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Life-Course and Developmental Criminology: Looking Back, Moving Forward—ASC Division of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology Inaugural David P. Farrington Lecture, 2017

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Abstract

The interplay among data, analytic tools, and theory has been a defining feature of life-course and developmental criminology. In this paper, we briefly consider the intellectual history of each component before focusing on the prospects for future advancement. What are the most promising data sources and methodological tools that will advance life-course inquiry in criminology? Above all, what are the key questions and theoretical ideas for moving the field forward? Our argument is that by integrating new directions in data, tools, and ideas—especially (1) testing an augmented theory of turning points, (2) examining cohort differences in aging and crime that arise from macro level changes, and (3) designing criminal justice interventions that are both developmentally appropriate and socially supportive while not compromising public safety—the future of life-course and developmental criminology will be as bright, if not brighter, than the rich legacy of its past.

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Notes

  1. For reviews of methodological advancements in these areas see Piquero [43] and Erosheva, Matsueda, and Telesca [12].

  2. These data go well beyond income. In their most recent paper, Chetty et al. [6] use longitudinal tax and census records to examine racial disparities in adult incarceration among children born around 1980.

  3. In other writings, we address the problems and prospects for studying “human agency” and turning points [26, 53]. Given the structural focus of the present paper, in addition to what we see as severe limitations of approaches to the study of agency (including our own past efforts), we set aside further discussion.

  4. Nguyen and Loughran discuss the idea of trajectories as outcomes in their Annual Review of Criminology paper [39], contending that since desistance is widely regarded as a process, not the result of an abrupt change, “logically, then, an outcome of a turning point should itself be a trajectory, not a short-term outcome.” This idea is consistent with looking at turning points in childhood, and long-term developmental trajectories.

  5. This argument is consistent with growing evidence showing the effects of poverty and scarcity on short-sighted decision making and time discounting [17].

  6. For fans of “Breaking Bad,” this argument raises another question: is there a “Walter White” phenomenon, whereby negative events trigger “late onset” or adult entry into crime or violence? The evidence on late onset is small and mixed [66], but violent terrorist events committed by those with no apparent evidence of prior violence suggest that there is more to  learn. Radicalization, we suggest, is ripe for life-course inquiry.

  7. Lead exposure offers distinct analytic advantage in identifying casual effects relative to traditional criminological predictors [55]. Compared to internal or subjective characteristics of the individual, such as attitudes or morality, or transitions in adulthood that have been criticized for being a function of individual choice, such as jobs or marriage (e.g., [52]), children, especially toddlers, do not control or select their lead exposure. Rather, the majority of contemporary lead exposure comes from lead-contaminated house dust generated by lead paint and remnants of lead in the soil that are unwittingly tracked into homes and ingested at very young ages through normal childhood behavior. Even parents are often unaware of lead levels in their children’s environments. As an external toxin, lead is thus more exogenous to the child than many of the mainstays of developmental or life-course criminology. To control for residual confounding, Sampson and Winter [55] use both matching and an instrumental variable approach that provides exogenous variation in exposure to lead.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Bianca Bersani, Elaine Eggleston Doherty, and Zach Rowan for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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Inaugural David P. Farrington Lecture. A prior version was delivered at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, November 15, 2017, Philadelphia, PA.

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Laub, J.H., Sampson, R.J. Life-Course and Developmental Criminology: Looking Back, Moving Forward—ASC Division of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology Inaugural David P. Farrington Lecture, 2017. J Dev Life Course Criminology 6, 158–171 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40865-019-00110-x

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