Turning Lives Around: Boys in Trouble and How They Age

photo by phxpma on Flickr



John H. Laub is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, College Park and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. Dr. Laub’s areas of research include crime and deviance over the life course, juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice, and the history of criminology. He is the co-author of  Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life and Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70.



“Both science and autobiography affirm that a capacity for change is as essential to human development as it is to the evolution of new species.  The events of the opening years do start an infant down a particular path, but it is a path with an extraordinarily large number of intersections.”  
Jerome Kagan, 1998


“The events that go wrong in our lives do not forever damn us.” 
George and Caroline Vaillant, 1981

These two quotes have inspired my long-term research project seeking to understand the development and pathways of offending over the life course.  With my colleague and best friend, Rob Sampson, I have spent much of the last twenty plus years working on two books and dozens of articles, all of which cohere around the goal of accounting for patterns of criminal offending and other behavioral domains over the life course of high-risk children.  One of our key questions is what explains behavioral change over the life course? 


There are many parallels between our program of research and the Changing Lives Through Literature Program.  The CLTL program uses literature to provide insight into the human condition and in turn helps offenders to make sense of their own lives.   CLTL offers the possibility of redemption to marginalized and damaged men and women.  Our research also challenges conventional wisdom regarding offenders and, like the CLTL program, offers an important and hopeful message about the possibility of change, no matter how bleak the prospects may appear.



Our journey began in 1986, when I stumbled across the dusty archives of a classic but largely forgotten study of delinquency housed in the basement of the Harvard Law School.  The study was the Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency project and subsequent follow-ups conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck of the Harvard Law School.  This is considered to be one of the most influential studies in the history of criminological research. 


The results of our “first round” efforts can be found in Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life (Harvard University Press, 1993).  In this book we developed an age-graded theory of informal social control to explain childhood antisocial behavior, adolescent delinquency, and crime in early adulthood.  A fundamental thesis of our theory of crime was that while individual traits and childhood experiences are important for understanding behavioral stability, experiences in adolescence and adulthood can redirect criminal trajectories in either a more positive or more negative manner.  More precisely, we found that job stability and marital attachment in adulthood were significantly related to changes in adult crime—the stronger the adult ties to work and family, the less crime and deviance among both delinquents and nondelinquent controls.  We concluded that adult “turning points” were crucial for understanding processes of change.


Although proud of Crime in the Making, after its publication we began to contemplate its limitations and raise new questions.  To our fascination and simultaneous horror, we were drawn to embark on a second journey— this time to get out of the basement and into the street and conduct a follow-up study of the Glueck men to the present. 


The results of our “second round” efforts can be found in Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70 (Harvard University Press, 2003).  By merging our follow-up data with original data from the Gluecks’ study we have in our hands the only criminological study in the world that contains data from birth and early childhood to age 70 for such a large group of serious, persistent juvenile offenders.  These data can address many issues concerning crime and criminal justice, but of particular interest to us is continuity and change in criminal behavior over the life course.




Our study demonstrates the limits of predicting adult behavior from childhood experiences and shows the importance of understanding lives as they unfold across the full life course – from childhood and adolescence to adulthood and old age.  Specifically, we found that long-term patterns of offending cannot be explained by early risk factors, once conditioned on delinquency.  A dominant theme in conventional wisdom is that divergent adult outcomes are the result of varying childhood experiences.  However, strong beliefs about the childhood-adult connection are in part distorted by dominant methodological approaches.  If we start with adult offenders, the childhood origins of crime and antisocial behavior become evident and relatively straightforward.  The simple “bad boys-bad men” connection seems to fit quite well.   


On the other hand, if we begin with children and follow their paths to adulthood, we find considerable heterogeneity in adult outcomes.  Some antisocial children do become involved in delinquency as adolescents and then they graduate to adult offending; yet other delinquent children cease all offending by adulthood.  Retrospective data tend to confuse and simplify cause and effect for both laypersons and scholars alike.  Although maddeningly difficult to carry out, only prospective longitudinal data—studying lives forward—can sort out causal ordering and shed light on how complex processes emerge over time.

photo by murplej@ne-under-deconstruction on Flickr



From our data, it appears that successful cessation from crime occurs when the proximate causes of crime are disrupted.  The major self-described turning points implicated in the processes of desistance include marriage/spouses, the military, reform school, work, and neighborhood change.  It appears that most offenders choose to desist in response to structurally induced turning points that serve as the catalyst for sustaining long-term behavioral change.


These institutional or structural turning points all involve to varying degrees changing the framework of situations in the following ways: 1) New situations that knife off the past from the present.  2) New situations that provide both supervision and monitoring as well as new opportunities of social support and growth.  3) New situations that change and structure routine activities.  4) New situations that provide the opportunity for identity transformation. 




It is important to emphasize that the men we studied were not blank slates.  They were active participants in the desistance process.  The social environment and the individual are mutually reinforcing — structures are built by individual choices but in turn structures modify and limit individual choices.  Choices, then, are embedded in social structures.  This sort of interplay between choice and structure produces behavior that cannot be predicted from a focus simply on one or the other. 


Recognizing the role of “situated choice,” a question arises as to how can we build structures that will foster social ties to family, work, and the community at large?    Policies are needed that permit, indeed, embrace the idea of behavioral change.  We can certainly expand the list of potential transformative turning points to include religion, school, and of course, literature.  As I continue my quest to understand what does (or does not) turn troubled lives around, I am repeatedly reminded of the words of the poet Galway Kinnell — “Future tramples all prediction.”


8 thoughts on “Turning Lives Around: Boys in Trouble and How They Age

  1. Thanks John, Your work is clearly important to all of us, and I anticipate it will help shape the future in a meaningful way. And I am especially appreciative of your thinking about CLTL here and allowing us to see how the program fits in the context of your work. Thanks so much.

  2. I agree. Providing young adults with new experiences and activities is a great way to give them hope. Once these young adult offenders see that there is much more out there, then they may take a different path. CLTL may give them this hope for the future and allow them to head in the right direction.

  3. Thank You Dr. Laub for much food for thought. I think Jeremy is on to something with the notion of hope. I find that a person with out hope can be a dangerous person, both to themselves and those around them. As long as there is hope there are posibilities and options.

  4. John Laub’s study of paths needed in redirecting adolescent boys at risk, particularly “knifing off the past from the present” resonates clearly in my memory as a counselor at Wiltwyck School, an upstate residential New York City 600 school for juvenile offenders in the 1950’s and 60’s. Many of the boys placed at Wiltwyck by court petition had their pasts and their futures changed. Recidivism rates paralleled what we now see in CLTL.

  5. I am sure Professor Laub’s proposals are vastly superior to punitive prisons, but this is still a rehabilitation program, intended to help “criminals” adjust to society. The approach is essentially psychological. The assumption is that the fault lies with the individual even if he may have a “deprived” background. It does not ask if there might be something fundamentally wrong with society. Perhaps, this is not a society into which the victim should strive to blend.

  6. As a former student (back in the days when we would discuss the Red Sox and the Grateful Dead in class–hi John), it is certainly great that John Laub recognizes CLTL and the role the program could play in altering one’s life course.

    The true strength of life course theory is that it provides multiple opportunities for change–some of that change may be individual, but much of that change requires that society alter as well. One of the values of CLTL is that is gives the individual the opportunity to grow; change. But equally (and maybe more) important is the way it changes how we look at those who have gotten caught in the net of the system. The judges, POs and teachers who are directly involved, as well as anyone who learns about the program, can’t help but notice that, in the classroom there is no “us” and “them.” That can’t help but bring down walls, and has the potential to bring about real social change.

  7. We would like to take this moment to thank everyone who took the time to comment on our work that appeared recently on the CLTL blog. We appreciate very much the opportunity to engage with the CLTL community about these important issues.

    We do feel compelled to respond to Yale’s comment that “our approach is essentially psychological.” In fact our theoretical framework begins with the importance of structural context in the onset of criminal offending, as well as persistent offending and desistance from crime over the life course. We view our project as offering a dual critique of criminological theory and current crime policy. On the one hand, we have criticized developmental psychologists who argue that childhood and adolescent risk characteristics are what really matter in understanding criminal behavior—witness the undeniable rise and dominance of the “early risk-factor” paradigm. Our work pleads for balance in the other direction, but this move in no way denies the reality of the stability of individual differences. Not to be overlooked and equally important, our work is inherently critical of “structuralist” approaches in sociological criminology wherein it is argued that location in the social structure, namely, poverty and social class, are what really matter. The vast majority of poor people, of course, are not criminal and we hardly believe that all bad actors would simply desist from crime if they were given jobs. Pure deprivation or materialist theories are not just quaint but wrong even by most offenders’ own accounts.

    As Susan K. points out, the challenge is to reconcile these seemingly opposite views. We see criminal behavior as a socially emergent and contextually shaped property. From our perspective, we must reconcile the idea of choice or agency with a structural notion of turning points. We refer to this idea as “situated choice” (Laub and Sampson 2003, 281-82). As Andrew Abbott (1997, 102) has written, “A major turning point has the potential to open a system the way a key has the potential to open a lock . . . action is necessary to complete the turning.” In this instance, individual action needs to align with the social structure to produce behavioral change and to maintain change (or stability) over the life course. Choice alone without structures of support, or the offering of support alone absent a decision to desist, however inchoate, seems destined to fail. Thus, neither human agency nor structural location can by itself explain the life course of crime. Studying them simultaneously permits discovery of the emergent ways that turning points across the adult life course align with purposive actions and, yes, stable individual differences. A recent accounting of this argument may be read in the following article— http://www.aapss.org/uploads/Annals_Nov_2005_Sampson_Laub.pdf

  8. John & Rob,
    Your piece is still mainly concerned with adapting, the domain of clinical psychology. Anthony Farley’s piece comes most closer to arguing the problem rests with the society.

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