May 21, 2019

When Crime Is a Family Affair

“When kids choose a profession, they tend to follow in their parents’ footsteps: Doctors’ children often become doctors, lawyers produce lawyers, and plumbers beget plumbers. So, after 15 years of covering crime and criminal justice for The New York Times, I was fascinated by studies—conducted in cities across the United States and in London, England, with near-identical results—showing that crime, too, can run in families. In the most famous study, researchers followed 411 boys from South London from 1961 to 2001 and found that half of the convicted kids were accounted for by 6 percent of all families; two-thirds of them came from 10 percent of the families.

This intergenerational transmission of violence was first documented in the 1940s when a husband-and-wife team at Harvard Law School found that two-thirds of boys in the Boston area sent by a court to a reformatory had a father who had been arrested; 45 percent also had a mother who had been arrested. And, in 2007, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded that half of the roughly 800,000 parents behind bars have a close relative who has previously been incarcerated.

Yet, despite the abundance of evidence showing the role of family in crime, criminologists and policymakers have largely neglected this factor—as the University of Maryland criminologist John Laub told me, it’s because any suggestion of a possible biological or genetic basis for crime could be misconstrued as racism. Instead, researchers have looked at other well-known risk causes like poverty, deviant peers at school, drugs, and gangs. Of course, these are real issues. But, a child’s life begins at home with the family even before the neighborhood, friends, or classmates can lead them astray.”

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