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The Link Between Prior Criminal Record and Violent Political Extremism in the United States


One of the most consistently supported conclusions in criminology is that prior criminal record predicts subsequent criminal behavior. This connection has been observed in dozens of research projects and is, along with the severity of the offense, the most commonly used criterion for making critical sentencing, parole, and probation decisions. But somewhat surprisingly, there is little empirical research on the connection between prior criminal record and participation in extremist political violence. Using data from the newly released Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) database, we explore the criminal histories and extremist behaviors of nearly 1900 individuals who radicalized in the United States since 1948. Our results show that pre-radicalization criminal behavior, violent or nonviolent, is the single strongest non-ideological predictor of post-radicalization violence among U.S. extremists. We also find that the criminal backgrounds of U.S. extremists vary considerably depending on their ideological affiliations. Individuals on the extremist far-right, especially those motivated by white supremacist views, are substantially more likely to engage in crime prior to radicalizing than are individuals associated with other ideologies. We also find that U.S. extremists rarely specialize in specific crime types and that individuals who engage in criminal activity before the age of 18 are significantly more likely than non-juvenile offenders to engage in acts of violent extremism after radicalizing. We consider the implications for theory, policy and future research.

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Full Citation:

Jensen, Michael A., Aaron Safer-Lichtenstein, Patrick A. James, and Gary LaFree. 2020. "The Link Between Prior Criminal Record and Violent Political Extremism in the United States." In Understanding Recruitment to Organized Crime and Terrorism, eds. David Weisburd, Ernesto U. Savona, Badi Hasisi, and Francesco Calderoni. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 121-146. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-36639-1_6