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Adolescent offenders’ current whereabouts predict locations of their future crimes

Where adolescents currently spend their time is highly predictive of where they will commit crimes in the near and distant future, according to a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Wim Bernasco from the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR) and VU University Amsterdam.

Recent advances in the analysis of human mobility have confirmed that human spatial behavior follows remarkably regular and predictable daily and weekly cycles, that can be explained by two simple mechanisms. The first mechanism is preferential return, the propensity to return to locations frequently visited before. The second mechanism is spatial exploration, the tendency to visit new locations nearby familiar ones. The reported study investigated whether preferential return and spatial exploration also apply to criminal conduct, and can explain and predict the locations of future crimes.

Whereabouts of adolescents are concentrated and highly predictable

A sample of 843 adolescents in The Hague, the Netherlands, reported their hourly whereabouts during four days. In line with findings from other sources and populations, their locations were concentrated and predictable. They spent about 75 percent of their time in their two most visited locations (typically home and school), their action radius was limited to 3.2 km, and the predictability of their whereabouts was 96 percent.
During the subsequent four years, 70 of the participants were apprehended by the police for committing one or more crimes. Together they committed 165 crimes. The mobility patterns (measured at the start of these four years) of the offenders were generally similar to those of the non-offenders.

Likelihood of crime raises with visiting frequency and declines with distance

As predicted from the mechanisms of preferential return and spatial exploration, offenders tended to perpetrate crimes in and around locations they had visited before, including locations where they previously offended. The likelihood of crime raises with visiting frequency and decreases with distance from previously visited locations.

The findings show that the high predictability of human mobility applies to offending and to offenders as well, and help us understand and forecast where they will commit future crimes. They may be applied in criminal investigations, as they can help police prioritize suspects based on the locations of the offences they committed.

Publication details

Bernasco, Wim (2019). Adolescent offenders’ current whereabouts predict locations of their future crimes. PLOS ONE.

About prof. dr. Wim Bernasco


Wim Bernasco is senior researcher at the NSCR and professor ‘Spatial analysis of crime’ at the Department of Spatial Economics of VU University Amsterdam. He studies spatial aspects of crime, including offenders’ travel behaviour and target selection. His work also includes research on situational causes of crime.

Wim is a member of the Criminal Events Cluster, the Life-course Cluster and the Spatial-temporal Cluster.

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