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Active Offender Perspective Research: Its Methodological Utility and Insights on Inner-City, Disadvantaged Communities

Criminology not only draws on the perspective of many disciplines, but also of many subjects. In this article, we focus on active offender perspective research, or AOPR. We begin by describing classic studies of offender-based research with both active and inactive offenders. ...

Published onJul 01, 2017
Active Offender Perspective Research: Its Methodological Utility and Insights on Inner-City, Disadvantaged Communities


Criminology not only draws on the perspective of many disciplines, but also of many subjects. In this article, we focus on active offender perspective research, or AOPR. We begin by describing classic studies of offender-based research with both active and inactive offenders. That sets the stage for an analysis of their respective utility, or advantages and disadvantages, as research subjects. From there, we review the body of research that has most profited from AOPR: that on crime and control in inner-city, disadvantaged communities. Finally, we propose lines for future research that would advance knowledge of, one, how active offenders compare to inactive offenders as subjects, and, two, theoretical forces thought to affect crime and control.

Note: The “Connection” above the abstract links to the Georgia State University institutional repository. On that page, there is a “Link to Full Text” that brings you to this paper’s open access version-of-record. I do not have the postprint, at least not that I can find. Instead, then, I am using the absence of the postprint as an opportunity to share the paper’s preprint. As sometimes happens (and is ok), a paper’s preprint may become very different from the eventual version-of-record. Authors change their minds. Editors and reviewers “strongly encourage” to make revisions. These changes are normal, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Scientific communication/publishing is a cooperative venture. The preprint on this page was only coauthored with Timothy Dickinson, not Volkan Topalli. Long story short, Tim and I sent the preprint to John Laub, who was our editor at The Annual Review of Criminology. Suffice to say, John did not like it (lol but seriously). Like everyone, I hold John in the highest regard and thank him for his contributions to criminology, including his work as editor on this paper. I know John would agree, there is nothing wrong with two scholars disagreeing. Certainly, we used John’s feedback to totally revamp the paper, which is partly why we asked Volkan to come on as first-author. That said, the original version of the paper had a lot of useful information for scholars and students. Do I think the original preprint is better than the version-of-record? It doesn’t really matter. I think both versions are good. I think both may be useful to other people. But the original preprint has gone unpublished (“made public”), until now.


Scholars from a range of disciplines, including sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics, and biology, have obtained data from offenders to answer questions about the etiology and execution of crime as well as its relationship to social control. Criminologists have obtained this information through a multitude of research methods. In this article, we focus on an important vein of offender-based research: active offender perspective research, or AOPR. This research is characterized by three traits: 1) the use of qualitative methods to gather data about 2) the personal viewpoints of offenders 3) currently involved in crime. Moreover, we focus on the context within which AOPR has been most often used and to the greatest effect: inner-city, disadvantaged communities, or IDCs. We begin by reviewing classic studies of the offenders’ perspective. Next, we review the methodological benefits and costs of research with active offenders versus that with inmates and desisters. Then we describe the major topics of interest and theoretical insights generated by AOPR as pertains to IDCs and the offenders operating therein. Finally, we discuss fruitful avenues for future research.


Research on the offenders’ perspective extends back to the field’s heyday. One of the classics is Shaw’s (1930) The Jack-Roller.[1] It presents and analyzes the life history of a “young male delinquent” (p. 1), Stanley. He narrated his “own story” to Shaw, who then wrote it up in the first-person point of view. Among other topics, the book covers Stanley’s social and cultural background and network; onset, continuation, and termination of lawbreaking; and, his time in jail, court, and prison (see also Snodgrass 1982). Though based on a “N of 1” (see Maruna & Matravers 2007), this research led Shaw to recognize many of the causal factors still of interest to criminologists, such as peer groups, neighborhood culture, cultural tool sets (i.e., how to do something), parental control and familial bonds, personality, and techniques of neutralization. Moreover, Shaw’s life history research led to the book and idea for which he is better known, Juvenile Delinquency in Urban Areas and social disorganization theory (Becker 1966: ix-x).

On equal footing is Sutherland’s (1937) The Professional Thief. This life history tells the story of Chic Conwell, a professional thief for more than two decades (see also Vasoli & Terzola 1974). Sutherland wrote the manuscript with copious data obtained from Chic via interviews and written correspondence. Also, Sutherland crosschecked and supplemented the early drafts by circulating it among Chic and other professional thieves for feedback. The Professional Thief contributes to criminology by highlighting crime as an occupation and, more broadly, a lifestyle that rests upon a bed of differential association. Similar to how Shaw learned from Stanley, Sutherland’s (1956: 17) differential association theory was inspired by Chic: “I had worked for several years with a professional thief”, he wrote years later, “and had been greatly impressed by his statement that a person cannot become a professional thief merely by wanting to be one; he must be trained in personal association with those who are already professional thieves.”

Much research into the offenders’ perspective is based on data obtained from inactive criminals who stopped committing crime, by choice or incapacitation. The above works are a case in point. At the end of The Jack-Roller, Shaw and Stanley take turns describing the process by which the latter disentangled himself from criminogenic influences. And in the beginning of The Professional Thief, Sutherland explains that the “manuscript was secured about seven years ago. The thief had done no stealing during the five years prior to the writing of the manuscript” (p. v). During the preceding period, Chic had been temporarily kept out of crime by “several short terms in house of correction, [and, additionally] he served three terms in state and federal penitentiaries, with a total of about five years” (p. vii).

However, the early history of OOR includes active offenders, as well.[2] An example is Whyte’s (1943) Street Corner Society. In addition to obtaining self-report data, Whyte used participant observation to understand the social organization of “Cornerville,” a so-called “slum” made up of lower-class, first- and second-generation Italian immigrants. He got to know the area’s inhabitants by living there for a few years, including one spent at the home of an Italian-American family. As relates to crime, the book’s contribution is to the study of “racketeering,” especially that involving gambling. Whyte’s findings serve as a counterbalance to Shaw and McKay (1942; see also Thomas and Znaniecki 1920a,b). A tad ironically, Whyte shows that disadvantaged communities of immigrants may not be socially disorganized, but, rather, quite the opposite and, thus, equipped to engage in organized crime.

Another classic of active offender research is Becker’s Outsiders (1963). Thinking back on his early days of sociology, Becker (2015) recounts that he had become interested in Lindesmith’s (1938, 1947) explanation of opiate addiction and, in turn, “did a lot of interviews, a certain amount of irregular and unplanned observation, and wrote an article I planned to submit to a sociological journal” (p. x-xi). That article, “Becoming a Marihuana User,” became a major piece of criminology and later appeared in Outsiders. Therein, Becker (1953, 1963) arrived at an interactionist theory of marijuana use and, more broadly, offending and other behaviors. Instead of focus on the physiological effects of ingestion, he theorized how users came to interpret those effects as “real” and “enjoyable.” Doing so involves social learning: experienced smokers teach novices how to smoke and what they should be feeling as a result. This theory explains why people continue to smoke after initiation, why some individuals do not become regular smokers, and why some regular smokers wind up desisting for shorter or longer periods.


Faced with the choice, why would a researcher[3] want to collect data from active offenders versus inactive ones, be it inmates or desisters? This section considers the similarities and differences in the utility – benefits minus costs – and, thus, the rationale of studying these offender populations. Before analyzing that issue, it is important to consider the limitations of categorizing criminals as belonging to one or another of these groups. First, note that many inmates actively offend while incarcerated and may thus be considered as active offenders. Nevertheless, and for the sake of conceptual clarity, herein we only refer to unincarcerated offenders as active offenders. Second, distinguishing active offenders and desisters is a problematic conceptual issue because the most objective way to do so lacks subjective insight, and vice versa. This is because research tends to draw the line based on time since last offense yet without respect to offenders’ mindset (e.g., Farrington & Hawkins 1991) or by asking them if they are “active” or “done” (e.g., Maruna 2001).


Whether studying inmates, active offenders, or desisters, a researcher must invest time and effort in locating and recruiting them to participate in a study (e.g., Bernasco 2010). An advantage of researching inmates is they are generally easier to find than are active offenders or desisters (Copes et al. 2015). After all, inmates are a captive population held at fixed locations for fixed periods. Moreover, there is a high density of offenders in jails and prisons, so it takes little time and effort to move from one participant to another. Studying unincarcerated offenders, both current and former, is another matter. Even if their location is known, it probably takes more time, on the average, to recruit them because they are seldom at a single location at all times and are not organized into adjacent cells or dormitories.

Unless fully considered, it may seem that another unique advantage of studying inmates is the ability to draw on official records of their demographic traits (e.g., race, age, sex), criminal history, and more (Copes et al. 2005). A researcher may use these records to structure a sample representative of some wider phenomenon or trait, to verify what offenders say, guide the conversation, or as a supplementary data source. However, official records can be used to similar ends in research with active offenders and desisters. This is because unincarcerated criminals can also be recruited through formal channels, such as rosters of arrestees, defendants, probationers, and parolees (e.g., Papachristos, Meares, & Fagan 2012).

The prospect of using official records to produce statistically generalizable findings may seem enticing, but it is important to point out that such results are only representative of certain offender subgroups. By definition, formal sampling channels will only tap into offenders who have been apprehended, so the findings are only statistically generalizable to that population. Apprehended offenders may differ in some way from their counterparts in that they may have less skills or different motivations that have led to them being caught (Biernacki & Waldorf 1981, Wright et al. 1992). Also, offenders are more likely to be apprehended and punished if of a relatively low social status and, especially, if living in a IDC (Anderson 1999, Goffman 2014). So while official records are “objective,” they are not unbiased (Sutherland 1940).

Unlike inmates, which, in practice, are primarily located and recruited through formal channels, an advantage of sampling active offenders and desisters is that they can more easily be found through a variety of informal channels. Examples of these include a researcher asking their criminal contacts, such as friends and neighbors, to participate (Adler 1993); having third parties do so on their behalf (Wright & Decker 1994, 1997); placing advertisements (Boeri 2013); or, making what amounts to a “cold call” by approaching a stranger on the street or elsewhere (Jacobs 1999). An advantage of these informal routes is that they can capture criminals who evade the law and may therefore be free of the problems associated with samples built using official criminal justice records.

Data Quantity, Validity, and Representativeness

Once a researcher has convinced offenders to participate in a study, the next step is to record their memories, perceptions, actions, and so on. What is more, the researcher will want these data to be as good as possible in terms of quantity, validity, and representativeness. For some topics (the exceptions are discussed below), it is advantageous to interview or survey inmates because they seem more willing to speak at great length than are active offenders or desisters and are more likely to grant their participation in the first place (Akerstrom 1985). The reason for inmates’ willingness to talk is that incarceration is boring (Copes et al. 2015). This compares to freedom, which may not always be exciting but, on the average, affords greater opportunity to do what one wants when they want to. As research goes, a downside of studying active offenders and desisters is that they have other things going on and so have a harder time sitting still (cf. Copes, Hochstetler & Brown 201, Jacobs & Wright 2006). It is unclear, however, if being an active criminal or a desister involves more boredom and if, as a result, this affects their study participation and provision of information.

If the advantage of studying inmates is more data, the disadvantage is that these data may be less valid and representative (Polsky 1969, Sutherland & Cressey 1970, 5, Wright et al. 1992, Wright & Decker 1994).[4] No matter the type of offender, whether inmate, active offender, or desister, trust, or a lack thereof, in a researcher can affect the quality of the information the offender is willing to share (Bernasco 2010). A researcher may have no intention of revealing their data to criminal justice officials, but offenders cannot be sure of that – regardless of what they are told during the consent process. Compared to active offenders and desisters, inmates may have less trust in researchers and, therefore, be less willing to speak at all, at length, or truthfully about offenses for which they were not apprehended. This is due to the involvement of criminal justice officials throughout the process of studying inmates: they grant permission to do a study; provide a roster of potential participants; deliver information about the study to participants; walk them to the place of the interview; and, occasionally watch on or listen as it takes place.

The sampling channel – formal versus informal – may affect active offenders’ and desisters’ trust of researchers, too. A common maxim among offenders is that strangers who inquire into their activities should be viewed as police or snitches (Agar 1973, Jacobs 1999, Sluka 1990). A degree of common sense suggests that unincarcerated offenders should be more worried about that possibility when a researcher gets their contact information from criminal justice officials. Like inmates, then, active offenders and inmates contacted through formal channels, compared to informal ones, should have more distrust for researchers and may thus be more likely to hide or shade information about crimes for which they were not apprehended.

To here, active offenders and desisters have been described as more alike as research participants than unalike. There is an important difference between them, at least for studies that distinguish them on the basis of time since last offense. No matter how long the period (e.g., a day, week, month, etc.), active offenders always are defined as committing crime more recently than desisters. This categorization scheme has implications for data quality because memory distortion increases with time (Wixted 2004). Thus, the longer since a person has offended, the less accurately they will remember what they did and why. Of course, that may affect the validity of what participants say, but also the representativeness of what they describe if they are more likely to remember instances atypical of the norm (e.g., the most serious offense, one that went “totally wrong” or “perfect,” etc.).

That time-based difference does not necessarily apply, however, if active offenders and desisters are categorized as such according to their self-identification as one or the other. This is because an offender may have committed a crime yesterday, but since decided that they will never do so again, thereby making them a desister – at least for then. A similar logic matters to comparing active offenders with inmates, especially jailees. For example, a study of active offenders may include persons whose most recent crime was six months ago, but inmates may have committed a crime, and been subsequently apprehended for it, far more recently.

Somewhat left in the background to this point is that offender-based research depends not only on conversation but also observation. A researcher may use observation on its own or pair it with interviews and surveys to validate what was said or to enhance validity or representativeness by seeing unspoken details (e.g. Anderson 1999; Duneier 1999; Goffman 2014). Leaving aside the ethical issues, which are numerous across the types of offender-based research, it is only possible to observe active offenders’ involvement in crime. Obviously, inmates and desisters cannot be observed committing crime (outside institutions) because they are, respectively, incarcerated and no longer doing so.


Having outlined the utility of active offenders as data sources, we now turn to what they have taught us about crime and criminals in inner-city, disadvantaged communities, or, again, IDCs. Perhaps the earliest study of this ilk, or certainty the earliest one to still be read, is Whyte’s (1943) Street Corner Society, which we described above. Since that seminal study, AOPR has been used to study a wide variety of crimes committed in IDCs.

For instance, such research has investigated predation, or acts motivated to acquire wealth. More specifically, there has been studies of active robbers (e.g., Contreras 2012, Jacobs 2000, St. Jean 2007, Wright & Decker, 1997), carjackers (e.g., Jacobs 2012, 2013; Jacobs, Topalli, & Wright 2003, Topalli & Wright 2004), auto thieves (e.g., Jacobs & Cherbonneau 2014, 2016, 2017, Mullins & Cherbonneau 2011), and burglars (e.g., Wright & Decker 1994).

Moralistic crime has been another area of AOPR on IDCs. By moralistic crime, we mean that motivated as a means of social control. It takes its purest form in instances of assault and homicide designed to “get even” against someone for a perceived transgression (Anderson 1999, Goffman 2014, Jacobs & Wright 2006). Yet moralistic crime also may involve stealing, so long as, by definition, that theft is the result of the victim’s misdeed. Thus, crimes of social control may technically be defined as robbery (e.g., Contreras 2012, Jacobs 2000, Wright & Decker 1997) or burglary (Wright & Decker 1994), for instance.

AOPR on IDCs has shed light on victimless crimes, as well, defined as those in which all the directly involved parties partake by choice. An example is sex work (e.g., Maxwell & Maxwell 2000; Murphy & Venkatesh 2006; Ratner 1993; Sanders 2004, 2005). Perhaps the richest area of AOPR is that on drug crime (e.g., St. Jean 2007, Young 2004). This body of work cuts across substances, like cocaine (e.g., Williams 1989), crack cocaine (e.g., Bourgois 1995, Conteras 2012, Jacobs 1999), heroin (e.g., Bourgois & Schonberg 2009, Hoffer 2006), and marijuana (e.g., Sandberg & Pedersen 2009). There are almost as many roles in drug crime as there are different substances. Offenses include everything from drug smuggling to lower levels of distribution, retail-level purchasing, and possession for personal use (e.g., Bourgois & Schonberg 2009, Hoffer 2006, Mieczkowski 1990, 1992, Jacobs 1999, Williams 1989).

A social involvement that spreads across crime types is gang membership. AOPR on IDC gangs has explored, for instance, how and why they are involved in offending (e.g., Decker & Van Winkle 1996; Fleisher 1998; Hagedorn & Macon 1988; Kennedy & Baron 1993; Miller & Decker 2001). More generally, gang researchers have shed light on gang formation, organization, their activities and identity, as well as that of their members (e.g., Decker & Van Winkle 1996; Fleisher 1998; Hagedorn 1994; Hagedorn & Macon 1988; Harris 1994; Lasley 1992; Lo 2012; Moore 1991, Padilla 1992, Short & Strodtbeck 1965; Toy 1992; Venkatesh 2008).

Community Effects

All of the above crimes, as well as gang membership, have been explained as the product of macro-level features, most notably structural and cultural forces. Whereas large-scale, quantitative research gives a “bird’s eye view” of these relationships, AOPR shows what disadvantage, culture, and crime look like at the street level. In what follows, note that all of the mentioned work in this subsection and the next is AOPR on IDCs and offenders therein, but, for brevity, we do not always specify it as such.

Concerning the relationship between structure and offending, AOPR has described numerous examples wherein offenders from these contexts cannot land decent-paying jobs due to various influences, including widespread economic changes (e.g., outsourcing jobs), institutionalized racism, and underperforming schools or training programs (Anderson 1999, Bourgois 1995, Duneier 1999, Goffman 2014). In the absence of legitimate employment opportunities, and especially where formal or informal economic assistance is lacking, these individuals turn to crime to meet their needs and their wants (Anderson 1999, Contreras 2012, Duck 2015, Liebow 1967, Young 2004).

If decent-paying, legitimate employment opportunities are largely absent in a community – as is the case in IDCs – the neighborhood culture may become more accepting, if not encouraging, of crime. As a result, the moral fabric does less to restrain predatory crime, drug distribution, and sex work. Moreover, the knowledge, skills, and wherewithal to succeed via crime earns “street capital” (Sandberg & Pedersen 2009) that generates self-worth and demands respect from others (Anderson 1999, Bourgois 1995, Goffman 2014). Anderson (1999), for example, discusses winning a fight as being rewarded with a proverbial “trophy” in the form of enhanced street status. The successful commission of a robbery can do the same, and, in certain contexts, be deemed an acceptable way to generate wealth, be it cash, fashionable clothing, a vehicle, drugs, or whatever the offender desires.

As if the economic problems were not bad enough, part of what defines certain inner-city communities as “disadvantaged” is unfair treatment by police and the criminal justice system more widely. Among offenders and nonoffenders alike, daily life is marred by a discriminatorily high risk of being harassed, stopped, investigated, and arrested by police (Anderson 1999, Brunson 2007, Goffman 2014, Rios 2011). From the offenders’ perspective, such treatment is obviously worrisome because no one wants to be punished, but, also, because it results in a criminal record that further damages already-limited job prospects. Moreover, residents in such areas complain that when they do call on the police for help, the service they receive is lacking in quality (Jacobs & Wright 2006, Venkatesh 2000).

The cultural effect of those various problems with police is a learned dependence on informal social control, including moralistic crime. Violence becomes a more attractive way to deter victimization, get revenge, and recover lost resources (Anderson 1999, Contreras 2012, Goffman 2014, Topalli, Wright, & Fornango, 2002). Moreover, and as with drug distribution and predatory crime, the technical know-how and willingness to use violence as social control is the basis for status, self-worth, and respect in the streets (Anderson 1999, Bourgois 1995, Goffman 2014, Jacobs & Wright 2006). Indeed, the retaliatory imperative is so strong in some IDCs that not retaliating requires neutralization, as do other prescribed street culture behaviors (Rosenfeld, Jacobs, & Wright 2003; Topalli 2005).  

Structural disadvantage also introduces several other cultural effects that further exacerbate criminal involvement. One of these is fatalism coupled with anticipation of an early death or long stints in prison. For example, Brezina and colleagues (2009) explain that offenders’ anticipation of an untimely death promotes lawbreaking by undermining its long-term risks. And, in a similar vein, Goffman (2014) describes how the ubiquity of incarceration mitigates its ability to deter crime.

A related but distinct facet of street culture is an emphasis on immediate, hedonistic pursuits (Anderson 1999, Bourgois 1995, Jacobs 1999, 2000, Wright & Decker 1994, 1997). Life is seen as a “party” that should be enjoyed by consuming copious amounts of drugs/alcohol, gambling, being sexually promiscuous, and trying to look “cool” by wearing the latest fashions and displaying other symbols of conspicuous consumption. The problem with this lifestyle is that it is expensive. Without well-paying, legitimate employment, some disadvantaged individuals are faced with the decision to stop partying or to bankroll it by committing more crimes (Anderson 1999; Jacobs, Topalli, & Wright 2000, 2003; Wright & Decker 1994, 1997).

Individual and Situational Effects

In even the most criminogenic communities, not every person becomes an offender or remains one (Anderson 1999, Duck 2015, Duneier 1992, 1999, Goffman 2014, Rios 2011, Venkatesh 2000). Nor is even the worst offender therein always committing crime. AOPR has produced theoretical insights, to which we now turn, into the individual and situational factors within IDCs affecting offenders’ decisions on whether and how to commit offenses.

Expertise differs between criminals, for one (Wright & Decker 1994; Wright, Decker, & Logie 1995). Like any form of expertise, offending expertise comes from one’s own experiences and their knowledge of the experiences of others. Part of expertise is perceptual knowledge, such as how to identify suitable targets (Topalli and Wright 2004, Topalli, Wright, & Jacques 2015). A second aspect is procedural knowledge, which refers to one’s competence at carrying out an offense. Experts are best equipped to answer questions regarding the best times and places to carry out crimes and how exactly these crimes should be carried out from beginning to end. For these reasons, offenders with higher degrees of expertise may be more capable at successfully capitalizing on offending opportunities and minimizing risk while doing so.

In terms of individual-level differences within IDCs, perhaps no factor is more important than gender. Numerous researchers have demonstrated how gendered norms shape offending (e.g., Campbell 1987; Harris 1994; Miller 1998, 2001; Miller & Brunson 2000; Miller & Decker 2001; Miller & Jacobs 1998; Mullins & Wright 2003; Mullins, Wright & Jacobs 2004; Murphy & Rosenbaum 1997). These norms have been shown to influence both why crime occurs and its ultimate form. For instance, AOPR finds that both male and female robbers are motivated to obtain funds to “keep the party going,” but females are less prone to do so because of cultural norms permitting them to ask others for financial help (Miller, 1998; Mullins & Wright 2003). Female-led robberies may also differ from those committed by males in that female robbers are more likely to only target other females, by the use of strategies, such as sexual enticement, to lure victims that are largely unavailable to men. These and other gendered differences in motivation, target selection, and enactment have been found among burglars (Mullins & Wright 2003) auto thieves (Mullins & Cherbonneau 2011), retaliators (Mullins, Wright, & Jacobs 2004), and drug dealers (Jacobs & Miller 1998; Miller & Decker 2001).

Whereas expertise and gender affect variations in how and whether different offenders commit crime, situational influences affect when and how the same offender commits crime. As mentioned above, the most serious criminal in any area is not constantly committing crime, at least not literally speaking. As the vast majority of offenses take but minutes to accomplish, even serious offenders spend most of their time behaving lawfully. AOPR has highlighted the characteristics of the times and places that encourage offenders to break these spells.

Emotions, for example, help to explain why an offender will have a relatively dormant period but then jump back into crime. Research finds that criminals may be most prone to offend when in circumstances they perceive as particularly unsatisfactory, unpleasant, or dire (Wright & Decker 1994, 1997). These perceptions elicit negative emotions – such as desperation, anger, and fear – that make crime seem more rational by reducing or enhancing estimations of risk and reward. Positive emotions– like excitement and thrill – can also affect the decision to commit crime by similarly influencing offenders’ perceptions of risk and reward (Katz 1988; Miller 1958; Wright & Decker 1994, 1997).

Additionally, offenders’ crime decisions are influenced by more external situational factors. These include the hardware, such as a vehicle or firearm, at their disposal (Jacobs 2000; Wright & Decker 1997), the time of day (Jacobs & Miller 1998), the presence of co-offenders (Short & Strodtbeck 1965), the amount and nature of disorder (St. Jean 2007), and the number of potential crime opportunities that they know of or serendipitously come across (Wright & Decker 1994; Jacobs 2010).

Finally, offenders vary in their selection of certain crimes or specific targets because of the techniques needed to commit these crimes without being detected or arrested by police (Goffman 2014, Phillips 2012). An offender may be presented with an attractive target, say a potentially lucrative robbery victim, but may decide to forgo the opportunity because of a lack of access to a mask or other means by which to hide their identity that could potentially reduce the risk of detection and arrest (e.g., Jacobs 1996, 1999, 2010, Jacobs & Cherbonneau 2014). Thus, offenders’ own knowledge and access to arrest avoidance techniques combined with available crime opportunities can also shape their decisions to engage in or refrain from crimes. 


This article has focused its attention on active offender perspective research (AOPR), especially that on crime in inner-city, disadvantaged communities (IDCs). After describing a few classics of AOPR, we reviewed the methodological prospects and problems of research with active offenders versus that with inmates and desisters, and then outlined the insights of AOPR on IDCs and offenders therein. To conclude, we summarize our methodological and substantive reviews and suggest future directions for AOPR that would advance those knowledge bases.

Methodological Issues

The utility of studying active offenders, inmates, and desisters is similar in some respects. For instance, each may be sampled through formal channels (e.g., using official rosters). And, if accessed that way, the data collected from offenders may be supplemented or otherwise aided with information contained in criminal justice records. Also, active offenders and desisters are alike in that if categorized on the basis of self-selection (e.g., “I still commit crime” versus “I quit”), they do not necessarily differ in time since last offense and, thus, may demonstrate similar levels of memory distortion. Likewise, active offenders and inmates, particularly jailees, do not have inherent differences in time since last offense and, as a result, may exhibit equivalent amounts of memory distortion.

There are advantages of collecting data from inmates over active offenders and desisters. Inmates are a captive population, so finding and recruiting them should require the least time and effort. The boredom that goes along with incarceration, relative to being free, also makes inmates more willing to participate in research and talk at length, at least about crimes for which they have already been punished. Yet inmate-based research comes with notable disadvantages, too. One, it is impractical to access them through informal channels, and, for that reason, they may be less likely than active offenders and desisters recruited that way to talk about crimes for which they were not apprehended. However, that data quality concern also applies to active offenders and desisters recruited through formal rather than informal channels.

In many methodologically-relevant aspects, then, we find that active offenders and desisters are more similar to each other than they are to inmates. But there are important differences between active offenders and desisters. If distinguished by time since last offense, the former will have less memory decay and so should provide more valid data. And if a researcher’s goal is to observe crime and related phenomena, it is only possible to do so with active offenders, not desisters or inmates because they, by definition (see above), are out of crime.

We encourage researchers to earnestly consider the above advantages and disadvantages of active offenders, inmates, and desisters when choosing to collect data from one or the other group, as well as when consuming research on them. However, we warn against being inflexible in such assessments, as what is “best” for the research depends on the study goals. Obviously, different foci lend themselves to different populations. All else equal, for instance, it probably makes more sense to ask inmates about incarceration rather than active offenders or desisters. The same reasoning applies to asking active offenders about active lawbreaking and desisters about desisting.

But this logic should not be taken too far. Each group has something to say about active offending, incarceration, and desistance. For instance, active offenders that have never been imprisoned can share their perceptions of it, while desisters and inmates can provide information about their own past offending. Naturally, active offenders’ perceptions of prison before incarceration may differ from their reports of it once inside, and the experiences of desistance or incarceration may alter desisters and inmates’ perceptions of their past criminal actions (see Copes et al. 2015). This is not to say that “altered” information is useless, but how and to what extent it is useful depends of the study’s goals.

For better or worse, a plurality of approaches is justified by the absence of systematically-gathered evidence as to whether active offenders, inmates, or desisters provide more data, more representative data, and more valid (i.e., accurate) data. Offender-based research is in need of a methodological study – or, better yet, studies – that fill that gap in the knowledge base. What would such a study look like? We recognize that doing research is often more complex than envisioned, but the following are the basic components of an initial study.

First, there is the issue of which offender population – active offenders, inmates, or desisters – will provide the most data. Our review suggests that, all else equal, (H1) compared to active offenders or desisters, inmates provide more data on crime; and, (H2) compared to active offenders, desisters do not provide more or less data on crime. The following research design could be used to test those hypotheses:

  • To eliminate the effect of sampling channel, all subjects will be recruited via a formal channel, as that is the only practical way to access inmates.

  • To eliminate researcher effect on subjects, questions will be posed by a prerecorded, digitally-produced artificial voice; each subject will be alone.

  • To eliminate the effect of inconsistent lines of questioning, the exact same research questions will be asked in the same order of each subject.

  • After each question, subjects will be prompted to begin talking. For instance, the voice may say, “Now, please answer that question with as much detail as you can.”

  • The answer to each question, or the sum of answers across the interview, is the unit of analysis. Each case could be measured, for instance, by the number of spoken words, the length of time from first to last word, or the number of described crimes.

It likely will be important to control for explanatory factors, too. For instance, it may be wise to eliminate or statistically control for differences across offenders in demographic background, criminal history, and self-reported boredom as well as time since last offense.

The major limitation of the above research design is it can only tell us about the quantity of data, not its quality. Researchers may not like it, but subjects have the power to withhold information and distort it. Our review suggests that, all else equal, (H3) compared to active offenders and desisters, inmates provide less data on crimes for which they were not apprehended; and, (H4) compared to active offenders and desisters, inmates provide less truthful data on crimes for which they were not apprehended. To test these hypotheses, the following components could be added to the above research design:

  • Subjects will be connected to a polygraph (i.e., lie detector).

  • Among other questions, subjects will be asked, for instance, “Approximately how long ago did you commit a crime for which you were not apprehended?” And, subsequently, “How did you commit that crime?” “Why did you commit that crime?”

  • Also, subjects will be asked, for instance, “Approximately how long ago did you commit a crime for which you were apprehended?” And, subsequently, “How did you commit that crime?” “Why did you commit that crime?”

  • The answer to each question, or the sum of answers across the interview, is the unit of analysis. Again, the quantity of each case could be measured, for instance, by the number of spoken words, the length of time from first to last word, or the number of described crimes. Additionally, the truthfulness of each case could be measured, for instance, by various physiological signals captured by the polygraph. 

We find the existing research on memory distortion to be well done (Wixted 2004), and, though not experts in that area, think it is more likely than not that such research would produce similar results if focused on offenders and their subgroups. Thus, we assume that if distinguished on the basis of time since last offense, (H5) active offenders provide more accurate data than do desisters, holding constant intentional distortion, i.e. truthfulness. If researchers question that possibility, however, they could incorporate time as a variable in the above research design.

Substantive Issues

Perhaps the best argument for conducting AOPR is simply that it been used to great success. More so than any other area, that is true of research on offending in IDCs. At the community level, this body of research has explored how structural issues, such as the lack of good jobs, historic and institutional racism, poor educational opportunities, and discriminatory policing promote cultural norms that promote predatory, retaliatory, and drug crimes. More specifically, the lack of jobs and other avenues for conventional status encourages community-members to win status through predatory behavior, while simultaneously promoting illicit drug sales and prostitution as a viable way to make a living. And, negative perceptions of police bolster moralistic violence by promoting views among residents that they cannot, and should not, rely on others to protect them from victimization.

These structural factors also promote individuals to adopt personal characteristics such as a sense of fatalism and a “fast lifestyle” that, in turn, can motivate them to commit crime by altering their perceptions of cost and benefit. Likewise, offenders’ expertise and emotions can influence their crime decisions by inflating or deflating their assessments of risk and reward. Finally, AOPR has found that offenders’ decisions to commit various offense types are influenced by situational variables, such as the availability of tools, the time of day, the presence of co-offenders, disorder, and the particularistic measures needed to successfully pursue certain crime opportunities.

Of course, criminals are not solely located in IDCs. To say that AOPR has taught us the most about such communities and the offenders therein implies that it has taught us the least about others. To say there is “less” does not necessarily mean the knowledge is scarce, but, unfortunately, one could argue that is the case. For instance, AOPR has been used to inform drug crime in rural areas, especially disadvantaged ones (e.g., Boeri 2013; Marsh, Copes, & Linneman 2017), but has said very little about other crimes therein (but see Byers, Crider, & Biggers 1999). Drug crime has been the major focus of AOPR on suburban areas and advantaged offenders, too (Adler 1993, Dum 2016, Jacques & Wright 2015, Mohamed & Fritsvold 2010; Patillo-McCoy 1999, Singer 2014). Though uncommon, AOPR on these areas and persons has examined violence (Jackson-Jacobs 2013), computer hacking (Holt 2007), theft (e.g., Cromwell, Olson, & Avary 1991), corporate crime (Braithwaite 1984), vandalism (e.g., Ferrell 1993, Lasley 1995, Halsey & Young 2002), as well.

Why should AOPR broaden its focus to offenders outside of IDCs? For one, it would advance understanding of how, why, and to what effect crime occurs within and across various types of rural, suburban, and urban areas. This could then expand theoretical understanding of crime and control more broadly. After all, the key ingredient in the making of a general theory is variation (Stinchcombe 2005). A less obvious but no less important reason is an ethical in nature. Perhaps one should wonder whether, despite efforts to improve outsiders’ understanding of life in IDCs (e.g., Duck 2015, Goffman 2014, Rios 2011), AOPR reinforces stereotypes by further portraying IDCs as criminal outposts (cf. Duneier 1992). One way to get around that problem, should it exist, is to show that people from all socioeconomic contexts commit crime (e.g., Dum 2016, Jacques & Wright 2015, Mohamed & Fritsvold 2010; Singer 2014). 

There is another limitation of AOPR that reflects its focus on IDCs. By and large, AOPR has kept to so-called street crimes. The imbalanced attention to these offense types could be justified by arguments that they occur most frequently and cause the most societal harm. Official crime data may suggest this is the case, but, as Sutherland (1940) noted, these records over-represent street crimes, especially those committed by lower-class persons. In the 80 years since Sutherland presented this argument, the field’s substantive focus has not changed much; this characterization is especially true of AOPR. Active offender perspective researchers are still, in large part, only talking to and hanging out with jack-rollers (e.g., Contreras 2012, St. Jean 2007), thieves (e.g., Wright & Decker 1994), pushers (e.g., Duck 2015), and other “old school” offenders. That is not meant as a criticism of this work, but, rather, as an observation. AOPR is remaining somewhat static while the world and, more specifically, crime forge ahead. Thus, our final recommendation for the future is for criminologists to tap into the perspective of offenders involved in more modern, often technologically advanced, crimes (e.g., Braithwaite 1984, Copes & Vieraitis 2012, Morselli et al. 2017). These include thieves who use computer networks to steal victims’ identifying information, illicit drug sellers and sex workers who use online “cryptomarkets” to trade their wares, vandals who use malware to edit or deface the digital property of victims, and terrorists who use social media to facilitate and encourage attacks.


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[1] This book was the first in a series of criminal life histories told by Shaw (1931, 1938), with the next works consisting of The Natural History of a Delinquent Career and Brothers in Crime.

[2] The Professional Thief is primarily based on data obtained from Chic, but it may also include the perspective of active offenders. Sutherland (1937) supplemented Chic’s experiences and perceptions by “submit[ing] the manuscript to four other professional thieves” and “discussed the ideas and problems with several other professional thieves” (p. vi). These data are included as footnotes. However, Sutherland does not specify whether these other thieves were active or inactive.

[3] For simplicity, we refer to “researcher” in the singular, though, of course, a study may be carried out by multiple researchers.

[4] In case the following does not go without saying, note that because inmates and desisters were formerly active offenders, all of these parties should be able to provide similar data (Copes et al. 2015). Yet to claim things are similar does not mean they are equal, as one may still be more valid than the other.

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