Yvonne Roberts: Crime is not predetermined by background

Our penal policy destroys already fragile ties. Good wives for bad boys has been shown to work well
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The lives of Arthur and Michael, two elderly American ex-crooks, perhaps surprisingly, have something to teach us - and even David Blunkett may now be in a mood to take note. The two were both born into impoverished families during the Depression and were in trouble from the age of seven. They graduated to serious crimes in their early teens which, in turn, led to a brutal young offenders' institution.

"What am I?... Nothing, a piece of shit," said Arthur, interviewed at the age of 65. He had spent, on average 39 days of every year of his life in jail for crimes which included robbery and indecent assault. Divorced twice, he is the father of five and lives alone, on benefits, sick, disgusted with himself, and mourning his lost opportunities.

Michael went straight. He joined the army, reaching the rank of corporal. He has been married for 40 years. He lives in his own home, happy with his grandchildren. Interviewed, aged 63, he says, "My life now is beautiful. I raised five kids... worked every day of my life. I done pretty good..."

So, what has accounted for the radically different lives of these two men? Both had childhoods containing markers which allegedly predict long-term patterns of offending - poor intelligence; negligent parenting and anti-social behaviour. Why did one make good - and the other turn his own and his family's life into emotional debris? Come to that, why should we care?

The answer to the latter question is that a shoal of recent reports and the furore over Harold Shipman's suicide confirm what we already know: our penal policy is a mess.

In spite of the creation of the Youth Justice Board and an emphasis on increased supervision in the community for serious juvenile offenders, we continue to lock up more young people, many of them mentally ill and vulnerable, than any other country in Western Europe - and 84 per cent re-offend within two years. We leave damaged teenagers in isolation, in special cells in which they have no windows, no bedding and a bucket for a toilet. It is inhuman and costly to the tax-payer.

Last week, Blunkett acknowledged that banging up adults is also a policy that has to change. He now advocates tougher community sentences - but as a closer examination of the the history of Arthur and Michael indicates, that is only a fraction of what's required if government is seriously intent on reducing the pool of recidivists.

In 1950, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck examined 500 men remanded to reform school in Boston in the 1930s and '40s. They had committed over 10,000 offences The Gluecks followed them until their 30s. Since the 1980s, two award winning criminologists, Professor John H Laub and Robert J Sampson have continued the Gluecks' work.

This week, Laub and Sampson's most recent book, Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives, Delinquent Boys to Age 70, is published. Tonight, Professor Laub gives a lecture in London, Turning Lives Around, organised by the relationship research charity, One Plus One. Among the audience will be Lord Chief Justice Michael Woolf and senior civil servants from the Home Office. The establishment is listening.

In Divergent Lives, in addition to analysing the data gleaned from official records, Laub and Sampson have interviewed 52 of the survivors from the original 500, including Arthur and Michael. Although the group is all white, all male and alcohol not drugs is the addiction of many, John Laub believes that this, the longest longitudinal study of age, crime and development in the world, is bound to provide general lessons worth heeding.

What he strongly rejects is the notion of a "criminal type" or a pattern of childhood or adolescent behaviour which inevitably predicts long-term criminality.

"The findings of predictive research can weigh heavily over young lives," Laub warns. "It can create a perception that some... are on an inexorable path of social deviance and isolation... It may mean that, in terms of help, we write off some teenagers because, wrongly, they are deemed beyond the point of rescue."

The determinist view of childhood has a strong hold. In the States, for instance, five years ago, the US government organised a summit on "Violence Throughout the Lifespan." One pronouncement declared: "One of the only effective opportunities to prevent lifetime persistent offending may be within the first three years of life."

Targeting the toddler who is an alleged potential criminal "type", is now causing concern in the UK. The Government's commitment to the identification, referral and tracking of vulnerable children, for example, is welcomed as a tool to develop a child's potential, but many fear it looks more like Spot the Criminal in the Playpen.

In Divergent Lives, Boston Billy had spent half his life in prison for offences including "hot boxing", stealing cars and armed robbery.

Billy, however, had come from a "good" family, so why would he grow old offending? (The majority of young offenders stop in their 20s). Laub says many criminologists underestimate "the allure of crime, the excitement and the financial rewards". Interviewed at the age of 68, Billy had stayed away from crime for three years, looking after his sister, holding down a job and growing proud of himself. "See that food," he told Laub, opening his fridge door. "That's mine."

Professor Laub is sceptical about the notion of a sudden change of heart. His research indicates, instead, a slow process in which an individual makes - or fails to make - the most of "turning points", such as military service or a job or marriage. It's these accumulating "side bets" - in Billy's case the relationship with his sister - which help to resist the pull of committing a crime, not a conscious decision to go straight.

Good wives for bad boys has also worked well. The women invested care and monitored behaviour toughly ("Look, buddy, get with the programme or get out"). They introduced men to new networks and obligations. Art, for instance, a violent offender, married at 39. The marriage has lasted three decades. He also acquired a father-in-law who took him on as a son and helped him find a job.

"Wicked people exist," the book attests, but they are a tiny minority. It's still tempting to see Arthur as a bad lot - but Laub insists he had little motivation to exploit his turning points. "Men who desisted from crime were embedded in structured routines, socially bonded to wives, children... persistent offenders seemed devoid of linking structures at each phase of the life course." Without anchors, Arthur had drifted into a sea of crime.

"The key question which should be on the table is how does society facilitate reconnections that are so essential to the process of desistance from crime," Laub says.

It's an area scarcely explored. On the contrary, much of penal policy destroys already fragile ties. A quarter of incarcerated young offenders, for instance, receive no visits from family. A government commitment to end child custody would help.

"We also need to strengthen those organisations, for instance, who work with a prisoner's family who in turn can help offenders to sustain the ties that make a profound difference to behaviour," suggests Penny Mansfield, of One Plus One. "What research is clearly telling us is that strong attachments do have the power to transform lives."