Are children and adolescents who break the law fated to become lifelong offenders? To answer this important question, we started in the 1980s to track the lives of 1000 disadvantaged males born in Boston during the Great Depression era. We were able to build on data collected during offenders’ boyhoods for a classic mid-twentieth-century study, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck at Harvard Law School. We used early waves of data from this study, and then tracked down males included in it to collect further information on their histories of criminal offending through old age. Over the last 25 years, we have used this rich, long-term trove of information for two books and dozens of journal articles and chapters. This brief summarizes our core ideas and major findings.
The Importance of Tracking and Explaining Lives
The idea that adult criminality is the inexorable result of childhood traits and troubles is a dominant theme in the science of criminology and media coverage of crime. Connections between childhood and adult behavior certainly do exist, but our research has been premised on the realization that findings about crime can be distorted when scholars start with adult offenders and then ask about their childhoods. In this retrospective approach, adult criminals regularly turn out to have been troubled children with early histories of delinquency. It is easy to jump to the simple, seductive conclusion that “bad boys grow up to become bad men.”
But if we start with children and follow lives forward for many years, we find considerable heterogeneity in adult outcomes. For example, although it is easy to presume that most antisocial children will become involved in delinquency as adolescents and then graduate to adult offending, in fact most antisocial children cease offending by adulthood. Although long-term research is challenging to carry out, only what scholars call “longitudinal prospective data”—that is, information repeatedly collected as particular children become adolescents and then younger and older adults—can allow researchers to shed full light on complex causal processes playing out over many years in people’s lives. Yet even repeatedly collected data are not sufficient. Also needed is a life-course theory of crime to make sense of the underlying patterns. more...