When is an offender not a criminal? Instrumentality distinguishes self-reported offending of criminals

Donna Youngs, David Canter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


– Although most aetiological theories of crime assume that offenders are a distinct subset of the population, there is evidence that many illegal acts are committed by people who have no convictions and are therefore not regarded as criminals. The question consequently arises as to whether there are aspects of illegal actions that set convicted offenders apart. The paper aims to discuss these issues.

– To answer this, a 45-item self-report questionnaire was administered to two samples (males 15-29 years): 185 prisoners and 80 young men without convictions.

– The results draw attention to a distinguishing psychological dimension of instrumentality operating across the range of offence forms. Convicted offenders are more likely to commit crimes for direct gratification with intent when compared with the sorts of illegal activities that non-convicted respondents report they have done.

Research limitations/implications
– Careful matching of convicted criminals and those without convictions is extremely difficult. Future research that explores other non-criminal samples would therefore be of value.

Practical implications
– Interventions with people who commit crimes need to carefully distinguish between those who are determined criminals and those whose activities are more likely to be part of an opportunistic culture.

– The results challenge conceptualisation of criminals and criminality as something always distinct from those without convictions. It thus has implications for what theories of crime should seek to explain. The significance of instrumentality also give further force to the legal emphasis on men's area.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)116-128
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Criminal Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sep 2014


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