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Most young offenders see the inside of a courtroom just once, according to a new study that tracked thousands of Canadians' brushes with the law over 10 years.

But the report found the earlier that youngsters commit their first crime, the more likely they are to make it a habit. As well, while small in numbers, chronic offenders account for a majority of court-related activity.

The paper, which has wide-ranging implications for public-policy makers, is the first of its kind in Canada to follow the criminal behaviour of young adults from several provinces born in a single year. Researchers from Statistics Canada and the University of Waterloo traced the group for a decade starting when they turned 12 and ending at age 21.

"This is a sort of condensed criminal biography of 59,000 people," said Peter Carrington, a University of Waterloo sociology professor who is the lead author of the study.

Of the 323,300 babies born in six provinces during a 12-month period spanning 1979 and 1980, 18 per cent -- or about 59,000 -- were later charged with a criminal offence and made at least one trip to court. Four in five were male.

"It's part of what being a teenager is about," said Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University. "No matter what we do, in every country in the world, crime is concentrated in males between 12 and 18."

Fifty-five per cent of the alleged offenders had just one brush with the law, a finding that shatters conventional wisdom, said Graham Stewart, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

"They've attempted to address what is a myth: that once involved in the criminal justice system, a young person or even an adult is likely to persist in criminal activities and that's a tragic misunderstanding," he said.

Repeat offenders, or those who were sent to court for two to four incidents, accounted for about 28 per cent of the group.

But it was the smallest number of lawbreakers who were accused of the majority of crimes. Chronic offenders, defined as those who went to court for five or more incidents, comprised just 16 per cent of the cohort, but were responsible for 58 per cent of all court referrals.

The study measured court referrals, which are defined as instances when someone was charged with -- though not necessarily convicted of -- at least one crime and referred to youth or adult court. Of course, youth may have engaged in additional crimes but escaped detection.

And the study, which largely mirrors trends in other criminology research, found that children were more likely to become repeat scofflaws the younger they became involved with crime. Those who committed their first offence at age 12 had an average of 7.9 court referrals, while those who started at 21 had an average of just 1.2 referrals.

Young adults were followed in six provinces that account for 78 per cent of the country's population: Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The others were not included because they did not make court data available.

Saskatchewan had the most court referrals for young adults, at 31 per cent. Quebec had the least, at 11 per cent. However, Prof. Carrington said the data cannot easily be compared because the provinces have different practices. For example, some jurisdictions require young adults to make a court appearance -- thus counting in the statistics -- before diverting them to an alternative measures program.

Of all males and females charged, 72 per cent were found guilty of at least one crime. Girls peaked earlier in their court time: The largest proportion were referred to court at age 16, while the peak time for males was age 18, the study found.

The most prevalent incidents were property crime and administrative offences, such as breaching probation.

Once more years of court data become available, Statistics Canada said, future research will be able to determine additional trends by following Canadians' criminal activities into adulthood.

Crime over time

A Statistics Canada study followed 59,000 young offenders from age 12 until they reached age 21. It found that the majority of young offenders appear in court only once and that a small percentage of repeat offenders are responsible for more than half of the offences.

Percentage of offenders

Chronic offenders*: 16%

Repeat offenders: 28%

One-time offenders: 55%

Percentage of offences

Chronic offenders*: 58%

Repeat offenders: 24%

One-time offenders: 18%

* Five or more incidents. NOTE: Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding.