The Usual Suspects: Prior Criminal Record and the Probability of Arrest

Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
The Usual Suspects:
2021, Vol. 24(1) 31–54
! The Author(s) 2020
Prior Criminal Record
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611120937304
and the Probability
of Arrest
Lisa Stolzenberg1
Stewart J. D’Alessio1, and
Jamie L. Flexon1
A unique dataset is analyzed to investigate the effect of a criminal suspect’s prior
criminal record on the probability of arrest. Multivariate logistic regression results
show that a criminal suspect with a prior criminal record is approximately 29 times
more likely than a suspect without a criminal record to be arrested by police. While
findings also reveal that Black suspects and Black suspects with a prior criminal
record do not have an enhanced proclivity of arrest, Black suspects with a prior
criminal record who target White victims are almost three times more apt to be
arrested. When juxtaposed with the finding in the baseline model of a substantive
relationship between a suspect’s race and the likelihood of arrest absent the control
for prior criminal record, our results suggest that any correlation evinced between
a criminal suspect’s race and the likelihood of arrest without controlling for the
suspect’s prior criminal history may be spurious due to omitted variable bias.
arrest decision, prior criminal record, suspect’s race
1Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida International University
Corresponding Author:
Lisa Stolzenberg, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida International University, 11200
SW 8th Street - PCA 253A, Miami, FL 33199, United States.

Police Quarterly 24(1)
Research on Criminal Offending
In their landmark study, Wolfgang et al. (1972) highlighted the criminal offend-
ing patterns of a cohort of 9,945 boys born in Philadelphia in 1945 through their
eighteenth birthday in 1963. The major finding of their study was that approx-
imately 6% of the juvenile offenders, who were arrested five or more times by
age 18, accounted for 52% of all arrests of cohort members. These same boys
were also arrested for most of the serious crimes committed by the cohort,
including 71% of the homicides, 73% of the rapes, 82% of the robberies, and
69% of the aggravated assaults.
Since Wolfgang et al.’s seminal work, countless studies demonstrate that a
relatively small number of individuals commit the bulk of crime experienced in
society (see DeLisi, 2005 for a review of this literature). Given ample evidence
for the existence of a small group of repeat offenders in the general population,
social scientists have embarked on a concerted effort to proffer explanations for
why certain individuals are inclined to continually partake in criminal activity.
Some researchers advance theoretical perspectives rooted in a life-course frame-
work to explain such continuity in offending patterns (Carlsson & Sarnecki,
2015). These developmental or life-course perspectives often take the form of
theoretical integration of existing criminological theory as with Sampson and
Laub’s (1993) age-graded informal social control theory, which employs social
control and social learning concepts to explain the persistence of criminal
offending over time. Other similar explanations of persistent criminal offending
include Warr’s (1998) assertion that repeat offending is influenced by the sta-
bility and change in formal and informal social controls along with social learn-
ing processes over the life-course. According to this perspective, life-course
transitions that strengthen informal social control such as getting married,
securing full-time employment, joining the military, or entering college can
have a strong influence on chronicity.
In somewhat of a departure from these common explanations, some argue
that there is a certain criminal subtype in the population that has an inflated
tendency for participating in illegal activities. Moffitt’s (1993) developmental
theory of antisocial behavior posits that there are two basic types of offenders,
life-course persistent and adolescent-limited offenders. In contrast to adolescent-
limited offenders, life-course persistent offenders exhibit stability, chronicity,
and engage in more serious crime. These individuals begin their criminal careers
early in life and persist in crime for a longer period. They also suffer lower
verbal ability, hyperactivity, and low self-control/impulsivity, which in turn
makes them crime-prone (Moffitt, 1993). Other developmental psychological/
neuropsychological approaches such as psychopathy also center on distinct
criminal subtypes (Flexon, 2018).
However, while these explanations are undoubtedly influential, they are
nonetheless incomplete as they often fail to capture situational contexts, such

Stolzenberg et al.
as having a criminal history that may influence repeat offending. Labeling the-
orists assert that social stigma results from an individual branded as a criminal
in society, which can, in turn, engender criminality by influencing a person’s self-
concept negatively (Becker, 1963). Self-concept is thought to emanate from the
perception of others. If people believe a person to possess a particular undesir-
able characteristic such as being criminally disposed and then interact with the
person based on this belief, whether warranted or not, the targeted person may
grudgingly accept this objectionable characteristic in a self-fulfilling type proph-
ecy. This process is referred to as the “dramatization of evil” (Tannenbaum,
1938). The initial labeling of a person as being a criminal, which tends to occur
more frequently among individuals belonging to less powerful groups in society,
results in the continuation and stabilization of the person’s criminal behavior.
Lacking a criminal label, a person’s criminal behavior would probably have
remained infrequent and unorganized.
Labeling theorists further argue that individuals possessing a criminal label
are scrutinized more closely by social control agents because the criminal label
generates an adverse social reaction among the population. This intensification
in the social monitoring of criminally labeled individuals results in their having a
higher probability than non-labeled individuals of being discovered and pun-
ished for any subsequent illegal activity. This unrelenting process of heightened
social monitoring of the criminally labeled and the resultant increase in the
detection of their illicit activities only causes the initial criminal label to be
affixed more firmly to these individuals.
Prior Criminal Record and Arrest
While many studies rely on criminal offending data derived from self-report
surveys, others use official arrest data or self-report arrest data because self-
report surveys typically fail to capture repeat criminal offenders or serious forms
of criminal behavior (Cernkovich et al., 1985). However, a central problem with
using arrest data to measure criminal offending involves making the somewhat
dubious assumption that holding constant actual illegal behavior, a criminal
suspect with a prior criminal record does not have an inflated likelihood of
arrest. This situation seems rather unlikely because, as proffered by labeling
theorists, people with a criminal record are frequently viewed as being criminally
The belief that criminal suspects with a criminal record have the same like-
lihood of arrest as suspects lacking a criminal record also appears to lack merit
when one contemplates the abundance of research showing that a multitude of
factors plays a salient role in explaining the use of the arrest sanction. For
example, some studies identify situational factors that pertain to characteristics
of the criminal suspect (Brown, 2005; D’Alessio & Stolzenberg, 2003; Kochel
et al., 2011; Lytle, 2014; McCamman & Mowen, 2018; Riedel, 2008;

Police Quarterly 24(1)
Schulenberg, 2015; Stolzenberg & D’Alessio, 2004; Visher, 1983), attributes of
the victim (Smith et al., 1984), elements of the immediate situation (Brown,
2005; O’Neal et al., 2019; Smith & Visher, 1981), and legal aspects (Smith &
Visher, 1981) as being influential in predicting whether a criminal suspect is
arrested by police. Other studies find the characteristics of individual police
officers (Mbuba, 2018; Rosenfeld et al., 2018), the organizational structure
and policies of police departments (Eitle et al., 2005; Mourtgos et al., 2018),
or aggregate community factors (Gase et al., 2016; Stolzenberg et al., 2004) as
significant predictors of the arrest.
Owing to the dearth of datasets containing a criminal suspect’s prior criminal
record, no published research to our knowledge has directly examined this issue
of statistical dependency despite ample ancillary empirical evidence that repeat
offenders have an enhanced vulnerability of being arrested by police (Alpert
et al., 2005; Covey, 2011). Repeat offenders have a higher probability of detec-
tion and arrest by authorities because information relating to their fingerprints,
DNA, photographs, personal background information, criminal accomplices,
and modus operandi are maintained by police departments (Dana, 2001). It is
also likely that many repeat offenders have a magnified likelihood of being
arrested for their current alleged crime because they are on probation or
parole (Miller, 2014) and because their past illegal transgressions make for
easier and more plausible incriminating accusations by informants that other-
wise would lack credibility (Mosteller, 2009)....

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