Expert Commentary

Do recessions make career criminals?

The state of the economy when someone leaves school can impact whether he finds a job or starts a life of crime, a new paper finds.


Entering the labor market can be a tough adjustment for high school graduates. The state of the economy plays a big role. Graduate during a recession, and it’s harder to find a job; during a boom, and you may even have a choice of jobs.

A new paper looks at the “very sizable swings in youth criminality” in the United States and United Kingdom since the 1970s. It finds that a graduate’s chances of becoming a career criminal increase when graduating (or dropping out) during an economic downturn.

The paper, forthcoming in the Review of Economics and Statistics, uses a variety of individual and longitudinal data for males in the U.S. and U.K. between the ages of 16 and 39. The authors define a recession as a period when unemployment is 5 percentage points higher than average. Some findings:

  • There is a strong link between teenage criminality and subsequent criminal behavior. For example, “72 percent of males aged over 25 in the U.K. who were convicted of a crime in 2002 had a criminal record that went back to their teenage years.”
  • “Young people who leave school in the midst of recessions are significantly more likely to lead a life of crime than those entering a buoyant labor market.”
  • In the U.S., graduating from high school during a recession increases the chance a man will go to prison by 6.3 percent within the decade. This effect is slightly larger for high school dropouts.
  • In the U.K., leaving school at any age during a recession “is associated with a 5.7 percent increase in the probability of ever being arrested.” But leaving school at age 16 during a recession increases the chance of being arrested in the future by 8 percent.
  • Turning to crime later in life is “extremely rare” and “prolific offenders account for a disproportionate share of total crime.”

See our other research on criminal justice and economics.

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