Post #227

1100 words; 5 minutes to read.

Summary: This post is drawn from a powerful longitudinal study of young people with serious involvement in crime.  A key finding is that there are both important patterns and many exceptions to those patterns.

A small number of people account for a large proportion of crime.  So, if we could better understand what brought some people to that kind of life, and how we can help people leave it behind, there could be huge benefits.

A recent book by 3 Canadian professors – Evan McCuish and Raymond Corrado of Simon Fraser University and Patrick Lussier of Université Laval – analyzes 20 years of data on about 1700 young people who were incarcerated in British Columbia.  These young people had very serious problems with the law; as the authors point out, Canada does not imprison many young people.  60% of the sample had been involved in a violent, hands-on offense.  By following them over two decades, the researchers learned a great deal about how their lives unfolded, as well as about how they came to be involved in crime in the first place.  This short post can only skim some of the highlights of the study. A summary article by the authors can be found at 

A bad start in life…

Many of the conclusions of the study are what any informed person might expect.  A huge number of these young people grew up in dire circumstances.  ‘Relationships between mothers and fathers were often non-existent or characterized by shared substance use issues and intimate partner violence. Half the sample were placed in foster care. Half the sample used crack cocaine, heroin, or crystal methamphetamine. Only half the sample were attending school prior to their incarceration.’  This finding reinforces what we already know – that abuse and deprivation are major causes of criminal behaviour.

Being in foster care had an especially strong connection with criminality, yet many of the youth in the study said they were put into foster care because of their bad behaviour, suggesting that policies might well be making a bad situation worse.

However, it is also worth noting that most young people who grow up in dismal circumstances do not end up with serious criminality.  The youth in study are a tiny subset of all young people in their age cohort in BC, and a very small fraction of those experiencing adverse circumstances.  What we do not know is why some young people end up deeply involved in criminality while others with very similar challenges do not.

…Is hard to overcome

The youth in the study tended to get involved in criminal behaviour very young.  Average age for a first conviction in the courts was under 15, and most had other problems much before that, such as school suspensions, substance abuse and violence.  As a group, they had many, many convictions.  400 young people in the study with complete data from age 12 to 35 had more than 10,000 convictions – more than 25 each.

Another important finding is that a bad start is hard to overcome.  For many people in this study, the deprivations of early life continue into adulthood.  ‘Participants’ parents died young and of non-natural causes (e.g., suicide, overdose, homicide). Their relationships were characterized by substance use, violence perpetration, and violence victimization. They experienced homelessness, difficulty finding and maintaining employment, car accidents, hospitalizations, and repeated experiences of victimization in prison and in the community…It was rare for young persons to escape negative social situations in adolescence and find new, more positive experiences in adulthood.’  And indeed, a surprisingly high proportion of the sample had died during the study – much higher than would be normal for that age group.

Aging out of crime

On the other hand, the study confirms another strong finding in the research – that criminal activity declines with age.  Half of the sample had no criminal charges in the last few years of the study, which is remarkable given how many charges, including serious ones, they had had earlier in life.  Even for those deepest in a criminal life, and with poor life conditions, a substantial number will cease criminal activity as they age.  To put it another way, only 1% of the sample were chronic offenders throughout the 20-year period.  This suggests there is more scope than we might have thought to intervene even with people who seem mired in a negative life.

Prediction is dangerous

Perhaps the strongest take-away is that people’s lives are highly variable.  People are inclined to see patterns and tendencies, such as the link between early problems in youth and later problems in life.  These links are real – but in every case at least a significant minority of people will not conform to the pattern.  Some will have terrible starts and somehow pull out of them.  Others will end up with big problems even with good starts in life.

As the researchers write about one group they studied in more detail: ‘Each individual incurred 23 convictions between ages 12–23 and could be considered to have met some threshold definition of chronic offending. Yet, how these convictions unfolded over age are dissimilar. Furthermore, aggregating these trajectories into a single pattern does not reflect any individual pattern particularly well.

It is important to keep this variability in mind as we shape public policies and programs, lest we become overly deterministic and over-confident in our predictions.  A very early post on this blog described several important studies showing the dangers of treating people based on predictions about their future behaviour.  That is a special risk where a prediction leads to harsher treatment, supposedly in the name of prevention.  As the authors point out, once young people become known to police, they experience higher levels of suspicion and surveillance, which can itself lead to more charges and convictions.

Need positive interventions

The authors conclude with some positive suggestions.  ‘We prefer more recent thinking about how to promote desistance through assistance. This… requires development of evidence-based treatment and intervention strategies that help alter a person’s temperament, identity, and ability to perform in new adult roles in a prosocial way… two individuals with equal levels of agency may need to allocate this agency differently based on their life circumstances… Agency is not infinite, and some need to use their agency in response to severe structural constraints and forms of oppression, making desistance by default more difficult. The magnitude of disadvantage experienced …. calls for resources similar in magnitude… formal (e.g., initiated by agents of the justice system) and informal (e.g., initiated by mentors) strategies that help improve, not just the chances of desistance, but also an individual’s self-identity and quality of life.’ How much more positive an approach that more and more incarceration and harsh treatment!


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