“The most terrible moment in the life of an offender is not that in
which the prison door closes upon him, but that in which it opens
to permit his return to the world,” said the criminologist Frederic
Howard Wines in 1919.
He is quoted in Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives, Delinquent
Boys to Age Seventy, by US academics John H Laub and Robert J
Sampson, published this week.
The authors have analysed the lives of 500 low income Boston men
who were remanded to reform school in the 1940s. Originally
interviewed in controversial research by Sheldon and Eleanor
Glueck, Laub and Sampson have tracked down more than 50 of the men
and analysed the criminal and personal records of the entire group,
creating what is arguably the longest longitudinal study to date of
age, crime and the life course.
Their findings are even more pertinent at a time when reports on
the youth justice system reveal that although the proportion of
core offenders has fallen in the past 10 years, 5 per cent of 10 to
17 year olds – one in four – were arrested last year.
An equal concern is the accelerating appetite for incarceration of
adults. The annual number sent to prison has doubled in the past 10
years from 58,000 to 116,000 while chancellor Gordon Brown has
delayed the major investment required in community
In Laub and Sampson’s work, those men who “made good” often did so
via a strong marriage or a sound military experience (leading
through the GI Act to adult education, training and skills paid for
by the government) or an opportunity offered by permanent
“What is needed,” the authors say, “isÉ a series of mechanisms
to bring offenders back into the institutional fabric of society.
The crucial questionÉ then, is how does society facilitate
Of course, the question has been posed before. Young men emerging
for the third and fourth time from prison need fresh roots,
literacy, support with alcohol or drugs abuse, a skill and access
to a new circle from whom they can find a supportive partner.
The major flaw in the present overwhelmingly punitive public policy
narrative is that, for instance, identification, tracking and
referral may pick up on the vulnerable at an early age – but fail
to provide turning points throughout their already disadvantaged
lives. Without those, all they can rely on is personal motivation –
and luck. Both are, too often, in short supply.