career criminal | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology 

A career criminal is someone who relies on illegal activities for income and has an extensive history of criminal behavior, making reform difficult.

A career criminal is someone who makes a living through illegal activities and has a long history of committing crimes. These individuals often become skilled at evading law enforcement and have a deep understanding of the criminal justice system. Career criminals may participate in a wide range of illegal activities, such as fraud, theft, drug trafficking, or violence. These individuals can be difficult to reform because they often view criminal activity as their primary source of income and may lack other job skills or education. In this context, it is essential to understand the characteristics of career criminals, their motivations, and the challenges faced in reforming them.


They typically exhibit several characteristics that set them apart from other criminals. Some of these traits include:

Long criminal history: They often have a lengthy history of criminal activity, beginning at an early age and continuing throughout their adult life. This history can include a wide variety of offenses, ranging from minor to severe crimes.

Criminal expertise: Over time, they develop a deep understanding of the criminal justice system and become proficient in evading law enforcement. They may be skilled at avoiding detection, using false identities, and planning their crimes to minimize the risk of arrest.

Lack of legitimate employment: They often rely on criminal activity as their primary source of income, as they may lack the education, job skills, or work experience necessary to secure stable, legal employment.

Criminal networks: They may be well-connected within the criminal underworld, forming relationships with other criminals and participating in organized crime networks. These connections can provide them with resources, support, and protection.

Motivations of Career Criminals

Understanding the motivations of career criminals can provide valuable insights into their behavior and help develop strategies to reduce crime. Some common motivations include:

Financial gain: Many career criminals are driven by the desire for financial gain, as they see criminal activity as a way to make money quickly and easily.

Thrill-seeking: Some career criminals may be motivated by the excitement and adrenaline rush associated with committing crimes and evading law enforcement.

Lack of opportunity: For some individuals, criminal activity may be seen as the only available option for making a living, particularly if they lack education, job skills, or access to legitimate employment opportunities.

Social factors: In some cases, career criminals may be influenced by their environment or peer groups, leading them to become involved in criminal activity.

Challenges in Reform

Reforming career criminals can be a difficult and complex process, as they often face numerous challenges in transitioning away from a life of crime. These challenges may include:

Limited job skills and education: Career criminals often lack the necessary skills and education to secure legitimate employment, making it difficult for them to transition to a law-abiding lifestyle.

Stigma and discrimination: Career criminals may face stigma and discrimination from employers and society in general, making it challenging to find stable employment and reintegrate into the community.

Criminal networks: Ties to criminal networks can make it difficult for career criminals to break away from their old lifestyle, as they may face pressure or threats from other criminals.

Recidivism: Many career criminals have a high risk of reoffending, as they may struggle to find stable employment, housing, and support services necessary for successful reintegration.

Career criminals represent a unique challenge within the field of criminology. By understanding their motivations and the factors that contribute to their continued involvement in criminal activity, policymakers and law enforcement officials can develop targeted strategies to address the root causes of crime and reduce recidivism among this population.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/06/2023

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