[also known as: Age-Graded Life-Course Theory of Crime, Age-Graded Development Theory, Theorie der Turning Points]
Robert J. Sampson’s and John H. Laub’s Age Graded Theory or Theory of Turning Points describe the change in the crime load of individuals as a function of biographical events. For this purpose, they use the so-called ‘Turning Points’, which can either strengthen, weaken or interrupt criminal behaviour.
With the Age Graded Theory or Theory of Turning Points, Sampson and Laub presented in 1993 one of the most outstanding developmental and life course theories (Schneider, 2007, p. 7). The theory states that criminality in a person’s life course does not necessarily have to be constant, but that biographical turning points can be associated with a discontinuity as well as the (re)initiation of criminal behavior. Turning points are to be understood as “abrupt – radical turnarounds or changes in life history that seperate the past from the future” (Sampson & Laub, 1996, p. 351), such as marriage, parenthood, taking up permanent employment, entering military service, etc.
For their theory, the authors used data from a previous study by the married couple Sheldon and Eleonore Glueck (see: Glueck & Glueck). They compared the personal histories of five hundred juvenile male delinquents who were in a reform school with the personal histories of five hundred nondeviant juveniles in a control group as early as the 1940s to 1950s. In their longitudinal study, the couple investigated the delinquency of adolescents and young men at the ages of 14, 25, and 32.
Sampson and Laub continued the longitudinal study by re-evaluating the already collected and evaluated data using new statistical methods, collecting data from criminal files on 475 delinquents and visiting still living test persons (who are now about 70 years old) and questioning them about their delinquency after the age of 32. The study design thus offers a unique opportunity to investigate the delinquency in the life course of individuals over an almost complete life span. Based on the interviews conducted and documented behavior in the past, Sampson and Laub can assign the subjects to three different categories:
- Persisters: Persons who continued their criminal career into adulthood
- Desisters: People who have ended their criminal career
- Zigzag criminal career: Persons for whom the criminal career had no continuity and was applied from time to time.
From this they conclude that deviant behavior in the life course is characterized by both continuity and change.
The reason why crime occurs is weak social relationships, which are expressed in a low level of “social capital”. The nature and strength of social bonds varies more or less over the life course, and so social capital varies as well. Particular importance is attributed here to informal ties such as friendships, neighborhoods and marriages.
The main focus of this theory of crime is on the so-called turning points that are connected with the establishment or termination of social ties. Marriage, military service, and/or employment strengthen the level of social bonds and are accompanied by a greater degree of social control. The establishment of meaningful social bonds is accompanied by a change in everyday life routines. New informal obligations and increased social control have a positive effect on the development of non-deviant behavior.
However, a biographical turning point can also mark the beginning of an increase in delinquency: the loss of an employment relationship or the termination of a partnership, etc. reduces the level of informal commitments and social control. An increase in deviant/criminal behavior can be the result.
According to this, it is the same underlying social factors and the strength of the associated bonds that – depending on their characteristics – are responsible both for a delinquent life style and for a termination of a criminal career. Or as Sampson and Laub write themselves: “explanations of desistance from crime and persistent offending are two sides of the same coin” (2005: 171).
Criminal policy implications
Sampson and Laub stand with their theory for a rehabilitating criminal law. In contrast to Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime or Moffit’s Two-Path-Theory, Sampson and Laub emphasize that delinquency in people’s lives can be characterized by continuity AND change. The transition to delinquency or the end of a delinquent lifestyle cannot be tied to specific points in time or time spans in the life course, but is possible at any time.
Thus, a life free of crime and punishment can be paved for everyone, even for serious offenders, through the right, meaningful social bonds.
Critical appreciation & relevance
Sampson and Laub’s Age-Graded or Turning Points Theory is still the most influential theory in the field of Developmental Criminology. No other study offers a comparable insight into delinquency over the almost complete life span of individuals.
The focus on biographical turning points and their influence on the intensity of social control shows strong parallels to control theories, but also a close relationship to the labelling approach. For example, the authors point out that the future chances of young people are reduced by the experience of imprisonment: “the connection between official childhood misbehavior and adult outcomes may be accounted for in part by the structural disadvantages and diminished life chances accorded institutionalized and stigmatized youth. (Sampson & Laub, 1993, p. 137).
The emphasis on changeable delinquent careers (Zigzag criminals) and persons who end their criminal careers at an advanced age (Desisters) contradicts other developmental theories that paint a more deterministic picture of career criminals (see, for example, Moffit’s Two-Path Theory).
Criticism of the age-graded theory is based on the lack of an explanation of why some people change their behavior as a result of the turning points, while for others biographical incisions have no influence on the development of delinquency. Furthermore, it remains unclear which factors and qualities characterize stable social bonds. Finally, the study is based on a sample of purely male subjects. Therefore, no statements can be made here about female delinquency or the influence of biographical turning points. Therefore, the theory cannot claim to be universally valid.
Factors such as a steady job or a partnership are generally regarded as important supporting factors that are taken into account, for example, when assessing the probability of recidivism of offenders. For example, an employment that implies a daily routine as well as social control plays a major role after release from prison. Furthermore, before release, increased emphasis is placed on continuous contact with family and partners, as these ideally serve as supporting factors.
- Sampson, R. J. & Laub, J. H. (1993). Crime in the making : pathways and turning points through life. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.] : Harvard Univ. Press.
- Sampson, R. J. & Laub, J. H. (1996). Socioeconomic Achievement in the Life Course of Disadvantaged Men: Military Service as a Turning Point, Circa 1940-1965. American Sociological Review, 61(3), pp. 347-367.
- Laub, J. H. & Sampson, R. J. (2003). Shared beginnings, divergent lives : delinquent boys to age 70. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.] : Harvard Univ. Press.
- Sampson, R. J. & Laub, J. H. (2005). A general age-graded theory of crime: lessons learned and the future of life-course criminology. In: Farrington, D. P. (Hrsg.) Integrated developmental and life course theories of offending. New Brunswick: Transaction, pp. 165–181.
- Schneider, H. J. (2007). Internationales Handbuch der Kriminologie. [Band 1: Grundlagen der Kriminologie]. Berlin: De Gruyter Recht.
- Siegel, L. J. (2011). Criminology: The Core (4. Aufl.). Belmont: Wadsworth.
John Laub, Director, Director, National Institute of Justice
Robert Sampson, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard University
NIJ Conference 2011
Robert J. Sampson and John H. Laub received the 2011 Stockholm Price in Criminology for their work on Age Graded Theory. In the statement of the jury it says:
The authors of the longest life-course study of criminal behavior ever conducted, Laub and Sampson discovered that even very active criminals can stop committing crimes for good after key “turning points” in their lives. In their sample of 500 male offenders born in the 1920s, these turning points included marriage, military service, employment, and other ways of cutting off their social ties to their offending peer group.
These findings have had broad influence in criminology world-wide. They have also influenced the policy debate about criminal justice and sentencing policy, especially concerning the potential for rehabilitation. Their work has influenced other scholars to search for means by which offenders can be assisted to break their links to other offenders, such as by moving to new communities.