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Stockholm Prize: Conversation with John Laub and Rob Sampson


Dr. John H. Laub, Director

As some of you may know, my long-time research partner, Rob Sampson, and I received the 2011 Stockholm Prize in Criminology for our work on how and why criminals stop offending. A few days after we accepted the award (from Sweden's Queen Silvia!), Rob and I sat down during the NIJ Conference to talk about our work.

As you will see in this 20-minute video, it all started in 1986 when I was doing research on the lives and the work of Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, two criminologists at the Harvard Law School. One day, I asked a little white-haired archivist in the Harvard Law School Library what ever happened to the Gluecks' data.

"I'm not sure what you mean by data," she responded, "but let me show you what we have in storage in the sub-basement."

There, I discovered 55 boxes of information on 500 delinquent boys who had been sent to reform school in the 1930s. As Rob says in this interview, "When I first [saw] the raw materials that they had collected, I was frankly stunned . . . you almost had to go up on a ladder to get to the top."

To say that the Glueck data was "rich" is a grand understatement. In addition to scores of official administrative records on a variety of topics, we found notes that the Gluecks made when they visited these kids' houses — what the conditions were like, were the screens falling off the doors? We found notes of interviews they had conducted with the kids' neighbors and teachers. We found psychiatric assessments of the boys, a series of intelligence tests, and physical exams.

In the first phase of our project, we reconstructed and computerized all of the Glueck data covering the period from birth to age 32. In phase two of our project, we collected records and then interviewed a subset of the men who were still alive - now in their late 60s. In what turned into the longest life-course study of criminal behavior ever conducted, we found that even highly active criminals can stop committing crimes after experiencing significant "turning points" in life.

There is a lot of promising work being done on this front, both abroad and here in the U.S. (e.g., the Second Chance Act), which may offer pathways or turning points for offenders.

We know that there are multiple pathways to desistance; there is no single path or magic bullet. Our challenge today is to determine whether our criminal-justice institutions - the police, corrections, probation, parole - can initiate turning points in an offender's life. We need to ensure that strategies and programs that would do so are implemented in a way that is consistent with empirical findings. That, of course, is a key component of NIJ's mission: to ensure that the best evidence makes its way into practice and policy.