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Right Now | Crooks Take Early Retirement

Twigs Bent, Trees Go Straight

March-April 2004

In a discussion of criminal-justice issues, former U. S. Attorney General Janet Reno once stated that the life trajectory for most criminals was essentially set by the age of three. Among criminal-justice professionals, an analogous theory is common: a young person with a low IQ who shows a high level of egocentricity and aggressiveness and exhibits poor self-control is likely to become a lifelong, career criminal.

But in a recent book, Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70 (Harvard University Press), Ford professor of the social sciences Robert Sampson and John Laub of the University of Maryland suggest instead that various environmental factors predict long-term behavior better than childhood risk factors. "Why do some juvenile offenders persist in committing criminal acts as they grow older and others desist?" asks Sampson. "Developmental child psychology doesn't really provide an adequate explanation."

Sampson and Laub revisited the classic 1949 study Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, by Sheldon Glueck, Ph.D. '24, S.D. '58, the late Pound professor of law emeritus, and Eleanor Touroff Glueck, Ed.D. '25, S.D. '58. The Gluecks tracked 1,000 men born in Boston in the late 1920s or early 1930s: 500 were juvenile delinquents who had been committed to a correctional facility as teenagers or young men; a control group of 500 non-delinquent males attended public schools. The original research tracked subjects up to age 25, then followed up at age 32. Sampson and Laub extended this longitudinal study of the 500 original delinquents. "We followed them in three ways," Sampson explains: "by doing criminal history checks, examining death records and causes of death, and by conducting interviews." They managed to locate and interview 52 of the men, 35 years after they had last been seen, in the 1960s.

The study showed a dramatic drop in criminal activity among the original subject pool as the men aged. Between the ages of 17 and 24, a robust 84 percent of the subjects contacted had committed violent crimes. But when the men reached their forties, that number dropped sharply, to 14 percent; it fell to just 3 percent two decades later. Property crimes and alcohol- and drug-related crimes showed similar significant decreases. The average subject committed his first offense at age 12 — but also desisted from crime from age 37 onward. "Any social or environmental factors that helped established positive routines played major roles in influencing future behaviors," says Sampson.

Marriage was particularly powerful in this regard. "Many of the men who were high-rate offenders in their youth were also subject to binge drinking, and tended to commit many of their crimes with peers," says Sampson. "Marriage tended to break that cycle; often the wife would intervene in the drinking pattern and help the man shift peer affiliations. The wife of one man we interviewed said, 'It's not how many beers you have, it's who you're drinking them with.'"

Meaningful employment also led many subjects away from criminal lifestyles. "My employer was good to me," said one man. "He trusted me with the money, put his confidence in me, and I learned to respect such confidence and was loyal to him." Military service — which provided structure and discipline, a sense of belonging, and the incentive of the GI Bill — was another life-changing force. One of the men, who learned in the Army how to control his temper and cooperate with peers, commented, "They teach you that you can be your own boss as long as you do what the other people want you to do."

The aging process also influenced behavior. "Lawbreaking is often risky business, and people often become risk-aversive as they get older," Sampson notes. "They also become less physically capable of doing the things a criminal lifestyle might involve. And they become more afraid of incarceration." Of course, desisting from crime is not always a voluntary decision, and the researchers point out that "high-rate offenders are disproportionately likely to exit the risk pool involuntarily through death, injury, and incarceration."

Nonetheless, according to Sampson, the results have profound implications for criminal-justice policy. "What do we do with people who are coming out of prison?" he asks. "If supervision and support affect behavior, we need to rethink our incarceration policy, because we've effectively done away with the kinds of parole, substance-abuse counseling, and training programs that are just as important as supportive family structures when a person is trying to make a successful transition from prison to the outside world. "

When we view incarceration simply as punishment, and not as an issue of public health and safety, we fail to act in society's best long-term interests, Sampson says. "We need to realize that we can't know everything about a person by looking at their behavior when they were 16," he points out. "The simple fact is that most people now in prison will one day be back on the streets, and we need to start looking very seriously at how to create support structures that encourage released individuals to lead stable, orderly lives, rather than return to lives of crime."

~Charles Coe


Robert Sampson e-mail address: [email protected]