On Thursday 15 June, the Phelan US Centre hosted the in-person and online event ‘The Birth Lottery of History’ with Professor Robert J. Sampson (Harvard University. Alia Yusuf gives an overview of the event and the Q&A segment.
In the neighborhood of West Englewood, Chicago, two young men with strikingly similar backgrounds found their lives branching in opposite directions. While one lived a normal life, the other went to prison. One crucial detail helps explain the circumstances of the two men — they were born in different generations. As summed up by Harvard University’s Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, Robert J. Sampson, “when you are determines how you are.”
Joined by Nicola Lacey, School Professor of Law, Gender and Social Policy in the LSE Law School, as discussant and Phelan US Centre Director, Professor Peter Trubowitz as chair, Professor Sampson spoke at the 2023 LSE Festival on 15 June 2023, as part of the Festival’s theme of Continuity and Change, at the Phelan US Centre event The Birth Lottery of History. During the event, Professor Sampson outlined the thesis of his important work: while individual characteristics do play a role in determining one’s life, we tend to overlook the impact that history has on influencing people’s lives. Short-term history matters, and traditional risk factors such as self-control, family structure and poverty do not fully account for inequalities between different cohorts.
How history affects criminal justice
To investigate the effects of social change, in 1995, Sampson and his colleagues conducted a longitudinal study tracking multiple cohorts of youth in Chicago from early childhood to young-mid adulthood. The study traces participants’ criminal history while controlling for any elements that could affect their lives, such as participants’ behavioral traits, poverty rates, their parents’ disposition, and even exposure to lead. As a result, the research design allows us to compare “the same” individual at different time periods, disentangling individual and social effects.
For context, Sampson presented statistics in Chicago which showed that arrest rates were about 100 times higher for older cohorts, who were born in the 1980s, than younger ones, with incarceration surging in the 1990s before falling once again in later decades. He found that the probability of incarceration for individuals with low self-control who were born in the 1990s was equivalent to that for high self-control individuals from older cohorts.
Sampson highlighted two mechanisms through which history affects our life course: institutional changes in policing practices and behavioral changes in society with regards to violence. He also dispelled some alternative hypotheses on the causes of social change itself, from the superpredator myth, the drug war, increased drug use to broken windows style policing leading to increased police hirings.
Implications on prediction and policy
The findings suggest that we need to reconceptualize risk and propensity. Over time, social change also reduces prediction accuracy, leading to overprediction of younger cohorts. Criminology relies on risk assessment indicators to predict someone’s probability of committing crime. However, individual risk factors used to predict the probability of arrests in the 1980s loses their predictive power when used with future generations.
Compounding the problem is the fact that databases used in in leading criminal justice agencies are not updated very often – in some cases they are 20 years out of date. With faulty information, children today may be disadvantaged due to how these risk predictions influence decisions on bail, imprisonment, risk of future arrests, and cohort bias. The difference in prediction accuracy is stark, which could go up to 90 percent. Additionally, alongside cohort effects, the predictive nature of poverty, race, family structure, and being a part of the immigrant generation are also evolving in algorithmic justice.
Following the presentation, Professor Lacey emphasized the importance of the study on policymaking and law, particularly on how we should assign responsibility for a crime when we consider the social context and the bias in algorithms. She began the Q&A session by asking about the specific factors explaining social change and how the study applies to contexts outside of Chicago, specifically in cities which have not gone through urban regeneration. Professor Sampson replied that there is no single cause of said change, but economic conditions and technological developments likely play a role. On the second question, Sampson explained that although other cities such as Baltimore have higher levels of violence, they still exhibit similar patterns to Chicago.
Online, a viewer from India asked about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the increase in crime, particularly with firearms. Sampson answered that while the pandemic exacerbated the increase in crime, the trends in disruption and social unrest predated the pandemic.
The second audience question asked how historical effects differ between genders. In response, Sampson addressed the question by saying that while there are some differentials, they found during the study that the mechanisms of social change operate in similar ways for both genders.
The final question asked about the difference in cultural values between the cohorts studied as they may be shaped by events in their formative years. Sampson remarked that due to the short-term nature of history examined and the arbitrariness of generational divide, social changes cannot be explained by generational culture. With the short gap in years between cohorts, the youths in the study are essentially from the same millennial generation. Cultural values may be important, but they are more likely to shape longer term outcomes.
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