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An analysis of escalation in the severity of offending behaviour

A new study published by the Ministry of Justice identifies the previous offences that were more frequently committed by criminals who ‘escalated’ to very serious offending.

The study was commissioned to inform risk assessment and management guidance for prison and probation practitioners, and contribute to the future development of actuarial predictors of serious reoffending risk. It revisited a 2002 study on escalation to serious offending to investigate, in an individual’s criminal history, which offences are found more often in those who went on to be convicted of homicide or serious sexual assault (SSA), compared with those who went on to be convicted of less serious offences.

The research examines whether particular past offences are more frequent amongst criminals who ‘escalated’ to very serious offending than other repeat offenders, controlling for broader reoffending risk. Escalation to sexual and nonsexual homicide are studied, and to serious sexual assault (SSA) for those with and without prior sexual offending. Prior serious violence is associated with all homicide escalation, and coercive sexual behaviour with sexual homicide and SSA. Some violent offences are associated with SSA for those without sexual history. Additional analyses cover escalation to adult and child SSA offending, and adult nonsexual homicide of female partners, male strangers and male family/acquaintances.


The criminal records of male offenders aged 18 and over in the prison and probation caseload of 30 June 2021 were filtered to select those with good quality data and no history of homicide or indeterminate sentences prior to the current sentence. Of these, two groups who had escalated to homicide were identified: 234 escalated to sexual homicide, and 3,746 escalated to nonsexual homicide. Additionally, two groups who had escalated to SSA (with no SSA history) were identified: 1,264 who had a known history of sexual offending, and 4,052 who did not. Current homicide and SSA cases were restricted to those convicted since 2011, to ensure relevance to contemporary offending patterns and because of sexual homicide data availability.

The cases in each of these four groups were matched with control groups who had the same history and good quality data but did NOT escalate to homicide or serious sexual assault.


Despite the rarity of the crime, the researchers found that those committing sexual homicide had histories of committing similar offences including: wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, arson (not endangering life), serious sexual assault, sexual assault, direct sexual activity with children, and, based on limited data, kerb-crawling.

Precursors of nonsexual homicide included wounding (with or without intent), robbery, aggravated burglary and arson (not endangering life). Most types of sexual reoffending were found less rather than more often in the histories of those who had escalated to nonsexual homicide than in the histories of their matched control group.

Amongst men with a known history of sexual offending, sexual assault of child victims and direct sexual activity with children aged under 13 were precursors of escalation to SSA, whilst histories of most nonsexual violent offences, breaching sexual offending orders, causing/inciting sexual activity with older children and indecent images of children were found less rather than more often amongst those who had escalated to SSA.

Helpfully, additional analyses of serious sexual assault against child victims only or adult victims only indicated strong patterns of age-specific victim preference: direct sexual offences with victims aged under 13 were associated with escalation to child SSA being more likely though no significant relationship was found for escalation to adult SSA.

Amongst men without known sexual offending history, precursors of escalation to SSA included child neglect, arson (not endangering life), criminal damage offences, threats to kill, putting people in fear of violence, coercive control and wounding with intent. More surprisingly, welfare fraud also appeared to be a precursor of both SSA and sexual homicide.


While this may all sound quite complex, the overall conclusion is important - specific criminal offences and offence groups are associated with differences in the likelihood of escalation to homicide or serious sexual assault.

Some of the findings have wide application, such as the increased risk associated with wounding with intent. Many other results, such as those on adult and child serious sexual assault, indicate enduring patterns of offence specialization and the targeting of certain types of victims.

While many precursor offences are associated with higher risk of only some forms of escalated offending, others are associated with a mixture of higher and lower escalation risk depending on the offence type and victim group.

Therefore advice to probation and prison staff undertaking risk assessments and managing risk will need to communicate these detailed patterns, rather than presenting a single pathway for all those who go on to commit very serious crimes.

The challenge for His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is to produce useful advice and protocols for front-line practitioners based on the study’s findings.

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