Childhood Trauma and Criminality

DC Public Safety Radio

See the main site at

See the radio program at

Leonard: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Our guest today is Dana Goldstein who wrote an intriguing article titled “Meet Our Prisoners”. It’s a comprehensive study of 122 men and women released in state prisons in the Boston area. The title of the show today is Childhood Trauma and Criminality. Dana, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Dana: Hey, Len. I’m happy to be here.

Leonard: I’m really happy for you to be here. You’ve got a long history of writing about criminal justice issues. She is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. She writes Justice Lab and reports on the intersection of education and criminal justice. Her work has appeared in Slate, The Atlantic and other magazines. She’s the author of Teacher Wars, a History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.

You know all about this issue today. Tell me a little bit about the study, who did the study, who they interviewed and how you’ve retained or they’ve retained these individuals in the study.

Dana: Yeah. It’s really hard to study the lives of people who’ve been recently incarcerated because they change jobs very often or are unemployed. They don’t have regular addresses. They often have many different phone numbers over the course of a year. It’s even difficult for something as comprehensive as the census to pick these people up and really track what’s going on in their lives.

Three leading scholars: Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist, Anthony Braga of Rutgers who is a criminologist, and Rihanna Cole who works for the state of Massachusetts, they really wanted to find out what we can know about this population. They came up with something called the Boston Reentry Study. It’s a small sample size. It looks at 122 men and women. They were all released from state prisons to Boston neighborhoods in the years of 2012 and 2013. The study retention is amazing at 90%. This is basically unheard of with this population. The way they did it is that they paid each participant in the study $50 every time they came in for an interview so that was a really strong incentive. Beyond that, they also paid the relatives of these participants $50 to keep in touch and have interviews. This ended up being crucially important because for many of the former prisoners, the female family members: mothers, grandmothers, sisters, they were their connection to the community and connection to society after being released from prison. Having the cooperation of those family members in the study ended up being really key for the retention.

Leonard: One of the things that you point out in the article is up to 2/3 of people in previous interview panels dropped out. The fact that the researchers had a 90% retention rate …

Dana: Yeah. That attracted my attention as a journalist right away because when I look for research to write about in this column I write, Justice Lab, I’m often dealing with some methodological weaknesses with this particular population of justice-system involved individuals. This was a very strong methodology with a 90% retention rate.

Leonard: The bottom line is that this is a high-quality study, a 90% retention rate, involving people out of the prison system and their family members. The way that the researchers were able to retain them at the 90% level was the fact that individuals received a stipend for every interview, correct?

Dana: Yeah, that’s right. The researchers also took other extraordinary measures. They told me that one person in the study had 15 different cell phone numbers over the course of a year so a lot of … That was something, when my editor read the draft of my pre-shoot she went, “Oh, wow! That’s fascinating!” A lot of what the research team and their assistants were doing was just tracking these people, calling them constantly and saying to them, “Oh, if you’re running out of minutes on your phone, please just call us and let us know what the new number is.” The diligence really did pay off.

Leonard: That’s what fascinated me because when I first read the article, it was like, “Oh, another panel study of individuals coming out of the prison system.” I saw 90% and I said, “Wow! This is a really high-quality study” and it’s something that all of us in the criminal justice system need to pay attention to as the study rolls out. When is the completion date for the study?

Dana: It’s going to be completed over the next year or two. The first two sections, which I write about in this piece, one deals with the lifetimes up until incarceration of these folks so everything that happened to them in their childhood and their adolescence. It’s so sad and so fascinating. Secondly, the second part deals with what happens to them when they reenter society after being incarcerated. Do they find a job? Where do they live? What are their relationships like? The third piece is, I think, going to get a lot of attention. That’s going to be on recidivism. How many of these folks end up being incarcerated once again? We’re still waiting for that piece.

Leonard: In this, with a 12 month study, right? Followed the individuals over the course of 12 months?

Dana: I believe so, yes.

Leonard: Okay. It’s fascinating. I’m going to start off with one of the first observations that it’s no surprise that former prisoners are likely to be poor. Many have had troubled upbringings. Over 40% said they had witnessed a homicide. Half had been physically abused by their parent. Spanking did not count. A third had witnessed domestic violence.

I interview a lot of people caught up in the criminal justice system on this show. Their story mimics what you’ve told in your article. Can you talk to me about that?

Dana: Yeah. One of the things that really surprised me so much was that statistic that 40% of the 122 people in this study had witnessed a homicide. That’s extremely big number for something that you would assume would be very rare. I think what really is driving what we’re talking about here is the segregated high-poverty neighborhoods where these people are growing up. They are living in neighborhoods that are essentially segregated from middle-class America. Crime is concentrated in these places. Family poverty is concentrated. The schools are not particularly effective.

The homes that the children were living in as described in the study were very noisy and chaotic. One person in the study named Patrick, he had his mother who was addicted to heroin and he grew up in his grandparents’ house. There were a dozen other relatives that were constantly moving in and out. The uncles were constantly getting into physical fights with one another and sometimes would set things up on fire. Patrick, as a child, just thought this was normal behavior. It was only as an adult reflecting back decades later, after serving time in prison himself, that he realized that everything that set him on his path to becoming a lawbreaker really began in this chaotic childhood home that struck him as completely normal at the time. I think it’s really important to remember that many of the people in our state prison system, in our jails, they’re coming from a traumatized background that may not even register to them as out of the ordinary.

Leonard: I sent the article out to 4 people who are administrators within the criminal justice system because I always get input from other people before doing radio shows. They said it’s their experience that what Dana is describing in this article is not unusual. It’s just not Boston. Again, I’m fascinated by the high retention rate. I’m fascinated by the quality of the research. The researchers themselves should be really complimented for doing something unique. What they’re saying, what they’re telling me is that what Dana is describing is commonplace. That’s one of the other things that I wanted to get, do you have a sense that this is just the Boston area or this really is something that you can extrapolate to other parts of the country?

Dana: No, absolutely not. These are similar life stories that you’d hear from any group of incarcerated people. I think normally you hear this sort of anecdotally. What this study does is it really gathers a random group of people that are coming out of prison in one year in one place and it’s giving us some data to work with. These are the sort of stories that social workers around the country who deal with this population, probation and parole officers, will tell you that on any day of the week.

Leonard: I do want to tell our audience right up front that I’m quite sure that I’m and Dana, we’re not making excuses for criminality but the reality of what it is that we in parole and probation, because the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency is a federal parole and probation agency serving Washington DC, but we in the criminal justice system, especially community corrections, mainstream corrections, this is the population who we have to deal with. People come along and say, “You need to reduce the rates of recidivism. You need to offer programs. You need to provide incentives.” All of which we thoroughly agree with and we’re one of the better-equipped agencies in the country in terms of providing social services to people under supervision but this is a rough group of individuals to help succeed.

Dana: Yeah, that’s right. Another thing that was very poignant in this study was that the participants’ crimes often looked really similar to the victimization they had experienced or witnessed as a child. For example, one man in the study, Peter, when he was 12 years old, he watched a man get stabbed to death in a brawl outside a bar in his neighborhood. Well, what do you know? Later on as an adult he was incarcerated after a series of stabbing assaults. There’s this cyclical quality to the type of violence that a child is exposed to. Then for some children, of course not all, many people are exposed to violence and don’t perpetrate violence, but of the population that’s in our prisons, it is a cyclical quality so it’s just really important to consider that when you think about what services are going to be available to people.

Leonard: When I was putting together the program today I did talk with the Commissioner of Corrections. He and I years ago sat down and interviewed younger individuals who were charged with homicide at the Baltimore City Jail. There was quite a few of them. We didn’t use their names. It was for a governor’s crime summit. We were just trying to understand life through their eyes. One of the things that they said was violence is normal. My words, not theirs, but violence is normal. We learned violence in our communities. We learned violence from our immediate upbringing. Violence is something that is good. It protects us. It protects our family. It protects our property. This is something that is normal. This is something that we think is in our best interest and why you don’t understand that, we don’t understand that. Your article, based upon the research, sort of mimics that experience.

Dana: Yes. I think a lot of what’s going on is the sort of the slice against masculinity, ideas of respect. Those are very powerful currencies in the communities where many of our incarcerated people are coming from. What looks like a relatively trivial conflict can often lead to violence in these neighborhoods and communities that are extremely high-poverty and living with extreme scarcity. Those are the experiences that are in the past of the population we’re talking about.

Leonard: You’ve described already that many former prisoners and their family members describe noisy and chaotic childhood homes. We could go on about that if you’d like a little bit more and then we could move over to schools.

Dana: Yeah. I think I basically already described that but it’s basically the sense that there’s no stability. Many of these children are passed from caretaker to caretaker over the course of a childhood. There may be a mother or father who’s a drug addict. They could be passed to a grandparent and then passed into the foster care system and then eventually come out and be reunited with a parent. All of this lack of stability has profound effects on the child’s ability to do well in school, the child’s ability to envision a productive adult life. The child could end up, in the midst of all this instability, looking to their peer group for support and guidance. If the peer group happens to be gang-involved, if the peer group is involved with crime, that can really lead the child astray.

Leonard: You say that school was really a refuge for participants. 81% were suspended or expelled, many as early as elementary school. Few received support services such as counseling or tutoring. Eventually 60% dropped out of high school. If you come from that background educationally, if you come from that background emotionally, the deck is going to be stacked against you.

Dana: Yeah, that’s right. I think one of the things that was disheartening about looking at the school portion of the study is that whereas in many middle-class or affluent families there would be a lot of interventions for a troubled kid. A kid who was acting out, a kid who seemed depressed, a kid who had some sort of traumatic experience at home, the school might spring into action and line up a therapist to meet with the child. Parents would be advocating for that. In those kids’ lives, a lot of times the schools looked the other way. It might not necessarily be because the teachers or principals didn’t care but they were overwhelmed. They would have a school where hundreds of children were dealing with similar trauma. The schools didn’t have the resources or the extra support they needed to provide each and every student that needed it with the extra help. School was not a place that was “rescuing” kids from these environments.

Leonard: You’ve already said that violence seemed normal to Patrick, the person that you specifically mentioned. Ultimately 41% of the study participants served time for violent crimes. Violence is an integral, everyday, normal process in the lives of the people who were interviewed.

Dana: Yeah. That’s really important to think about because I think the entire criminal justice reform conversation right now, a big part of it is about decreasing the sentences and being more rehabilitative for people who have done nonviolent crimes. We have this image of the kid who’s maybe picked up for selling a little bit of drugs or maybe he was driving in a car and his friend was the one who shot the gun. Actually, a huge proportion of our prisoners have themselves been involved in multiple incidences of violence. If we’re really looking at turning around our criminal justice system, decreasing mass incarceration, focusing more on rehabilitation within our criminal justice system, we must have this focus on those who have been convicted of violent crimes.

Leonard: I do want to talk about that but we are at the break. The program is going by like wildfire. Dana Goldstein is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. She writes for Justice Lab and reports on the intersection of education and criminal justice. You can reach her at, the

Dana, that is the issue right now because there is a huge conversation going on in the country. I’m assuming, I’ve been told that every governor has talked to every correctional administrator in every state basically saying we can no longer sustain the level of incarceration. We’ve got to cut back on the numbers of people that we incarcerate. We’re spending far more money on prisons than we are on colleges and schools. In that light, you are now finding bipartisan support for justice reform across the board but nobody is really quite sure what justice reform means. Your comments before the break are correct. We’re really focusing on the nonviolent rather than the violent but so many individuals who are being charged with nonviolent crimes have violent histories. Somewhere along the line, we’ve got to come to grips with who the individuals are within the criminal justice system and provide services if we’re going to break the cycle of incarceration.

Dana: Yeah, Len, you’re exactly right. Even those who are convicted of nonviolent crimes as you rightfully point out may have a violent history in their past. You think about the bipartisan movement across the country that’s springing on us and saying “We’re really going to reduce our prison population.” That’s, in my view, a very positive saying but where the consensus can unravel is exactly this question of can we look to a more rehabilitative, less punitive approach for our violent offenders? Oftentimes, when you talk to the conservative folks who support criminal justice reform, they actually would like to maybe even stiffen sentences for violent criminals. I’ve written another article about this which reports on the Cut 50 Movement, the idea that you need to reduce the prison population by 50% which so far some of the conservatives are quite skeptical of. There is consensus but underneath that there is still debate about how exactly do we want to treat those who are convicted of violent offenses. This Boston Reentry Study is, I think, quite powerful in humanizing who those people really are.

Leonard: I think that’s one of the reasons why we bring current people caught up in the criminal justice system and people who are off supervision because the issue is that I’ll sit there and I’ll have three people in front of me and I’ll say, “Okay, you are a criminal.” I say that specifically just to provoke a reaction from that individual. That person will sit back and go, “Look, Leonard. I’ve made mistakes. I’m not a criminal” which is the best possible answer. Then I would elicit from them what was created for them, what did they create for themselves to remove themselves from the criminal justice system to do better while under supervision. Services, services, services, programs seems to be such a huge issue, yet if you take a look at surveys of state prison systems, 10% are getting drug treatment. A similar percentage are getting mental health treatment. If 80% of the people caught up in the criminal justice system have histories of substance abuse, if 50% have histories of mental health, unless we provide the programs we’re not going to break the cycle.

Dana: You’re absolutely right. That’s just appalling that there are not more available than there are, given what we know about this population. Since you mentioned those with mental health issues, one of the interesting things about the Boston study that I’m writing about here is that female offenders, although they were only 12% of the sample, some of the findings on them were very interesting. They were much more likely to have mental illness issues, for example. We know that the women in prison especially need some of these services.

Leonard: You say that nearly all of the female offenders in the study, 12% of the sample, reported being survivors of sexual violence.

Dana: Yes. That is stunning in and of itself. Basically, all of the women in prison in Boston had experienced sexual violence in their life previous to being incarcerated. I think there’s two things that come from that. First, you want to make sure that prison itself is to the extent possible as free of sexual violence as possible. We know we’re on a nationwide effort with PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, to deal with that. It’s very important for women inmates as well as male inmates. Secondly, again, it’s an area where therapeutic services need to be available. There needs to be space within the system for women to talk about and heal from these experiences.

Leonard: We run groups here at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for women. The groups that I participated in, and they have to vote to let me in, and for the ones who I’ve interviewed by these microphones, virtually to a person they have talked about the fact that they were sexually assaulted by a family member, or a friend of the family, or somebody in the community before their mid-teens. This is a common experience, I think.

Dana: Yes, that’s very, very common. It’s very common.

Leonard: Okay. I want to ask a larger philosophical question and then I want to get into the fact that those who were picked up from prison and who had welcoming parties and spent fewer hours alone, they seemed to adjust better than those who didn’t because people are intrigued by the next phase of it.  What works? What can we do? What can the system do? My question is this: If we are dealing with individuals with such profound emotional histories in terms of childhood trauma, in terms of not doing well in school which is an understatement, if they’re dealing with histories of violence directed towards them, and women, sexual violence, and virtually all the women that I’ve talked to have had children, does it get to the point where it almost becomes impossible for the criminal justice system, let alone the larger society, to deal with people who have such profound issues?

Dana: I hate to say impossible because I know that there’s probation officers and therapists within prisons that are helping people turn their lives around every day. What I do want to say is what’s clear from these findings is that our prison system has become our social safety net of last resort. In the absence of a robust mental health system, in the absence of a robust drug-addiction treatment system in this country, in the absence of a robust effort to reform and improve all urban schools, not just a couple of famous charter schools, we see the prison system step up and be the place where society chooses to send these folks that fall through every other crack. We know the cracks are large, the cracks are gaping for this population of people so what we’re asking the prison system to do in turning around these people’s lives is in fact basically an unrealistic expectation given that we haven’t provided a lot of other safety nets to help these folks.

Leonard: There are programs, you would agree, that do cut recidivism by anywhere from 10-20%. 10-20% fewer people going back to the prison system can mean eventually the savings of billions of dollars and smaller prison systems so the programs … There is a point where the programs do apply. There is a point where the programs do work but the programs have to be there. The programs have to exist and they have to exist in sufficient numbers to have an impact.

Dana: Right. We know that there’s wonderful programs that help people get jobs that cut recidivism rates, that college classes behind bars significantly cut recidivism rates. We know that anger management in our cognitive behavioral therapy can help cut recidivism rates. We do know that there’s all these things that work but they’re not available to every person that needs them.

Leonard: Let’s talk about life after release. Those who were picked up from prison by loved ones who had welcome home parties and who spent fewer hours alone in their first week of adjustment seemed to do better than others which echoes a theme that we have here at Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in terms of family support for those people who are caught up in the criminal justice system. There seems to be some connection between family support and how well they do.

Dana: Yeah. It’s not that there was anything so magical about having a party. It was really the fact that you had the party and that you spent fewer hours alone meant that you had the family and friends that were checking in with you and cared about you and that you had kept in contact with them while you were incarcerated enough that they were there for you when you left. It’s also really important to mention the issue of age here. The median age in this study was 34. The people who were coming out in their late teens or twenties or early thirties had significantly more family support than the older people who came out in their forties or fifties or even later.

Leonard: Really? Okay.

Dana: We have very long sentences in this country and people sometimes are in state prison for a very long time. People who came out when they were younger had a better adjustment period.

Leonard: That’s interesting.

Dana: That’s important to think about when we think about what is the utility of these super-long sentences.

Leonard: 6 months after reentry more than half of the participants remained reliant on family, typically mothers, grandmothers, or sisters. About a third were living in marginal housing. That data mimics our data here.

Dana: Yeah, absolutely. The female relatives were really still pulling these men along after them. It was very, very stressful on the families of the reentering people. For example, oftentimes an order of protection would prevent a man from going home to live with his mother. He might be 19 or 20 years old and have nowhere else to go. The mother has to make the decision. She’s going to let her son come back and live in the house and she’s going to lose her Section 8 housing voucher. Her and the rest of her younger kids will be kicked out of their apartment or she’s going to send her son out to the street. For Jeff, one young man who was in the study, his mother did have to make the difficult choice to tell her son, 20 years old, that he could not come home and live with her. This is the way people end up homeless.

Leonard: You say that only 59% were employed before they were incarcerated. 6 months after reentry, 57% of the men were working and just 27% of the women. Is that sexual discrimination or are there other factors?

Dana: Yeah. The men were about as likely to be employed after incarceration as before which I think suggests that they suffered from very high unemployment levels both before and after. For the women, incarceration had a devastating effect. They were 20% less likely to be employed after being incarcerated. There’s two potential reasons cited, the researchers pointed out. The first is that the women who are incarcerated were more likely to be mentally ill or drug-addicted. That may really impact them as they’re coming out and trying to find a job in a negative way. Also, on the more positive side, relatives are more likely to take a female relative into their home. If women were getting housing support from their mothers or sisters, then perhaps it wasn’t so important for them to go get a job immediately after leaving prison.

Leonard: There is national data that suggests that women under supervision have higher rates of mental health problems and higher rates of substance abuse problems. You add that to kids and as the women have said to me sitting before these microphones, “How are we supposed to succeed, come out of prison, find a job, reunite with our children, deal with mental health issues, deal with substance abuse issues, deal with the trauma issues in our own lives and succeed?” There is a point where the women have said, “It’s almost impossible for us to meet your expectations.”

Dana: Yeah. It’s important that, as you mentioned earlier, almost all of these women are mothers. This is a double-generation issue that we’re talking about when we’re talking about women and reentry after being incarcerated.

Leonard: Okay, I want to quickly, because we’re running out of time … Ban the Box in Massachusetts didn’t seem to have that much of an impact.

Dana: Yeah, that’s what the researchers found. Even though employers are no longer allowed to check right away about the criminal history of the job applicant, they can still check the criminal history later in the application process, after the interview. In the words of Bruce Western, the sociologist who did this study, “It looks like they’re still checking their criminal history and it doesn’t matter if they may have met the person and he seems like a pretty good guy. They’re still discriminating heavily against people who do have that criminal history.”

Leonard: Those on parole and probation, thus under the [inaudible 00:28:14] supervision were more likely to be re-incarcerated which again mimics other national studies.

Dana: Right.

Leonard: They were arrested most often not for committing new crimes but for violating the rules of probation or parole.

Dana: Yes. We’ve certainly seen this in California and a lot of other places where this has been looked at. This is a bit of a sneak peek about what’s coming next from the researchers who are looking at this very fascinating population of adults in Boston. They are finding that those who are re-incarcerated, a lot of times they have failed a drug test, broken curfew, missed meetings, that type of thing.

Leonard: The study’s overall findings … We should increase our empathy for people who go to prison, most of whom came from brutal poverty. If we were in these situations, the researchers suggest, if we were in these situations and if we were to encounter these complex combinations of circumstances, could we be confident that we would exercise our moral agency to do something different, there for the grace of God [inaudible 00:29:16]?

Dana: Yeah, that’s what Bruce Western, the Harvard sociologist said. He really wants us all to think about if we had grown up in a home, a home like Patrick, would we have turned out very different from Patrick? Perhaps the answer to that is no. That’s one of the big questions that a study like this should leave in our minds.

Leonard: Fascinating interview, went by so fast. I have a thousand other questions but they’ll have to wait until next time. Dana Goldstein is a staff writer for The Marshall Project and she writes for Justice Lab. Her work has appeared in Slate, Atlantic, and other magazines. She is the author of The Teacher Wars, a History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, is the website. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms. We want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.


Early American Crime and Media-DC Public Safety-200,000 Requests a Month

Welcome to DC Public Safety – radio and television shows on crime, criminal offenders and the criminal justice system.

See for our television shows, blog and transcripts.

This radio program is available at

We welcome your comments or suggestions at or at Twitter at

– Audio begins –

Len Sipes: From our microphones in downtown Washington, D.C., this is D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. You know, we’re going to have an interesting conversation today, ladies and gentlemen, about crime and the media, but it won’t be crime and the media 2010, it will be crime and the media 1704. And we have what I consider to be one of the most interesting gentlemen I’ve ever talked to, Dr. Anthony Vaver – Tony Vaver. He is the author-publisher of, that’s, that’s one word but before introducing Tony, our usual commercial. We’re up to 200,000 requests for D.C. Public Safety Radio Television blog and transcripts. We are always appreciative of your comments and your suggestions, either good or bad, in terms of new programs or in terms of what it is that you like and dislike about the show. If you need to get in touch with me directly, it is by email: Leonard L-E-O-N-A-R-D.sipes S-I-P-E-S not T but Or you can follow me via twitter. That’s L-E-N-S-I-P-E-S. And back to our guest, Dr. Anthony Vaver, author and publisher of Tony, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

Anthony Vaver: Thank you, Leonard. Thank you for having me.

Len Sipes: All right, we started off the show with the concept of the media, crime and the media. Everybody’s interested in crime and the media, but we’re talking about 1704, or when newspapers were just established in the United States. We’re talking about the history of media coverage, and I just find this extraordinarily interesting, because you cannot understand America, you cannot understand the criminal justice system, you cannot understand crime, unless you know where we came from, unless you know what was happening a couple centuries ago. That understanding grounds us, correct?

Anthony Vaver: That’s correct, and that’s one of the reasons why I started the site, is because crime is so much a part of our history, of our culture, of our society. And it just seemed to me that we don’t really know a lot about the early history of our crime, going back to our colonial days, and even into the early United States. And that seemed like an odd notion to me, given the place of crime in our current-day society.

Len Sipes: And again, the idea of understanding – somebody once said about the Civil War that before the Civil War, we referred to this country as the United States ‘are,’ and after the Civil War, we referred to this country as the United States ‘is,’ so before the Civil War, we were basically sort of a country, almost a confederacy. The fifty states had an immense amount of power, but after the Civil War, it settled the question that we are indeed one country. And fifty states – well, not fifty states – I forget how many states there were back then, but the point is that we were a solid country, and we referred to ourselves as a solid entity rather than an entity of states. And that’s a profound difference in terms of how Americans looked at their country, and it makes a profound difference, I suppose, in terms of how we look at ourselves today. The American Civil War defined us, but everything that we’re going to talk about today defined the criminal justice system of today.

Anthony Vaver: That’s right, and when we talk about the criminal justice system, especially in early colonial America, there’s no way to really talk about it as one entity, and that’s for a variety of reasons. And one of them is the colonies all have their different ways of going about — their different laws, their different ways of punishing crime, so you can’t really talk about crime in one way in the way that maybe we can today, to a great degree, that there are different laws. You have people who are coming over and where there’s essentially no criminal justice system, so they’re making the laws up as they go along.

Len Sipes: They’re making it up as they go along, and that’s an interesting concept.

Anthony Vaver: That’s right, and it’s not even necessarily the people who served as judges or had great insight into the law; usually, it’s the person in the community who has the most experience, and that could have been just as – even as a lawyer, but it could even be where they had more experience in court, maybe transcribing the court proceedings, or the barristers, whatever. Whoever had the most experience was the one who is usually the one who is ending up making all the laws.

Len Sipes: Just to ground our listeners, that before the American Revolution, we were in essence an English entity made up of colonies. Thirteen colonies all under the British crown, correct? So English common law came with English rule.

Anthony Vaver: That’s right, and they thought of themselves as English people and when we, you know, talk about the newspapers as reporting on crime, they’re also reporting a lot about the goings on over in England, and very often, you have reports about criminal happenings over in England also being reported over here in America, so you have the famous Jack Sheppard in 1724 who is escaping from Newgate prison, and all of his exploits are being reported in the American papers, because there’s great interest in what’s going on.

Len Sipes: Well, that’s very interesting. So even at that point, even in the earliest days of our history, there were folk criminals, so there were criminals who – people were extraordinarily interested in crime and criminals.

Anthony Vaver: Absolutely, and when you have the first newspapers, where you – you had your first regular newspaper in 1704, and they included stories of crime, and most especially pirates. Pirates were of big fame because of their affect on shipping and trade, and a lot of the newspapers were there to facilitate information that was important to people who are involved in trade and the merchants, so to know that there were pirates out there who were getting in the way of their ships going across the Atlantic – that was important information for them to know.

Len Sipes: Understood. Now, the media coverage of that time – I remember reading newspapers from that era. Not physical newspapers, but reproductions. Or not even reproductions – simply accounts. And wow, they make today’s newspaper reporters look like – I don’t know – scholarly madams. I mean, you know, people complain about newspaper coverage, about media coverage and crime today. Back then it was just a thousand times more scandalous. Is that a way of accurately putting it?

Anthony Vaver: Or you could say sensational –

Len Sipes: Sensational, better word.

Anthony Vaver: Right, there isn’t sort of the protocols in place that we think about in terms of newspapers, although the very early accounts, when you talk about the very early eighteenth century, a lot of the newspapers, because it took so long for the information to be disseminated, a lot of the stories of crime were very short. They were just simple reporting that so-and-so was executed last Wednesday, and left it at that, because at that point, most of the people in the community, by word of mouth, already knew about it. So this is just reiterating what’s going on.

Len Sipes: That’s just being the paper.

Anthony Vaver: That’s right. But as newspapers go along, you have a greater readership; they become more sophisticated, more interested in what’s the goings-on of what’s happening in America itself, and so you get greater accounts of what’s going on. What’s actually interesting, I just read a book called American Homicide, and it talked about – it’s a pretty amazing project – where they compiled murder statistics historically and went through all the newspapers, all the court trials, everywhere that they could get some sense of what the nature of murder is all about. And at the very end, he actually discussed that the statistics for the twentieth century are actually much less complete because the people, in terms of reporting on the crimes or counting on them, of murder, that the issue of motive was reported right away, whereas now, because you have to wait for the cases to go through the court, that the kind of reporting isn’t as detailed. So when you talk about newspaper accounts being willing to speculate all over the place as to why this person committed the murder, and the circumstances behind it, they’re much more detailed, actually, in this early accounts.

Len Sipes: Or speculative.

Anthony Vaver: Exactly, yes, yes.

Len Sipes: Okay. Now crime is a political issue throughout this entire era, and again, they’re under English rule up until the revolution, and then the American colonies form a country and pretty much go off on their own, and crime and politics and media coverage were as intermingled then as they are intermingled now, correct?

Anthony Vaver: Absolutely. So crime can often be used to make points, and one of my interests is in the institution of convict transportation, where convicts from Great Britain were transported to colonial America, and that began in 1718, and only came to an end in 1775, when the American Revolution came along and put a stop to that. And that’s actually when Great Britain had to scramble and eventually came up with the idea of sending their convicts halfway around the world to Australia.

Len Sipes: To Australia.

Anthony Vaver: So actually, colonial America was the first destination for convicts in terms of being transported out of –

Len Sipes: The American colonies – again, this is a matter of balance – Georgia, which I was just through the other day, was a penal colony, correct?

Anthony Vaver: It wasn’t, actually.

Len Sipes: Okay, tell me.

Anthony Vaver: It was set up as a place to send debtors, and the experiment – it first started off where James Oglethorpe sent a couple shiploads of debtors to the colonies, thinking that they could be better put to use there, and unfortunately, they were disappointed with the results. They were just – as some of the politicians said – they were just as unwilling to work in the colonies as they were in England, so in actuality, Georgia never really did serve as a place for convicts. In fact, none of the colonies ever did function as a penal colony. What happened is most of them were sent to Maryland or Virginia and they were auctioned off as indentured servants. They would serve for seven years on a plantation.

Len Sipes: But is there a way of getting a sense as to what percentage of the American population at that point were made up of people, whether they were debtors or whether they were burglars, regardless of their crimes – an awful lot of these individuals came over and settled in the American colonies.

Anthony Vaver: That’s correct. And mostly, as you can imagine, once they finished out their term, it’s very expensive to return back to England, and we actually don’t know a lot about what happened to them. Some of them went down to the Carolinas, some of them went off to the cities, but there were people who sometimes changed their name so they could rid themselves of their criminal past, so it’s very difficult to actually trace what indeed happened to these people. But there over 50,000 that were sent over.

Len Sipes: Fifty-thousand, that’s amazing.

Anthony Vaver: Fifty thousand sent through the eighteenth century and basically they accounted for, for that particular time, a quarter of all of the immigrants coming from Great Britain.

Len Sipes: That’s amazing. Twenty-five percent of everybody residing in the colonies at that point –

Anthony Vaver: Not residing – of the ones, of the immigrants coming over.

Len Sipes: Of the immigrants coming over. Twenty-five percent of the immigrants coming over. Okay.

Anthony Vaver: Coming over during the eighteenth century were –

Len Sipes: Amazing, but a very large percentage, nevertheless. And what was the impact? You know, we talked about English cities during this time, and we have this Dickens-esque sense of overcrowded cities, of kids just running pell-mell, of shoplifting and burglaries and drug addiction and drunkenness and overcrowding and poverty, so that was the English experience. I don’t know how stereotypical all that is, but they used to execute people on a regular basis for minor crimes. So they could pick you up shoplifting and execute you in England – correct or incorrect?

Anthony Vaver: That is correct, and that is where they ended up coming up with the convict transportation system. Before that time, if you were a petty thief and were picked up, for your first offense, you could claim what was called ‘benefit of clergy,’ and this was something that grew out of the Middle Ages, where if you could prove that you could read, then you were obviously a part of the clergy, and therefore fell under ecclesiastic laws as opposed to the secular laws.

Len Sipes: So they would memorize a passage of the bible and read it.

Anthony Vaver: Exactly. So that’s what ended up happening; it ended up being a farce because you would have all these criminals, then, that knew what to do. They’d memorize a passage and they’d come in, they’d say it, and they were let off. So finally, the parliament just institutionalized that and said, “Okay, anybody who comes in does their first offense, you’re branded with a ‘T’ on your thumb to show that you’ve actually been caught once, and then let go.” And then your second offense, if you were brought back in, that’s when you were subject to execution. But either way, there were a lot of crimes that sort of fell in the middle, where it didn’t seem like letting the criminal go with a brand – and sometimes the branding, if you could put a few coins in the brander’s hand, you could make it a little colder than what it needed to be to actually make it brand the actual thumb, or you’re hanging someone for an offense, and there really wasn’t any middle ground. And that’s when they came up with the idea of convict transportation and sending people over to the colonies so that they can actually work over here, and the colonies that needed the labor could put these people to work.

Len Sipes: Ladies and gentlemen, we’re more than halfway through the show. Our guest today is Dr. Anthony Vaver, Tony Vaver. He’s an author and publisher of – He is a PhD. Tony, was my stereotype of English cities during that time period correct?

Anthony Vaver: Bigger cities, absolutely. In terms of the cities in colonial America, they were quite different. I mean, they were –

Len Sipes: Now, isn’t that fascinating. With all those criminals that England shipped over to the United States – I keep saying the United States – to the colonies – with all those criminals that they shipped over here, and we’re talking about what, again, fifty thousand?

Anthony Vaver: Right. But again, most of those went to the plantations to work on plantations. But as the cities grew, then crime did become more of a problem. So, when you get into the later parts of the eighteenth century, you do have a rise in property crime and theft, in burglary. And that’s what – so the American cities, then, begin to take on more of the character of the English cities.

Len Sipes: Okay. And the newspaper coverage of the time, in terms of this rising crime in Baltimore and Philadelphia and New York and Boston and Savannah – Charleston and New Orleans I think were the big cities of the times – they said what about this rising crime? Did it become a political issue?

Anthony Vaver: Absolutely. And certainly, it called for greater and greater punishments. So for burglary, which really wasn’t much of a problem, when you have towns where most people knew each other and could handle it – once you start having bigger cities where you have criminals who are journeymen, who are traveling around all over New England and committing burglaries in different places, it becomes more and more of a problem, and so there was greater and greater cause to create greater penalties for this.

Len Sipes: But it wasn’t prisons at the time, right? It was like branding individuals, or flogging them publicly or putting them in stocks or fining them, right?

Anthony Vaver: That’s right, that’s right. And a lot of the colonies had, for burglars, like a three strikes and you’re out kind of proposition, where the first time that they were caught, they were subject to branding and to whipping. And then, their second offense would be something harsher than that. Maybe they were banished from the colony, and if they were caught once again, then they were subject to execution.

Len Sipes: Interesting.

Anthony Vaver: So, burglars were actually executed up until the very late eighteenth century, so even after the United States was formed. But to go back to another example of how crime was used politically – as you can well imagine, here was England sending over all of these convicts to colonial America, and a lot of the people here didn’t take a liking to that, that they were treating America as a dumping ground for the people that they didn’t want to take care of over in England –

Len Sipes: Which was true.

Anthony Vaver: Exactly, that’s right. Of course, ironically, as soon as these convicts landed, they were bought up almost as soon as they landed, because they were such a bargain in terms of labor, and the need for labor on the plantations was so great. So even though we didn’t like the idea of them being sent over, the actions of the plantation owners were quite different, because they actually wanted them. Well, Ben Franklin, who ran the Pennsylvania Gazette, he was one of the people who didn’t take too kindly to Great Britain sending over their convicts, so he used his newspaper where he first reported on several crimes that were going on in Maryland – for example, a gang of thieves who broke into a Maryland home and then robbed a store of goods. He gave another example of a forger who came from a well-respected Maryland family, but supposedly turned to crime under the influence of the transported convicts that were employed on the plantation. So he goes through and talks about some of these crimes that are going on in Maryland, and then he comes up with a proposal, saying, “Well, if England thinks that it’s a good idea to send over as trade their convicts, we certainly should send something back,” and he proposed sending rattlesnakes back to England. But he also went on to point out that actually, England was going to have the better of the deal, because rattlesnakes actually give warning before they attempt their mischief, which the convict does not.

Len Sipes: So we have newspapers and politics, sensational, very, very, very sensational attacking newspaper articles, and politics and crime are all intertwined, almost as they are today. I mean, again, it makes the newspapers and the media coverage of today seem tame compared to the newspaper coverage back then, or the media coverage back then, but it was all intertwined, just as it is today, and we had a three strike system back then, just as we do today.

Anthony Vaver: Yes, absolutely.

Len Sipes: Amazing, and that was under the English system. One quick question: the individuals who were transported as convicts, were they indentured servants? Were they given their freedom after a certain amount of time?

Anthony Vaver: Right. They would serve for seven years, and at the end of that seven years, then they were given their freedom, and for a little while, they were allowed to – once they served out their term, they were then subject to certain provisions from the planter, to help out the convict to get settled here in America. But then eventually the Virginia legislature thought that was too generous and really took away all of those provisions. So they were essentially out on their own, once they finished.

Len Sipes: And the whole system ended when the English instituted slavery.

Anthony Vaver: Well, they worked right alongside slaves throughout this period, and it really was the American Revolution that brought an end to the indentured servants in terms of the convicts coming over.

Len Sipes: Okay. But it was slavery that was pretty much the death knell of the indentured servant or convict labor, through the American Revolution.

Anthony Vaver: Right. Eventually, slavery does take over as the chief form of labor on the plantations.

Len Sipes: On the plantation system – but basically, it was – when did slavery begin?

Anthony Vaver: Slavery goes back to – the very beginnings are like the late seventeenth century, but it’s during the eighteenth century, during this time, that it really comes into its own. And you do have sort of the development of the slave system, and seeing the benefits – one of the problems, when you have an indentured servant – yes, it’s cheaper, but on the other hand, once they’re done, then you’ve lost their labor.

Len Sipes: You’ve lost their labor. And again, I’m certainly no expert on slavery; I was told that slavery began along the lines of the convict laborer / indentured servant, where the whole idea was to be free, but the planter system wouldn’t support that eventually, and then the whole thing become total slavery as we understand it today, I guess.

Anthony Vaver: Yeah, I don’t know much about that myself. Not surprisingly, a lot of the merchants who transported convicts over were also, or had been, slave merchants as well, so they had the experience in moving large numbers of people across the ocean, so they also ended up being the ones to transport convicts.

Len Sipes: Tony, we only have a couple minutes left in the program. Give me a sense of the typical American – because both under English rule and the United States, it’s still American – the average American in 1750 in terms of crime. Is it, where we say to ourselves today, “Certainly, I’ll go to New York, and certainly, I’ll go to Manhattan, but I’m not going to go to this part of the city, or I’m not going to go to that part of the city, because they’re dangerous.” Do we have that same sense of dangerousness in 1750 as we do in the United States of today?

Anthony Vaver: I don’t know if it’s to the same degree, or in the way that we particularly think about it, but certainly, when you do have large reports of crime and a sense of – for example, I’m very interested in burglaries lately, and you have a slew of burglaries that are taking place among the shops, say, in Boston. Certainly that gives the shop owners – you know, they become scared that they’re going to be subject to it. So that returns back to our political point of how that only generates more and more support for firmer penalties in terms of that crime.

Len Sipes: Right. Now there was a period of American history, before we go – try to cram all this into a half an hour show is pretty tough to do – but there was a period in our American history. I mean, Baltimore was known as ‘Mob Town.’ You know, that’s my home city, and it was political, and it was – you would actually have like the Gangs of New York, by Martin Scorsese, you would have gangs go after each other, and it was pretty scary. I mean, there was a certain point where – I’m trying to put this into context – it strikes me that the early American city of 1750 was principally property crime, correct?

Anthony Vaver: That’s correct. That’s –

Len Sipes: Not necessarily violent crime, stranger to stranger violent crime?

Anthony Vaver: That’s right, that’s right. I mean, usually when people talk about crime – and this was, you know, even the case over in England – when you said ‘crime,’ you basically meant property crime, is what comes to mind. Whereas today, when we talk about crime, I think there’s usually much more of a violent aspect to it.

Len Sipes: Yes, and that’s what –

Anthony Vaver: In terms of our imagination.

Len Sipes: And that’s what people seem to fear the most, but then again, at a certain point where the United States does become the United States under the article of the confederation – eventually it went to the Constitution – and we, if you will, controlled our own cities. It’s no longer under English rule. But these cities are pretty ‘mobbish’ places, politically, but not necessarily – did people see this disruption, the growing political parties and the opposition of the political parties, and then we had immigrants coming in. My Irish ancestors – not ancestors – my Irish family tells me all these stories about the Irish when we first came to the United States, and how – I mean, there was a lot of political turmoil, ethnic turmoil, but was that considered crime in the same way that we consider crime today?

Anthony Vaver: Well, certainly, as you do have an immigrant population moving into the cities, that really is something that does contribute to the rise in crime – also in terms of the way that you relate to your community – when you have Pennsylvania, where you have a Quaker society that’s trying to put in a just society, where everybody shares the same values, but once it becomes clear that you have these immigrants who are coming in who have very different ideas of how society should be and how society functions, then you have a conflict. You have a conflict between those groups, so the idea that we’re all in it together suddenly breaks down, and once you have that breakdown of community, then you have greater and greater opportunities for crime to be carried out.

Len Sipes: And the signs go up saying, “No dogs and Irish allowed inside of the store.”

Anthony Vaver: Right, right, right.

Len Sipes: Which it certainly does send a certain message. Our guest today – and Tony, I’ve got to have you back. We’re out of time, and I really do need to have you back, because I find this all immensely interesting. It doesn’t sound like there’s a whole heck of a lot of difference between the American experience of 1750 or the American experience of 1800 and what we have today. Our guest today, ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Tony Vaver. He is the author-publisher of – really fascinating website. I like to go to it. And it grounds me in my understanding of the criminal justice system, and it will do the same for you. The address: Ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety. We are up to 200,000 requests for the radio, television show, blog, and transcripts. Again, we really, really, really appreciate all of your comments. Some of them don’t deal with the show; some of them deal with personal situations. We’ll try to help you out the best way that we can. If you need to get in touch with me, it’s Court services and offender supervision agency in Washington, D.C. You can follow me or the program via Twitter at Twitter/LenSipes and please have yourself a very, very pleasant day.

– Audio ends –