28%. The obvious conclusion was that each decade was increasingly violent, but Van Brunschot was quick to point out that sociology is primarily concerned with looking into the non-obvious conclusions and so we should not stop at this. With our sociological thinking caps on, we should reply maybe, maybe not.

Another major finding of her study was the growing proportion of administrative/other crimes an offender could look forward to as they aged—from 17.2% for 20 year olds to 30% for 40 years olds. From this, we can see that the criminal justice system becomes an increasingly difficult mire to extricate oneself from the deeper into it one finds themselves. She also demonstrated a path of destruction graphic that plotted Calgarian high-risk offenders’ conviction events onto a map of Canada at five-year intervals.

Van Brunschot then addressed the many methodological deficiencies of the study. For the path of destruction visualisation, she pointed out that a conviction event at a given location does not necessarily mean that the offence took place there. When demonstrating her results when comparing Calgarian and Edmontonian high-risk offenders, she repeatedly pointed out that her n here was far smaller (29 Edmontonians, and around 89 Calgarians).

Ultimately, she concluded that offending profiles seem to vary by cohort, age, period and location, but that the limited controls available meant that any such results should be taken with a pinch of salt. She demonstrated limited support for Rachlis et al.’s idea of risk environments, and that most older offenders were primarily tied up in administrative charges relating to their youthful offending—hardly the ideal conditions to promote non-recidivism.

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