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.
THE STORY OF THE GLUECK PROJECT
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.
THE LIMITS OF PREDICTION
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.
THE PROCESSES OF DESISTANCE
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.”