U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs; National Institute of Justice The Research, Development, and Evaluation Agency of the U.S. Department of Justice U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice ProgramsNational Institute of JusticeThe Research, Development, and Evaluation Agency of the U.S. Department of Justice

Interview with John Laub and Robert Sampson — The Stockholm Prize in Criminology

John Laub, Director, Director, National Institute of Justice
Robert Sampson, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard University
NIJ Conference 2011
June 20-22

Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck

John Laub Well it really started in 1986/1987 when I was a visiting fellow at the Harvard Law School, and I had completed a book on the history of criminology where I'd interviewed criminologists from the period of 1930 to 1960 about their lives and work and their influence on the field. And I was curious about Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, both Rob and I had read about them in graduate school, knew of their work. But I was curious about whether or not there would be something there for an intellectual biography. So I went to the Harvard Law School library, to the manuscript division, and asked what papers they had from the Gluecks, and it turns out—because the Gluecks were at Harvard Law School, Sheldon Glueck was a professor there and Eleanor Glueck was a research associate on the project—and so they had about 90 feet of their papers, manuscripts, letters, correspondence, what have you, everything related to them. And I asked, "Whatever happened to their data?" because they had done four longitudinal studies. The little white-haired archivist said "I'm not sure what you mean by data, but let me show you what we have in storage in the sub-basement." And she took me down to the sub-basement of the Harvard Law School library, opened up this storage room, and there were boxes of data from the original project. So I remember calling Rob--Rob and I went to graduate school together—and I said "Rob, I discovered this treasure. Let me keep searching for a data tape, and we can write an article." Quick and dirty article, quick and dirty article on the Gluecks. Needless to say, there was no data tape, and what I was struck by was how rich the data were. For the Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency Study alone, there were, for the delinquent boys, the 500 delinquent boys, there were 55 boxes of data, in 12 by 15 cartons. So basically every case had about a this-thick of materials, and Rob and I began looking at this material. And through the help of the grant from the National Institute of Justice, got money to actually code the Glueck data, and we really reconstructed the data archive and created a database that could be used with modern statistical techniques. And that's really how the project started. But it really was motivated by—the initial question was what role do families play in crime? But then, what was happening outside of criminology was books were focusing a lot of attention on families and particularly child-rearing as being important. And we were both attracted to that, but at the same time we wondered if childhood temperament and childhood socialization was all that was needed to really explain crime over the life course. And so we began to develop an age-graded theory of informal social control and we used the reconstructed Glueck data to test that theory.

Robert Sampson When I first went into the archives at the Murray Center and looked through the raw materials that they had collected I was frankly stunned. It just went on for—I mean, you almost had to go up on a ladder to get to the top, and go down, and the files themselves were rich with material, it wasn't just standardized tests or the kinds of questions that we're used to today, but it was detailed information. They took notes when they went to the house. What are the conditions? Whether the screens are falling off the door? What are the people like? They talked to neighbors, interviewed teachers, psychiatrists assessed the kids. There was official records. It was an incredible scenario and we were awed by the data, and so we used the initial data tape, which, as John noted was originally thought by us to be, well this will be a paper, an analysis, and in fact we did write a paper on it. But, having been overwhelmed by the possibilities and the data, we undertook what turned out to be a longstanding effort. We were I think much too optimistic initially in terms of what it would take to reconstruct or recast the data. Now there were some important debates going on in the field at the time that also motivated us about age and crime, criminal careers, the influence of early behavior versus later behavior. Our work eventually took seriously the early behavior, but then shaded into an emphasis on the notion of turning points, or as the subtitle of Crime in the Making was, Pathways, pathways that are set relatively early and turning points through life; how people change. And that body of work was also influenced by debates at the time, although coming not out of criminology, but life course itself. So Glen Elder, Jr., a leading sociologist at the life course, had published a number of important works, including Children of the Great Depression. And he, too, had taken data and recast it, so we were very influenced by his work. We talked with him. He was very helpful to us, in addition to criminologists such as Al Blumstein and others at the NIJ crime control meetings. So all of that was influential intellectually as a motivation, but then the data, too. And we just forged forward and never looked back.

[End of video clip]

Desistance from Crime

Laub I think there are indications that it's moving to that direction. Actually one of the things that—and Rob and I have not debriefed on this, so you may hear different opinions—I actually was struck by the Stockholm Criminology Symposium; that you would have a focus on desistance from crime, and you would have not only researchers there, but policy makers there, I think wouldn't have happened five, ten years ago. I just received an email from Larry Sherman this morning where he's talking about a police experiment that they're doing in the UK, calling it the "Turning Point Project." And so, and I think here in the States, with respect to the Second Chance Act, both President Obama and Eric Holder's, Attorney General Holder's, focus on giving offenders a second chance—I think there's an openness, there's an opening. And at Stockholm we ended our lecture with basically the challenge is to see if criminal justice institutions can conceptualize and, in a sense, initiate turning points, be it through the police, probation, parole, corrections, what have you. So I'm actually encouraged by what I saw there.

Sampson The practice of criminal justice right now, I think, at least in the United States, is still heavily embedded in older models, and particularly when it comes to people coming out of prison, there tends to be an emphasis on prediction, whether or not people will reform, and the notion that, well, if we have someone who is a good risk, they let them go, or maybe there're not so many services for those men, and they're mostly men, if they feel like they're high-risk, they'll get services, but our research shows that that prediction is fairly poor, so that gives me some pause. The other issue though is that according to our work, desistance and turning points, it's not inevitable, so for a person to come out, there is the possibility of change, but I think our work suggests that current practices probably need to be modified to basically take into account the fact that at all moments, these turning points have to be supported as does desistance. So in other words, it's not enough just to help someone get a job or give them counseling or marriage. It has to be supported and maintained over time. So, I agree with John that there's a lot of promising things happening. I guess the question is will they be implemented in a way that's consistent with the theory, with what we think it takes, because we did end the conference by saying criminal justice institutions have a role to play in turning points, but they're not inevitable, so it's a two-way street.

Laub Desistance is a process. I would also add that there are multiple pathways to desistance, because we were asked repeatedly in Stockholm, "Isn't marriage the most important turning point?" Well, no. We happen to have, I think, the best data on marriage. We have both qualitative and quantitative data. It tells a consistent story. We've cut the data many different ways, the same results emerges. It's a robust finding. We believe it's causal. But I think the important message is that there are multiple pathways to desistance and there's no one path that we must take, there's no magic bullet, there's no panacea. I think a large piece of the next step would be to taking some of the findings, and thinking really hard as to whether or not the conditions for change can be created within criminal justice processing of offenders. So what the UK experiment that Larry Sherman and Peter Neyroud are involved in is diverting offenders and not processing them through the system. I'm also really interested in whether or not conditions of probation or parole can be adjusted to facilitate turning points. One of Rob's students and one of my colleagues, David Kirk, just did a very interesting piece of research where he looked at Louisiana and particularly men who were being released from the Louisiana Depart of Corrections but had no home to go to because of Hurricane Katrina. And what he found was that the men who did not return home did better than those that did. And that raises all sorts of questions about geographic relocation—how do you cut off offenders from their previous delinquent peer groups, bad neighborhoods, and so forth. So I think it's a matter of really beginning to initiate a conversation, taking very serious the number of findings that emerge from our work.

Sampson I would just add two quick things to that. In the sense that the key is to take the conceptual points that we learned about and empirical findings in our work and try to apply them to the current criminal justice policy settings. So for example, turning point, that's an abstract concept. We tried to drill down and put forth, well, what are the mechanisms behind turning points, what's really going on? Things like monitoring, support, enacting new routines. You think about it—those sorts of things can be implemented in parole or probation—more consistent supervision, incentives to do well, support, let's say for not just crime or drug treatment, but perhaps the man needs counseling, there's marital strife or conflictual family situation, child care, things like that. They may not seem criminal justice—literacy, learning, these are the kind of things that really, I think, can be implemented with the current criminal justice system, and many of them are not, so we think that that's an implication. The second point I would just like to make is that the concept of turning points is not set in stone in the sense of what we looked at. It's entirely conceivable to me and likely that there will be new turning points that we haven't even thought of—military service, marriage—but there are going to be other ones. Society's changing, where other ones may be more important as life course changes. Quick example: adolescence now is extended much more than it used to be. Kids are churning and taking more time off. Age of marriage is later. That period between roughly 18 and into the 20s is different than it used to be. So those kind of turning points are being reshuffled. So we need to reconceptualize and anticipate new turning points.

[End of video clip]

Studying Modern Day Adolescents

Sampson There are studies, in fact, some being funded by, I think, National Institute of Justice, MacArthur Foundation has a network in juvenile justice—it's following offenders and in a sense it's kind of based on our design. It takes a delinquent group and it's following them through time, so it's in a, quote, "modern setting," includes immigrants, so we'll be finding out.

Laub The other thing that's happening is that, we talked about how we started the Glueck project with finding this discovery of the data and reconstructing it. But another important contribution we made is then doing our own follow-up study of the men as they approached age 70. So again, the first book Crime in the Making focused on the period of time in which the Gluecks studied these delinquent boys, from age seven roughly to age 32. And then we launched our follow-up study in 1994/1995 when the men were approaching age 70. And we collected criminal records; we collected death records, which turns out to be very important because many of the men died. And thirdly, we did interviews, life history interviews, with 52 of the men. And as a result, we have a very rich qualitative/quantitative mix, and we were able to take our new data collection, merge it with the Glueck data and really have the longest longitudinal study of crime in the world.

Sampson That's really important because we tend to think of criminal justice as just current data and don't value I think as much the utility of archived data that may quote "seem old," but as John alluded to, if you're going to study individuals over a long period of time then almost by necessity their early lives will be quote "in an earlier or older time." But they're contemporary in a sense that they're older now. Our effort was really demanded by the intellectual questions that we set forth.

Laub And what we learned in Stockholm was we inspired Jerzy Sarnecki to go back to what was called the Stockholm Boys Cohort Study, and they're following them up now as older adults, doing exactly what we did in our follow-up study. I talked to the folks from Germany who have a longitudinal study, and they're going to go and look for their records, so I think it's very exciting to—so we may be able to generate a number of long-term, longitudinal studies to be able to look at many of these questions of both desistance from crime, but also why do people persist in offending over the life course. And then be able to have, in a variety of settings, a variety of time periods, a variety of population compositions to be able to cross-compare findings, which would be very, very exciting.

[End of video clip]

Key to a Successful Research Partnership

Laub I think there are three things that I've always thought about. One is we are motivated by intellectual questions. It's not a case of, "Well the Glueck data are there, let's do something with them." It was motivated by an intellectual question. And that really drove us to answer that question. In the same way, when we had this focus on childhood, but yet we said what about adulthood, the challenge was can we unite a theory that takes into account both stability and change, and really using this life-course paradigm as a way to do that. So, start with a good question. Second, we're both incredibly stubborn, which actually makes it not easy all the time, but we really are stubborn and wanting to find the right answer and not willing to accept the easy path. And third, I think we also have total agreement on high standards. Don't ever take the easy road.

Sampson That's a good list. I don't want to disagree. I mean, the stubborn part sounds funny, but it's really true, because I have many memories going way back to, you know, sitting in an office, whether it be coding data, or looking over the archives in the Murray Center in Cambridge, or John coming out to Illinois when I was a professor in Urbana, Illinois—it's just this big room with outputs strewn about—just hours and hours, arguing, going back and forth. And in a way, that's very stimulating because there was not yet an answer, so we were motivated by this goal and we shared that. And I think maybe the only thing I would add to what John said is that the shared motivation, if you will, intellectual, I don't know, but I think there's a piece of that that comes from the fact that we also had a shared intellectual context in graduate school of what it was like to be part of a research effort that was sustained and rigorous. We were both trained by Michael Hindelang and others but, Professor Hindelang ran a project that was, I guess, one way to put it was it was unrelenting. It was intense, it was intimidating. And, you know, we were both trained in that model, so in a sense, I guess, maybe in retrospect, we were prepared, right? Sort of a random event, finding data, but then in essence our preparation was there and then our sort of personalities meshed in these other ways. And it was just a lot of fun. That's the other thing to perhaps not forget is that, while a lot of work, it's just really interesting. The data were interesting, the Gluecks were interesting as people. The debates in the field are stimulating.

Laub And I think, to underscore, it's a unique collaboration. I don't work with many other people, but typically, the other co-authorships I have is you do this part, I do this part, and then there's a weaving together so it's one voice. Rob and I would have this strategy where we would say, "Ok I" One of us would start something, and then we'd say "Ok I've done what I can." And we have this phrase, "Give it the line by line," and what that means is everything is subject to change.

Sampson We would spend hours over a sentence, a book title we won't even tell you how many versions we had.

Laub And then we'd go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And there's one paper that went back and forth so many times, I'm embarrassed to tell you. So, at the end of the day, I have a hard time pointing to things that I've written—that I said "That's my sentence." Because it's truly a collaboration. And just talking to a lot of other people—people can't believe we've done that, but we've done that from the get-go.

[End of video clip]

What Else Have We Learned?

Sampson It was exciting, and I'd say it was humbling, first of all, because there were so many interesting people there, important people, former prize winners, future prize winners, for sure. The setting was magnificent, and context matters,being at city hall and having the Queen and so forth. But I think the bottom line is it's important to be respected by your peers, and having that acknowledgement I think was wonderful. And the setting was great, that was a nice touch, but it was just really nice, and Stockholm is a wonderful country, and the international focus of it was special as well, because I think advances in criminology are increasingly crossing borders, and the American Society of Criminology is becoming increasingly international so that part pleased me as well. So I think overall it was an enriching experience.

Laub I agree. It was dreamlike in many ways and just on so many levels, but I guess two things I would add is it was the first time the prize was given to individuals who work together, and I think that's really important for criminology. And also, apart from the personal gratification that I've received, Rob received from the award, I think what I feel best about is it really does establish a legacy, if you will, of the importance of life-course criminology. And we really hope that others will continue, not that whether or not it's our theory or our turning points matter, but that this notion of a life-course criminology internationally will be taken on. And that's my hope.

Sampson Just to add to that, because someone asked us there, you know, is this the end of the Glueck project? And we said, well yes, in the sense that analyzing data and we're not going to be following them up or writing more analysis papers we don't think, so in a sense it was bittersweet because it's the end, but in another way, the context of the conference suggested that there's a new phase. In other words, we're in a turning point. And the new phase is going to be the idea of life-course criminology and some of the concepts and theories that we've put forth being explored by others, but also, potentially by ourselves in different settings. Like I'm working on data in Chicago that's following kids up. So the legacy lives on, but there was a sense in which the Glueck project, per se, ended, but a new phase begins, so that's kind of exciting, too.

[End of video clip]

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  • Playlist of the entire five-part interview
  • Segment 1: Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck (05:38)
  • Segment 2: Desistance from Crime (07:34)
  • Segment 3: Studying Modern Day Adolescents (02:59)
  • Segment 4: Key to a Successful Research Partnership (04:18)
  • Segment 5: What Else Have We Learned? (02:48)

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NIJ Conference
June 2011
John Laub, Director, National Institute of Justice
Robert Sampson, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard University

NIJ Director John H. Laub, and his long-time research partner Robert J. Sampson received the 2011 Stockholm Prize in Criminology. They received the award for their research on how and why criminals stop offending. Doctors Laub and Sampson discuss their work on longest life-course study of criminal behavior ever conducted. They found that even highly active criminals can stop committing crimes after key turning points in life. These turning points include marriage, military service, employment and the joining of other institutions and social networks that result in a cutting off of one's ties to offending peer groups.

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Date created: August 26, 2011