John Laub: Theres no such thing as a career criminal

From the One Plus One lecture by the Professor of Criminology at the University of Maryland, given in London
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Conventional wisdom tells us that how a person's life turns out depends on their childhood. Drawing on the longest study of crime in the world, however, we have studied a large group of juvenile delinquents from childhood to age 70 and have found that, despite two people having similar upbringings, lives can turn out very differently.

We have used a wide range of data and yet took seriously the words of the men themselves. Our work offers a dual critique of social science and current policy on crime. Many developmental psychologists believe that childhood and adolescent risk characteristics are all that really matter, but clearly our work shows otherwise. Simply put, there is no such thing as a career criminal.

Equally important, our work critiques the theory that poverty and social class are what really matter. Deprivation or materialist theories are not just antediluvian but wrong - even by offender accounts. The men we studied were not blank slates any more than they were rational actors in an unconstrained market of life chances. They were active participants in constructing difficult lives. Much like the marginalised and damaged men in the recent film Mystic River, the men in our study operate in a complex interaction of life-course transitions such as marriage, macro-level historical events, changing situational contexts, and individual will.

But what about recidivism in the US and UK and the problem of offender re-entry? 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 behavioural change. Although not an easy road, especially in light of current emphasis on incarceration as the solution to the crime problem both in the US and increasingly in the UK, our analyses suggest policies and programmes that combine caring and coercion would work best.