Criminalization in the Lives of Children Coming of Age during the Transformation of Crime and Punishment in America, 1995–2020

January, 2022

Robert Sampson, Harvard University

The social transformations of crime and punishment in the late 20th and early 21st centuries challenge traditional conceptions of criminal propensity and character. A life-course framework on cohort differences in growing up during these times of social change highlights large-scale inequalities in life experiences. Entire cohorts of children have come of age in such different historical contexts that typical markers of a crime-prone character, such as being a chronic offender or having an arrest record, are as much a function of societal change as of an individual’s early life propensities or background characteristics, including classic risk factors emphasized in criminology. When we are thus matters as much as, and perhaps more than, who we are—despite law, practice, and theory privileging the latter. Because crime over the life course is shaped by changing sociohistorical conditions, it must be studied as such. Multicohort studies provide a key strategy for doing so.

The HRI workshop aims to accelerate intellectual progress on these issues for a book in progress by Robert Sampson for Harvard University Press. This research examines multiple birth cohorts of over 1,000 children, starting at infancy and ranging up to 15 years of age, who were studied over a period of over 25 years, from 1995 to the present. The multi-cohort research design, which originated in Chicago but followed people wherever they moved, provides a unique window on the effects of age, social inequality, and social change on official criminality, independent of traditional measures of criminal propensity and demographic composition. The workshop also aims to disentangle the mechanisms underlying contemporary changes in crime and punishment. Drawing together sociologists, criminologists, behavioral scientists, philosophers, historians, and legal experts, the workshop is designed to discuss the implications of the research findings for theories of both criminal behavior and its societal reaction, with an emphasis on changes in racial and socioeconomic inequalities in becoming marked, and the prospects for true criminal justice reform.