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Effects of Criminal Parents on Children

1. Risk of Becoming a Delinquent

Areas with more intact families tend to have lower levels of youth violence, whereas communities with non-intact families, especially single-parent families, report a significant increase in youth violence.1) Patterns of crime and violence are then transmitted on from generation to generation.2)

In a longitudinal study of 394 families in England, David P. Farrington, professor of criminology at Cambridge University, found that approximately 4 percent of these families accrued almost half of the convictions of the entire sample.3) “The fact that delinquency is transmitted from one generation to the next is indisputable…. [F]ewer than 5 percent of the families accounted for almost half of the criminal convictions in the entire sample…. In order to achieve such concentration of crime in a small number of families, it is necessary that the parents and the brothers and sisters of offenders also be unusually likely to commit criminal acts.”

The findings for England, though dramatic and for a different culture and country, comport with the earlier U.S. research as summarized by Professor Kevin Wright of the State University of New York at Binghamton:

The Gluecks determined that delinquents were more likely than nondelinquents to have delinquent fathers and mothers. Subsequent studies supported the Gluecks' findings, observing that delinquent boys were more likely to have delinquent or criminal parents. In a study of the families of black delinquents in St. Louis, Robins found that a child's delinquent behavior was associated with 1) arrests of one or both of the parents in their adult years, and 2) a history of juvenile delinquency on the part of the parents. Children with two parents with criminal histories were at extremely high risk of delinquency.4)

Girls involved in crime tend to mate with (if not marry) men with criminal records.5) Jill Leslie Rosenbaum of California State University, describing young delinquent women in her study, states: “[T]he men in the wards' lives bore a striking resemblance to the men chosen by their mothers. Many were significantly older than the girls and had criminal records.”6)

2. Violent Families in Violent Neighborhoods

Violent youth often come from violent parents. Violent youth are the most likely to have witnessed conflict and violence between their parents.7) According to the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, in 2011 22 percent of children had witnessed violence in their homes, schools, and communities in the past year, and one in twelve children saw one family member assault another in the past year.8) Children exposed to family violence are also the most likely to commit serious violent crime and to become “versatile” criminals – those engaged in a variety of crimes, including, theft, fraud, and drugs.9) Among these youths, victims of violent crime are more likely to be perpetrators of violent crimes.10) Physically or sexually abused boys commit the most violent offenses.

Internal family violence is only one major contributor to adolescent violence in these socially disorganized neighborhoods. The neighborhood itself (which includes the youth's violent peers, also rooted in their own broken families) is the other powerful contributor,11) especially to violent delinquency.12) This culture of aggression and violence is imported into the school. Consider these facts from the Centers for Disease Control:13)

  • In 2011, 5.9% of youth in grades 9-12 report not going to school one or more days in the past month because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to/ from school.14)
  • In 2011, 16.6% of males in grades 9-12 reported carrying a weapon (gun, knife, or club) in the past thirty days.15)
  • In 2010, 784 juveniles (<18 years) were arrested for murder, 2,198 for forcible rape, and 35,001 for aggravated assault.16)
  • During the 2009-2010 school year, 17 homicides of school-age youths ages 5 to 18 years occurred at school.17)

Children exposed to violence are much more likely to experience physical, mental, and emotional problems as a result.18) Given the level of violence in their neighborhoods, for young people to carry guns for self-defense is perhaps understandable.19) And the youth most likely to feel the need for defense is the member of a street gang in a violent neighborhood. After he has committed his first violent crime, the evidence shows that he is likely to commit further crimes and more than twice as likely as other criminal youths to commit more violence.20) Various studies indicate that violent crime is much more likely to come to the attention of the police and lead to investigation and arrest.21) For example, Franklyn W. Dunford and Delbert S. Elliott of the Behavioral Research Institute at Boulder, Colorado, find that young violent criminals are more likely than others to be arrested.22)

As a result of the low arrest rate for criminals, even the alarming official crime figures do not give policymakers a true picture of what is happening in high-crime communities. According to Dunford and Elliott, 93 percent of those committing between 100 and 200 offenses between 1976 and 1978 were not arrested, while 81 percent of the youth responsible for more than 200 offenses during the same two-year period were not arrested. Explains Dunford: “These data suggest that only those at the extreme have any risk of arrest, and even that risk is not high. It appears that the volume of crime committed by these youth may be such that arrest is a function of chance alone. The police may, figuratively, be stumbling over them. The likelihood of arrest is close to zero until one reports in excess of 100 total offenses.”23) Elsewhere in the same study, Dunford reports: “Of the 242 [career criminals] 86 percent had no record of arrest. In other words, the overwhelming majority of self-reported career offenders were never arrested during a three year period when they were involved in very frequent and serious criminal offenses.”

Given the very high frequency of undetected crime by career (expert) criminals, the other dramatic finding from the Cambridge University study of British delinquents24) may hold for the United States as well: that 50 percent of all crime probably comes from less than 5 percent of the delinquents' families.

However, adolescent criminals can and frequently do change. For males, getting married and holding a stable job encourage desistence from offending.25)

1) Chris Knnoester and Dana L. Haynie, “Community Context, Social Integration into Family, and Youth Violence,” Journal of Marriage and Family 67, No 3. (August 2005): 767-780.
2) “The fact that delinquency is transmitted from one generation to another is indisputable”; West and Farrington, The Delinquent Way of Life: Third Report of the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, p. 109.
3) “The fact that delinquency is transmitted from one generation to another is indisputable”; West and Farrington, The Delinquent Way of Life: Third Report of the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, p. 109., quoted in Cindy L. Hanson, S.W. Henggeler, W.F. Haefele, and J.D. Rodic, “The Demographic, Individual and Family Relationship Correlates of Serious and Repeated Crime Among Adolescents and Their Siblings,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 52 (1984), pp. 528-538.
4) Kevin N. Wright and Karen E. Wright, “Family Life and Delinquency and Crime: A Policymaker’s Guide to the Literature,” prepared under interagency agreement between the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice, 1992.
5) D.J. West, Delinquency: Its Roots, Careers and Prospects (London: Heimann, 1982).
6) Jill L. Rosenbaum, “Family Dysfunction and Female Delinquency,” Crime and Delinquency 35 (1989): 31-44.
7) Candace Kruttschmitt, Linda Heath, and David A. Ward, “Family Violence, Television View Habits and Other Adolescent Experiences Related to Violent Criminal Behavior,” Criminology, Vol. 24 (1986), pp. 235-267.
8) Child Trends, “Children's exposure to violence” (2013). Available at http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=childrens-exposure-to-violence.
9) Margolin, G., & Elana B. G., “Children's exposure to violence in the family and community” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, no.4 (2004), 152-155.
Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K., “Children’s exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey,” U.S. Department of Justice (2009) Available at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227744.pdf.
10) Madeline Wordes and Michell Nunez, “Out vulnerable teenagers: Their victimization, its consequences, and directions for prevention and intervention,” National Council on Crime and Delinquency (2002).
Scott W. Menard, Short and Long-Term Consequences of Adolescent Victimization, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2002).
11) Patrick F. Fagan, “The Real Root Causes of Violent Crime: The Breakdown of Marriage, Family, and Community,” The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #1026 on Crime. Available at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1995/03/bg1026nbsp-the-real-root-causes-of-violent-crime
Chris Knnoester and Dana L. Haynie, “Community Context, Social Integration into Family, and Youth Violence,” Journal of Marriage and Family 67, No 3. (August 2005): 767-780.
12) D. Wayne Osgood and Jeff M. Chambers, “Social Disorganization Outside the Metropolis: An Analysis of Rural Youth Violence,” Criminology 38, No. 1 (2000): 81-115.
Elliott et al., The Dynamics of Deviant Behavior: A National Survey Progress Report.
13) “Youth Violence: Facts at a Glance,” Center of Disease Control (2012) available at http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/YV-DataSheet-a.pdf (accessed August 20, 2015).
14) , 15) , 16) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2011. MMWR, Surveillance Summaries 2012; 61(no. SS-4). Available from ss6104.pdf.
17) Robers S, Zhang J, Truman J, Synder TD, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2011,” National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC; 2010. Available from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012002.pdf.
18) Gayla Margolin and Elana B. Gordis, “Children’s exposure to violence in the family and community,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 13 (2004): 152-155.
David Finkelhor, Richard Ormrod, Heather Turner, and Sherry L. Hamby, “The victimization of children and youth: A comprehensive, national survey,” Child Maltreatment 10 (2005): 5-25.
Naomi Duke, Sandra L. Pettingell, Barbara McMorris, and Iris W. Borowky, “Adolescent violence perpetration: association with multiple types of adverse childhood experiences,” Pediatrics 125 (2010): e778-e786.
19) Alan J. Lizotte, James M. Tesoriero, Terence P. Thornberry, and Marvin D. Krohn, “Patterns of Adolescent Firearms Ownership and Use,” Justice Quarterly, Vol. 11 (1994), pp. 51-74.
20) Patricia Brennan, Sarnoff Mednick, and Richard John, “Specialization in Violence: Evidence of a Criminal Subgroup,” Criminology, Vol. 27, No. 3 (1989), pp. 437-453.
Magda Stouthamer-Loeber, “Persistence and Desistence in Offending,” (unpublished report, Pittsburgh, Pa: Life History Research Program, University of Pittsburgh, 2010. As cited by the National Institute of Justice, “From Juvenile Delinquency to Young Adult Offending,” available at http://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/Pages/delinquency-to-adult-offending.aspx#note5.
21) Patricia Brennan, Sarnoff Mednick, and Richard John, “Specialization in Violence: Evidence of a Criminal Subgroup,” Criminology, Vol. 27, No. 3 (1989), pp. 437-453. This specialization in violence is noted in other countries also. The major longitudinal Danish research study, a birth cohort of 28,884, is reported in the Brennan study.
22) Franklyn W. Dunford and Delbert S. Elliot, “Identifying Career Offenders Using Self-Reported Data,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 21, No. 1 (February 1984), pp. 57-86. Dunford and Alliot also find that very few serious criminals are in fact arrested.
23) Franklyn W. Dunford and Delbert S. Elliot, “Identifying Career Offenders Using Self-Reported Data,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 21, No. 1 (February 1984), pp. 57-86.
24) David P. Farrington, “Later Adult Life Outcomes of Offenders and Nonoffenders,” in Children at Risk: Assessment, Longitudinal Research and Intervention, ed. Michael Brambring et al. (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1989), pp. 220-244.
25) Julie Horney, Patrick Tolan, and David Weisburd, “Contextual Influences,” From Juvenile Delinquency to Adult Crime: Criminal Careers, Justice Policy, and Prevention, eds. Rolf Loeber and David P. Farrington, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012: 86-117.