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Wednesday 15th of July 2020

Press Room

IJJO Interviews- Ms. Terrie Moffitt. Professor of psychology. Institute of Psychiatry.King's College London. United Kingdom

Monday 18th of November 2013

Ms. Terrie Moffitt is mainly interested in the area of antisocial, violent and criminal behavior and in particular her work focuses on human development. Among her main concerns belong the problems of depression, psychosis and the drugs abuse among criminal offenders. Her expertise introduces us into the problematic of behavior of people in trouble with the law and their health and social situation. She also explains the effects of this difficult situation on their physical and mental health. Besides, Ms. Moffitt distinguishes two kinds of criminal offenders, the early once and the latecomers, and she describes their different models of life that are the principal causes of their troubles with the penal system. At the end, she introduces us a new field, called developmental criminology, which is a branch of the criminology department.


Could you please give us a brief overview of your professional background, your research activities in the field of Juvenile Justice and your future projects which are likely to have greatest impact in terms of research and on the topic of juvenile justice?

TERRIE E. MOFFITT studies how genetic and environmental risks together shape the developmental course of psychiatric disorders. Her particular interest is in antisocial, violent, and criminal behavior, but she also studies depression, psychosis, and substance abuse. She is Nannerl Koehane University professor at Duke University in the USA, and also a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London in the UK. She is a trustee of the Nuffield Foundation.  Professor Moffitt co-directs the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, which has followed 1000 people born in 1972 in New Zealand from birth to age 38. She also co-directs the Environmental-Risk Longitudinal Twin Study, which has followed1100 British families with twins born in 1994-1995 from birth to age 18. For her research, she has received the American Psychological Association's Early Career Contribution Award and Distinguished Career Award in Clinical Child Psychology, the Royal Society's Wolfson Merit Award, the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, the NARSAD Ruane Prize in Psychiatry, and the Klaus J. Jacobs Prize in youth development. She is a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the American Society of Criminology, the British Academy, the American Psychopathological Association, Academia Europaea, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the Association for Psychological Science, and King's College London. She has served on investigative panels for institutions such as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (ethics of behavioural genetic research) and the US National Academy of Sciences (research into firearms and violence).  Her favorite activities are camping and hiking trips in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific, and working on her poison-ivy farm in North Carolina. Learn more at this website:  http://www.moffittcaspi.com/

Current and future work includes looking at the health and social outcomes at age 38 follow-up of criminal offenders in the Dunedin birth cohort, and looking at the effects of violence victimisation on the physical and mental health of the 18 year olds in the British E-risk Study.

According to your research on developmental taxonomy, could you please describe briefly your theory about early offenders and late starters?

I will summarize 15 years of research into a developmental taxonomy of antisocial behavior published 15 years ago that proposed two primary hypothetical prototypes: life-course persistent versus adolescence-limited offenders (Moffitt, 1993). According to this taxonomy, life-course persistent offenders’ antisocial behavior has its origins in neuro-developmental processes, and it begins in childhood and continues persistently thereafter into midlife. In contrast, adolescence-limited offenders’ antisocial behavior has its origins in social processes, it begins in adolescence and it desists when adulthood is attained. According to the theory, life-course persistent antisocial individuals are few, persistent, and pathological. Adolescence-limited antisocial individuals are common, relatively transient, and near normative.

In a nutshell, we suggested that life-course persistent antisocial behavior originates early in life, when the difficult behavior of a high-risk young child is exacerbated by a high-risk social environment. According to the theory, the child’s risk emerges from inherited or acquired neuropsychological variation, initially manifested as subtle cognitive deficits, difficult temperament, or hyperactivity. The environment’s risk comprises factors such as inadequate parenting, maltreatment, disrupted family bonds, and poverty. The environmental risk domain expands beyond the family as the child ages, to include poor relations with people such as peers and teachers. Opportunities to learn prosocial skills are lost. Over the first two decades of development, transactions between the individual and the environment gradually construct a disordered personality with hallmark features of physical aggression and antisocial behavior persisting to midlife. The theory predicts that antisocial behavior will infiltrate multiple adult life domains: illegal activities, problems with employment, and victimization of intimate partners and children. This infiltration diminishes the possibility of reform.

In contrast, we suggested that adolescence-limited antisocial behavior emerges alongside puberty, when otherwise ordinary healthy youngsters experience psychological discomfort during the relatively role-less years between their biological maturation and their access to mature privileges and responsibilities, a period we called the “maturity gap.” They experience dissatisfaction with their dependent status as a child, and impatience for what they anticipate are the privileges and rights of adulthood. While young people are in this “gap” it is virtually normative for them to find the delinquent style appealing and to mimic it as a way to demonstrate autonomy from parents, win affiliation with peers, and hasten social maturation. However, because their predelinquent development was normal, most adolescence-limited delinquents are able to desist from crime when they age into real adult roles, returning gradually to a more conventional lifestyle. This recovery may be delayed if the antisocial activities of adolescence-limited delinquents attract factors we called “snares,” such as a criminal record, incarceration, addiction, or truncated education without credentials. Such snares can compromise the ability to make a successful transition to adulthood.

Our own investigations of this taxonomy have been carried out mainly in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a 40-year longitudinal study of a birth cohort of 1000 New Zealanders. Dunedin findings are generally in keeping with findings reported from other samples in 8 countries and several states within the United States, although it must be stated that not every study has supported the taxonomy.

The American Society of Criminology established a few new divisions last year. One of them is on Developmental Criminology, which is a new branch in Criminology. Could you please tell us more about this branch and the division of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology?

Why am I so excited about the future of life-course developmental criminology? A short history will explain. Compared to other fields in the behavioral sciences, life-course developmental criminology is still an infant, or at most a toddler. Today, virtually every criminology textbook and anthology of crime theories sets aside an entire section to cover developmental or life-course approaches. Students can be forgiven for taking this hegemony for granted. But life-course developmental work was not always so ubiquitous in criminology, it was rather more marginal as recently as the 1980’s. I revisited the tables of contents and indexes of the most popular textbooks on crime and delinquency from 25 years ago. I found scarcely a mention of life-course, development, or anything near synonymous. There were earlier formative longitudinal studies, such as Eleanor and Sheldon Glueck’s 1950 book Unravelling Juvenile Delinquency and Lee Robins’ 1966 book Deviant Children Grown Up. However, the field began to gain traction in mainstream criminology only forty years ago with Marvin Wolfgang’s 1972 book Delinquency in a Birth Cohort and Donald West and David Farrington’s 1973 book Who Becomes Delinquent?  Serious funding was injected only when criminology’s leading grant-making agencies and private foundations were persuaded to invest in developmental criminology by a pair of field-defining books, the 1986 book by David Farrington et al. Understanding and Controlling Crime: Toward a New Research Strategy and the 1991 book by Michael Tonry et al. Human Development and Criminal Behavior: New Ways of Advancing Knowledge. About the time these books were written, funders launched several longitudinal cohort studies of delinquency, as described in Akiva Lieberman’s 2008 book, The Long View of Crime. Fresh ideas were soon imported from developmental psychology and life-course sociology that enriched the theoretical base of the field, as exemplified by Terrie Moffitt’s 1993 theoretical article Adolescence-Limited and Life-course Persistent Antisocial Behavior, and Rob Sampson and John Laub’s 1993 book Crime in the Making. This cross-pollination was hailed by Wayne Osgood’s thoughtful 1998 essay in The Criminologist, “Interdisciplinary integration: Building criminology by stealing from our friends.”  The development of girls’ delinquency emerged as a priority topic in the late 1990’s, as an example see Moffitt’s 2001 book, Sex Differences in Antisocial Behaviour.  Next came new methodological tools and technologies for getting the most out of developmental life-course data.  Daniel Nagin’s methods for group-based modeling of developmental trajectories enabled a wave of theory testing that helped put developmental criminology on a new empirical footing; see his 2005 book, Group-based Modeling of Development. By the start of this century, life-course developmental criminology had gone global, as illustrated by Arjan Blokland and Paul Nieuwbeerta’s 2006 compendium of Dutch research, Developmental and Life Course Studies in Delinquency and Crime. Another accomplishment is that along with the rest of criminology, life-course developmental criminologists are embracing experimental testing of their approaches to crime prevention, using randomized trials. This advance is nicely illustrated in the 2006 book David Olds and the Nurse Home-Visiting Program. Life-course developmental criminology has by now made its mark; as evidence, in 2011 Ellen Cohn reported that eight of the top dozen most highly-cited criminologists are now life-course developmental criminologists (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10511253.2011.556134). Now on a firm theoretical and empirical foundation, this new science that delves into human development aiming to understand and prevent crime is ready to make some really big discoveries. Preventing and controlling crime is essential for enhancing the healthy human development of everyone, everywhere.

Apart from being an awardee of the 2007 Stockholm Prize in Criminology, you have also participated in the Criminology Symposium in Stockholm. As an internationally recognised specialist in criminology, could you please give us an overview of new research and developments in the area of juvenile justice?

I’m sorry, I don’t really do juvenile justice research. I do basic science in human development, so I am not well equipped to know what is the latest in applied justice research.

According to national research, which principles should be followed in order to reduce and prevent juvenile offending?

Over the past 15 years our taxonomy has been used to improve classification of subject groups for research, and to focus research into antisocial personality and violence toward the most promising causal variables. It has also been used to guide intervention planning. For example,  preventing life-course persistent antisocial lifestyles requires early childhood interventions in the family, whereas preventing adolescence-limited offending requires individual treatments during the teen years to counteract peer influence (instead of group treatments that facilitate peer influence). As another example, we have argued that the juvenile justice system should identify adolescence-limited delinquents and give them room to reform. We also argued that waiving life-course persistent delinquents to adult court is impractical because the cognitive deficits typical of these delinquents renders them unlikely to meet legal criteria for competency to stand trial.


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