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The Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods.

Throughout history, the causes of human behavior have been debated. Are individuals genetically programmed to commit certain acts? Or does environment determine behavior?

Side by side in the nature-versus-nurture debate are criminal justice professionals who, depending on their view, recommend different solutions to deter criminals. Those who believe that criminals are born call for swift and sure penalties and more jails and prisons. By contrast, individuals who think that offenders learn criminal behavior recommend community outreach programs designed to teach offenders alternatives to criminal behavior.

As is the case with many debates, the answer to what causes criminal behavior most likely lies somewhere in the middle. Indeed, relatively few children born into lives of crime and violence become criminals, and numerous studies have been conducted to try to explain why. Traditionally, these studies assess behavior at a particular point in time or attempt to use hindsight to determine why a criminal took this path in life.

Ideally, studies of this type should follow a group of same-age subjects for approximately a 30-year period. Such longitudinal studies could determine what developmental and environmental factors influence criminal behavior and recommend solutions. Yet, the difficulties associated with these long-term endeavors make researchers reluctant to conduct them. The Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, which runs for only 8 years but covers subjects whose ages will range from prenatal to 24 at the study's start and from 8 to 32 at its end, was designed to reap the benefits of longitudinal studies without suffering from their inherent problems.


The Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, based at the Harvard School of Public Health, is a joint project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute of Justice. After more than 6 years of planning, the study officially began in November 1994 and is expected to conclude in 2003. During this time, Project researchers hope to pinpoint the developmental and environmental factors that influence criminal behavior in order to develop crime prevention strategies.

Project Staff

The Project's research staff comes from a broad range of backgrounds and experience. Director Felton J. Earls, M.D., is professor of human behavior and development at the Harvard School of Public Health and professor of child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Co-director Albert J. Reiss, Jr., Ph.D., is a William Graham Sumner professor of sociology at Yale University and a lecturer at Yale Law School. A team of professionals in psychology, sociology, law. government, and education assists Drs. Earls and Reiss.

In addition, the Project employs 75 full-time staff members, who represent 14 ethnic groups and speak 12 languages. Five units manage the five project areas: Administration, project relations, cohort assessment, data management and quality control, and agency records and sample retention.



Project researchers will study an unprecedented I 1,000 subjects randomly selected from 80 different Chicago neighborhoods. Subjects include an equal number of males and females and represent every social class in Chicago's African American, Latino, white, and mixed ethnic communities.

At the start of the Project, some subjects will not have been born yet. The rest will range in age from 3 to 24, with 3 years dividing each group. As a result, after 3 years, the age groups will begin to overlap. At the end of the study, a 5-year overlap will exist between each group and the one preceding it. In essence, this overlap creates additional same-age subjects, allowing researchers to draw more reliable conclusions from the findings. Moreover, because of the Project's design, in only 8 years, researchers will be able to obtain results that ordinarily would take 32 years to determine.

Data Collection

Crime data typically come from police reports and subject self-reports. Unfortunately, both of these sources may contain biases that corrupt the data. To minimize these influences, the Project uses a variety of sources to collect data. Dubbed STORI by researchers, the approach uses self-reports, tests and examinations, observation, existing records, and informant reports to acquire information on study participants.

Areas of Study

With its dual goals of determining what factors influence criminal behavior and how these factors might be altered to prevent crime, the Project will focus on the following areas of study: Individual differences; family influences; community measures; traumatic stress, abuse, and child development; and the criminal career. The findings from these areas should help researchers develop methods to prevent crime.

Individual Differences

No two people are exactly alike. Even identical twins have personality traits that make them unique. Often, these traits get passed to children from their parents. For example, some children may have an increased ability to cope with stressful or traumatic incidents. Others may suffer the ill-effects of their mother's alcohol or drug dependency. The Project is studying these differences to see if certain characteristics predispose individuals for criminal conduct.

One important genetic difference seems to be sex. First, men and women favor different crimes. Men usually commit what are known as predatory 7crimes--murder, burglary, assault, rape, and robbery. By contrast. women generally commit crimes considered less serious. including sexual misconduct, prostitution, substance abuse. drug-related offenses, and child abuse and neglect.

Though their crimes are considered less serious, women commit as many antisocial acts as men. Moreover, many of the crimes they commit can perpetuate a cycle of crime in their own children.

Finally women usually learn not to act out in violent and aggressive ways. Thus, women who break the mold can offer insight into the causes of their criminal behavior. For these reasons, unlike previous studies that have excluded women, the Project includes equal numbers of males and females.

Family Influences

The concept of the American family is changing from a father, mother, and two children to a single-parent household, usually headed by a woman. Although much of today's crime often is attributed to the decay of the American family, the answer may not be that simple. In fact, previous studies have failed to reveal why some children become criminals while others do not, regardless of how many parents they have.

Indeed, the number of parents may not be as important as how stable and calm the household environment is, who provides primary care for the children, and whether other family members or role models exist. Studies have shown, for example, that grandmothers often play an important role in preventing children from developing antisocial behavior, especially those children born to teen mothers. In essence, children with access to an extended family and other role models can thrive even in a single-parent home.

Yet, some studies have found that boys raised by their birth mother and a stepfather are no better off than boys raised by their mother alone.(2) The cause of this may be that the boys look at their stepfathers as competitors, rather than role models who normally help children develop self-esteem.

Ethnic identity may be another factor that influences criminal behavior. Children pick up behavioral cues from their parents and other family members. Some of these behaviors are expressions of the family's ethnic background. By learning and repeating them, children contribute further to their self-concept. The Project is studying how this affects criminal behavior.

While studying family influence, Project researchers will interview children, their parents, and other caregivers. Moreover, the study design allows researchers to consider other factors--for example, community measures--which may account for why children from single-parent homes, particularly boys, are at risk for antisocial behavior.

Community Measures

Individuals who commit crimes live in every neighborhood and every city. Yet, some communities seem to nourish crime. Project researchers hope to determine what role the following elements play in whether communities nurture or weed out crime:

* Demographic, ethnic, and class structure

* Personal, family, and organizational networks

* Local culture, e.g., immigrant or working class

* Local institutions, e.g., schools or churches. First, researchers had to define community, a concept that tends to expand with age. That is, a small child's perception of community may be one or two houses, but a teen's is much larger.

The smallest unit in a community is the faceblock, a single street of residences that face one another. Next are block groups, which encompass two or three adjacent blocks. Neighborhoods come next, clusters of block groups that are socially homogeneous and generally defined by patterns or landmarks, such as parks, main streets, or railroad tracks. Clusters of neighborhoods combine into local community areas, the next largest segment of a community. In such areas, the services available to residents vary and may affect human development and delinquency patterns.

Finally, an economic, political, and metropolitan system incorporates the community levels beneath it. Factors that affect the quality of life come into play within this larger system and include distance to good jobs, access to public transportation, and the availability and quality of politically controlled services, such as police, fire, and snow and trash removal, to name a few.

Project researchers will gather community data from a variety of sources. Official records, such as Census Bureau statistics, real estate transactions, and police and fire records, represent formal measures of community activities, but usually do not tell the whole story. To compensate, researchers will conduct surveys and interviews of randomly selected residents, the parents or partners of the 11,000 project participants, and "informants"--long-time residents, ministers, elected officials, and others who have a stake in the community and know quite a bit about its inner workings. Finally, researchers will observe where people gather and socialize, which formal and informal organizations are active, how well the neighborhood is maintained. how local businesses operate, and how the level of gang activity and ethnic tension affect the community.

To take into consideration changes that might occur within communities, research will be collected three times, at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the study. The data from these findings not only paint a portrait of the community but also can pinpoint how community affects individuals who have all other aspects in common.

Traumatic Stress, Abuse, and Child Development

Everyone faces stressful situations in life, but responds in different ways. Sometimes, a single traumatic incident or multiple episodes of physical or sexual abuse can lead to a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Children and adults who suffer from this disorder exhibit a variety of abnormal behaviors, including a tendency toward aggressive or criminal activity.

An individual's sex plays a role here as well, with boys more often turning to aggressive and violent behavior and girls having difficulty forming healthy, stable relationships and possibly developing sexual problems. Both boys and girls develop learning and attention problems that can affect them in school and for the rest of their lives.

In short, individuals differ in the symptoms they exhibit and the long-term effects that post-traumatic stress disorder imposes on their lives. Moreover, being the victim of abuse alone does not account for criminal behavior. A 7-year Connecticut study revealed that subjects with a combination of an abusive family and two or more "intrinsic vulnerabilities"(3) were more likely to commit crimes as adults.(4)

Project researchers likely will encounter many participants who already have lived through a traumatic life experience or who may do so during the study. The information victims provide will give researchers insight into the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, the study is limited by its tools, questionnaires and surveys, which can reveal only so much information. Moreover, participants may be reluctant to disclose the details of their traumatic experiences. To overcome these obstacles? researchers may identify high-risk youths and follow up with indepth interviews and testing.

The Criminal Career

A small percentage of offenders commit the majority of crimes.(5) Why do some offenders stop. while others continue throughout their adult lives? Several schools of thought exist that attempt to explain why some juvenile offenders become career criminals. They range from the Individual Development Theory, which blames criminal activity on conduct disorders and childhood delinquency, to the Deterrence Theory, which calls for swift, sure punishment to reduce crime. Like the nature-nurture debate, these theories generally support either a genetic or an environmental cause for criminal behavior. During the Project, researchers will test these competing theories for answers to why some individuals make a career out of crime.

Putting Project Results to Work: Intervention and Prevention

The Project's primary objective is to identify ways in which crime can be reduced. These methods fall primarily into two categories: Intervention and prevention.


Due to the nature of this longitudinal study, methods to combat criminal behavior may become apparent before the Project ends. As a result, researchers would have an opportunity to test the strategies that appear likely to turn individuals from crime, for example, parental training or prenatal care. But these intervention strategies, as they are called, require considerable effort to implement. For example, studies must be conducted to isolate a particular factor, such as inadequate parenting skills, to determine if it is indeed the cause of antisocial behavior, rather than only being associated with it. Such studies can be costly and will increase the burden that Project participants must shoulder.

Furthermore, individuals chosen for interventions may react favorably to them merely because they are the object of a study, a phenomenon referred to as the "observer effect." Finally, intervention may alter the overall findings of the Project's longitudinal study. In all likelihood, Project researchers will devise a system that permits intervention without contaminating the rest of the data.


Traditionally, criminal justice professionals have focused on either rehabilitation or stiff sanctions to deter criminals. Both of these strategies take place after the fact. By contrast, the Project focuses on crime prevention. By studying subjects from before birth to age 32, Project researchers seek to turn individuals away from crime, ideally, before they ever commit an offense. To accomplish this, the study must identify both the developmental and environmental factors that influence criminal behavior.


An old saying laments that everyone complains about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it. Today, crime represents a similar source of frustration. Everyone agrees that something must be done to curb rising crime rates; yet, the debate over the "correct" method of doing so often splits people with conservative and liberal viewpoints and beliefs.

Research indicates that criminal behavior may result from the interaction of a number of factors, including individual differences, family influences, and community resources. This being the case, strategies must be developed to arrest criminal behavior before it occurs, not after. By studying 11,000 individuals from before birth to age 32, the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods hopes to identify the factors that influence criminal behavior, as well as appropriate methods to keep juvenile troublemakers from growing up to be adult criminals. When combined with the results of other studies, the Project's findings will help to end the frustration that criminal justice professionals experience while trying to fight crime; instead, they will be able to understand, control, and prevent it.


(1) S. McLanahan and K. Booth. "Mother-Only Families: Problems, Prospects, and Politics," Journal of Marriage and the Family 51 (1989): 557-580, in Felton J. Earls and Albert J. Reiss. Jr., Breaking the Cycle: Predicting and Preventing Crime (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 1994). 16. (2) L.N. Robins, Deviant Children Grown UP (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1966): and E.E. Werner and R.S. Smith, Vulnerable But Invincible: A Study of Resilient Children (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982), in Earls and Reiss. Breaking the Cycle. 17. (3) Paranoia, hallucinations, seizures, limbic dysfunction, well-belownormal reading level, or impaired memory, such as the inability to recall tour digits backward. (4) D.O. Lewis, R. Lovely, C. Yeayer. and D.D. Famina, "Toward a Theory of the Genesis of Violence: A Follow-Up Study of Delinquents," Journal of the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry 28, no. 3 (1989): 431-436. in Earls and Reiss. Breaking the Cycle. 33. (5) See e.g.. M.E. Wolfyang, R. M. Figlio. and T. Sellin, Deliquency in a Birth Cohort (Chicayo: University of Chicago Press. 1972), in Earls and Reiss, Breaking the Cycle, 5.

Mrs. Waggoner serves as an associate editor for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:studies on causes of criminal behavior
Author:Waggoner, Kimberly J.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Feb 1, 1996
Previous Article:Responding to line-of-duty deaths.
Next Article:Police-defendants: surviving a civil suit.

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