Criminal Trajectories of Ontario Adjudicated Youths

Research Matters
Number 8 - October 2012


What are the long-term trends in criminal activity, and the factors associated with the course of offending, of adolescent male offenders in Ontario?


Over the past 15 years, the accumulation and refinement of research on criminal careers has contributed to a more fine-grained and comprehensive understanding of criminal offending trajectories (i.e., the specific pattern of onset, frequency, escalation, and desistance of criminal behaviour that occurs across the span of an individual's life). Furthermore, there is now greater understanding of the role and impact of key risk factors on the development of antisocial and criminal behaviour in the lives of individuals.

From this work, it has been found that offenders comprise a diverse population, as evidenced by the variability in their rate of criminal activity as it unfolds over time and the length of their criminal careers. Moreover, the majority of youth who enter into the justice system show a very low rate of offending, some of whom desist in their criminal activity a few years after their first court contact. In contrast, a small proportion of youth offenders have a lengthy criminal career and commit a large number of crimes and more serious offences.

Despite these advances in knowledge, the Canadian body of research on criminal careers is relatively sparse. The present study is one exception aimed at enhancing current knowledge of: (1) the criminal trajectories of young offenders in Canada; and (2) the various factors that put them at risk for a criminal career. This information will help inform the design of prevention programs for steering high-risk youth away from a life of crime.


The Criminal Trajectory Study of the Toronto Sample is an ongoing, collaborative research project investigating the criminal careers of Ontario adjudicated youths. It is composed of two subsamples comprising the entire population of 764 male offenders who served a secure custody sentence in Toronto, Ontario between January 1, 1986 and December 30, 1997.

Initially, a randomly selected sample of 378 youth, referred to as "Sample A," was identified for investigation. Their criminal activity was tracked for an average of 12.1 years, from their first recorded court contact, to March 2001. Subsequently, the length of the follow-up period for this sample was extended to September 2007 (18.7 years, on average). The remaining 386 offenders constituted the second subsample, referred to as "Sample B." The criminal activity of this group was tracked for an average of 16.4 years, from their first recorded court contact to September 2007.

Data on criminal activity were derived from various sources, including federal and provincial criminal history records and reports maintained by the children's mental health centre. Criminal activity was measured as counts, by age, of all unique court contacts arising from a new set of charges derived from official records.

A comprehensive coding scheme was developed to record key variables from childhood (birth to 12 years) and adolescence (13 to 18 years) from the youth files maintained by the children's mental health centre that operated the two group homes. These risk factors fell into four broad domains (i.e., individual, family, peer, and school).

In order to examine the criminal trajectories of the two subsamples over several follow-up periods and isolate the risk factors associated with the high rate and chronic offence groups, two sets of statistical analyses were used to identify: (1) individuals who follow similar criminal trajectories across the life course; and (2) the childhood and adolescent risk factors associated with trajectory group membership.


Consistent with the literature, variations of high, moderate, and low rate offenders were observed across all three sets of analyses, with the number of trajectory groups increasing with longer follow-up periods. Moreover, a small number of offenders accounted for a disproportionate amount of crime and the majority of individuals desisted from their offending by their mid-20s. More precisely, roughly two-thirds of each subsample was classified as low rate offenders while the high rate and chronic offence groups were made up of less than 10% of the offenders in all three sets of analyses.

There was a great deal of overlap between the childhood and adolescent risk factors associated with the high rate and chronic offence trajectory groups. The most significant and robust factors generally fell into two domains: (1) individual (e.g., early antisocial behaviour; hyperactivity, impulsivity, inattention); and (2) family (e.g., broken home and/or family transitions; familial criminality; involvement with alternative care). For instance, an early onset of antisocial behaviour and involvement in alternative care increased the risk of belonging to a high and/or moderate rate long-term offending pathways, compared to a low rate desisting trajectory. Similarly, experiencing a broken home and/or family transitions in childhood and/or adolescence predicted membership in the high/moderate rate, chronic offence groups relative to the low rate, desisting offence trajectory.


  1. To be effective, criminal justice policy and programs regarding incarceration, treatment and rehabilitation should attend to the various dimensions comprising an individual's criminal career (i.e., the rate of offending, the length of the offending trajectory, as well as the severity, type and timing of offences).
  2. A limited period of involvement in criminal activity can be expected from a majority of youth involved in the criminal justice system. Understanding what accounts for this desistance is a critical research question that warrants further investigation.
  3. To prevent or forestall a developmental pathway towards a life of crime, the strongest efforts need to be directed toward the early identification, prevention and treatment of youth at risk for a serious and lengthy criminal career. These individuals are known to account for a large number of court contacts, commit serious and violent offences, and pose the greatest challenge to the criminal justice system. However, moderate rate long-term offenders may also be a prime target for rehabilitative interventions by the justice system. These programs should address individual and psychosocial factors that may be keeping them entrenched in an active, though moderate level of involvement in a criminal lifestyle.
  4. Furthering knowledge of the risk factors associated with high rate and chronic offence trajectory groups is important for informing the development of effective, targeted early intervention and prevention programs aimed at reducing the impact of risk factors among high risk children and youth.


Day, D.M., Nielsen, J. D., Ward, A. K., Rosenthal, J. S., Sun, Y., Bevc, I., Duchesne, T., Rossman, L., & Samuels, S. (2012). Criminal Trajectories of Two Subsamples of Adjudicated Ontario Youths. NCPC Research Report. Ottawa, ON: Public Safety Canada.

For more information:

Lucie Léonard
National Crime Prevention Centre
Public Safety Canada
269 Laurier Avenue West
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0P8
Phone: 613-957-6362

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