Criminology Co-Offending and the Role of Accomplices
Zachary R. Rowan, Naomi Zakimi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0302


The social nature of crime is one of the most well-recognized and established features of offending. Accomplices come in many forms, ranging from informal co-offenders drawn from available pools of offenders (i.e., friends, acquaintances) to more formal gang-related associates. For the purposes of this review, an accomplice will be considered anyone an individual has engaged in crime or participated in a criminal enterprise with. This broad definition (as opposed to its strict legal definition) enables an exhaustive and theoretically meaningful assessment of the group nature of crime to include collective spontaneous crime, co-offending, gang-related, and organized crime. Even within various accomplice relationships, individuals occupy various roles and positions that contribute to the diffusion of information within accomplice networks, commission of crime, and consequences. The study of accomplices has led to descriptive patterns of group-based offending, theoretical development aimed at understanding the decision to engage in crime with others, and a consideration of how such involvement impacts subsequent behavior. The following entry overviews key areas related to accomplices and references scholarship that explores this important dimension of crime.

General Overviews and Classical Texts

Given the breadth of whom can be considered an accomplice, there is a wide array of scholarship that provides strong overviews of types and implications of various accomplices. Breckenridge and Abbott 1912 (p. 35) acknowledges that “there is scarcely a type of delinquent boy who is not associated with others in his wrongdoing.” Shaw and McKay 1942 is among one of the first sources to identify the prevalence of engaging in group offending among juveniles in the Cook County Juvenile Court. The seminal depiction of gangs in Thrasher 1927 provides insight into the nature and development of gangs. Short and Strodtbeck 1965 offers one of the first theoretical considerations of the social processes that facilitate youth involvement in gang and group delinquency. Building on these earlier works, a number of sources have reinvigorated the study of accomplices. Nearly fifty years after Shaw and McKay 1942, Reiss 1986 and Reiss 1988 (cited under Policy Implications of Accomplices) reintroduced the study of co-offending by examining patterns of co-offending across criminal careers and highlighted the need for more rigorous research in this area. Klein and Maxson 2006 and Decker and Pyrooz 2015 similarly explore the state of knowledge on the study of gangs. In a much broader consideration of the role of accomplices and peers, Warr 2002 provides a strong review of the theoretical mechanisms and implications associated with the group nature of crime. Morselli 2009 presents several case studies demonstrating the applicability of social network analysis to studying criminal organizations and groups. Most recently, van Mastrigt and Carrington 2019 offers an extensive review of co-offending from a developmental and life-course perspective. It should be noted that the majority of research on accomplices is derived from American, Canadian, and UK samples and therefore should be contextualized when considering how these findings extend to other societies or cultures.

  • Breckenridge, S. P., and E. Abbott. 1912. The delinquent child and the home. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Charities Publication Committee.

    Provides one of the earliest studies of the Cook County, Illinois, juvenile court and case studies of the youth who were processed through this court.

  • Decker, S., and D. Pyrooz, eds. 2015. Handbook of gangs. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

    A contemporary review of issues pertaining to the study of gangs, theories of delinquency and gang behaviors and interventions, and a discussion of international approaches to gangs.

  • Klein, M. W., and C. L. Maxson. 2006. Gang structures, crime patterns, and police responses. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195163445.001.0001

    Comprehensive description of street gangs and current gang-control programs. Seeks to dispel common myths about street gangs and why people join them with a focus on policy implications.

  • Morselli, C. 2009. Inside criminal networks. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-09526-4

    Explains how social network analysis can be used to study illegal enterprises by presenting different case studies and describing useful analytical methods for the study of criminal networks.

  • Reiss, A. J. 1986. Co-offender influences on criminal careers. In Criminal careers and “career criminals.” Vol. 2. Edited by National Research Council, 121–160. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    Analysis of literature on co-offending throughout juvenile and adult criminal careers with a major focus on policy implications to reduce crime rates.

  • Shaw, C. R., and H. D. McKay. 1942. Juvenile delinquency and urban areas. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Presents and tests the concept of social disorganization in twenty-one American cities. Findings emphasize the importance of studying delinquency at the community rather than the individual level.

  • Short, J. F., and F. L. Strodtbeck. 1965. Group process and gang delinquency. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Comprehensive account of a study on Chicago gangs using different types of data, including field reports, interviews, and laboratory assessments. Offered insight into the importance of different gang theories popular at the time, such as opportunity theory, status deprivation theory, and lower-class culture theory.

  • Thrasher, F. M. 1927. The gang: A study of 1,313 gangs in Chicago. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    One of the earliest studies on gangs. Includes an in-depth analysis of early-20th-century gangs in Chicago and concludes that gangs are more likely to exist in neighborhoods in transition.

  • van Mastrigt, S., and P. Carrington. 2019. Co-offending. In Handbook on developmental and life course criminology. Edited by D. P. Farrington, L. Kazemian, and A. J. Piquero, 126–148. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    One of the most up-to-date reviews of the literature on co-offending which emphasizes the importance of studying co-offending over the life course.

  • Warr, M. 2002. Companions in crime: The social aspects of criminal conduct. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511803956

    Reviews the literature on peer influence and discusses how co-offending develops over the life course. Proposes different mechanisms of peer influence.

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