In the race to the White House, the 1990 autobiography of presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson has been uncovered. Carson details a violent adolescent period that he recovered from through his relationship with God. Perhaps Carson did have an epiphany, but, as a criminologist, I can say that he probably would have gone on the straight-and-narrow regardless.
What we’ve discovered in the field of criminology is that teens go through a rough spot in which they act out, which is no surprise to any parent. What may be surprising is “acting out” can include a lot of serious criminal behavior including assault, robbery and auto theft. Studies from the United States, Great Britain, New Zealand and Sweden agree that nearly everyone engages in some kind of criminal behavior by the time they reach 18. Criminal behavior is much more the norm than the exception.
Carson’s recounting of his transformation from violence could be alarming in a president if he relied on his personal history as an evidence base for the juvenile justice system. With most teens naturally turning away from criminal behavior, we need to focus on why people continue to commit crime. Solid data from across people’s lives are the key to understanding why someone would break from the norm and continue to commit crime into adulthood. If we can understand this process, then we can develop interventions and policies that successfully deter people from crime, save a lot of money and perhaps allow all of us to sleep a little easier at night.
With Carson’s platform to ban federal funding for colleges and universities with “extreme political bias,” it is worrisome to think that sound research into criminality may be politicized. Of course, as President Obama noted, it’s unlikely that Carson even knows what he means by “extreme political bias.” As a voter and a scientist, I would not want to take the chance that it means anything Carson disagrees with. If Carson believes that religion plays an important role in abetting criminal behavior, will research that excludes religion be funded?
My goals for research and education about criminal behavior do not line up with Carson’s platform for funding universities. But, if I could offer Carson some advice on his storytelling, the fact that he is an Ivy League-educated black man with a medical degree who is now running for president is a far more unique example of the power of God and, in Carson’s case, less controversial than having recovered from a rough patch as a teen.
Amber L. Beckley is a criminologist and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University.