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1 in 6 Young Americans Have Stolen Something in the Past Year, Study Finds

Oct 12, 2015

A new study tracking teens and young adults finds that stealing is quite common: about 1 in 6 report having swiped something in the past year.

The study, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, found that for most of these young thieves stealing is just a temporary phase, likely because they decide the risks outweigh the benefits.

Geoffrey Fain Williams, an economist at Transylvania University, used data on self-reported thefts from Ohio State University's National Longitudinal Study of Youth, which followed more than 8,000 people who were 12 to 16 years old when the survey launched in 1996. In the 15 years that followed, participants were asked about a variety of topics, including stealing. The subjects were regularly asked whether they had stolen something in the past year and if so, how much it was worth.

Williams found that theft is relatively common, with about 16% of the participants reporting having stolen something in the past year. One in 5 men have swiped something; 1 in 10 women report doing the same. But people generally only steal for a short period of time, with less than 5% continuing to steal for more than a year.

'The Luckiest Generation': LIFE With Teenagers in 1950s America

In aura of fun and well-being, students dance in gym of Carlsbad's high school at weekly "Sock Hop" to music of a 12-piece student band.
Caption from LIFE. In aura of fun and well-being, students dance in gym of Carlsbad's high school at weekly "Sock Hop" to music of a 12-piece student band.Nina Leen—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
In aura of fun and well-being, students dance in gym of Carlsbad's high school at weekly "Sock Hop" to music of a 12-piece student band.
Cars of Carlsbad High students fill own parking lot.
Electrician, Jack Harris, 16, still in school, picks up $40 to $50 in part-time repair jobs.
Attractive young sales girl holding blouse up to customer in store, as customer is looking at other things to buy.
Young investor, David Lenske, 17, having bought four A.T.&T. shares, talks with banker.
Outtake from "Luckiest Generation" feature in LIFE magazine, 1954.
Outtake from "Luckiest Generation" feature in LIFE magazine, 1954.
Utility worker, Jack Krueger, 19, who finished high school in 1952, earns $2.24 an hour.
Prosperous pay-off of after-school jobs brings Mike Sweeney and Harold Riley (right) with Pat Marsh (left), Nita Wheeler, all 17, to Carlsbad's Red Barn restaurant, a favorite party spot.
Young couples at formal dance dreamily swaying on crowded floor of dim, chandelier-lit ballroom.
Outtake from "Luckiest Generation" feature in LIFE magazine, 1954.
Outtake from "Luckiest Generation" feature in LIFE magazine, 1954.
Outtake from "Luckiest Generation" feature in LIFE magazine, 1954.
Pay in trade is taken by Margaret High, 17, who works in music store, spends salary on records.
Bookkeeper, Rada Alexander, 19, gets $200 a month in auto firm job she got after graduation.
Breeder of chinchillas, Jere Reid Jr., 17, holds $3,000 animal, has paid off note father cosigned.
Sonny Thayer, 19, packs for hunting trip.
Caption from LIFE. In aura of fun and well-being, students dance in gym of Carlsbad's high school at weekly "Sock Hop" t
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Nina Leen—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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"For the majority of offenders, property crime may simply be an exploratory phase," Williams wrote. Once offenders entered their late teen years, their interest in continuing to steal dropped off dramatically, with most thieves under the age of 24, the study found. One reason the young thieves may have lost interest is that they mostly stole objects of little value, only netting about $37.50 per theft. And the thieves generally didn't need the money; most of the thieves were well off, and being poor didn't drive the study participants to steal more.

One potential issue with the study is that stealing was self-reported, so actual numbers could be higher.

Next on Williams' agenda is to examine the connection between stealing and instant gratification, including whether those who steal have trouble understanding the consequences and why they may lack self control.

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