Posted on October 23, 2018

When Crime Is a Family Affair

Fox Butterfield, Atlantic, October 22, 2018

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 abundanceof 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. {snip}

{snip} the real number of people in the Bogle clan I found who have been incarcerated or placed on probation or parole would turn out to be 60.

The Bogles had a story to tell about what happens in a criminal family. “What you are raised with, you grow to become,” says Tracey Bogle, who served a 16-year prison sentence for kidnapping, armed robbery, assault, car theft, and sexual assault. {snip}

While Tracey’s father, Rooster, was the most malevolent member of the bunch, the family’s history of criminality stretches back to 1920, when Rooster’s mother and father made and sold moonshine during Prohibition. {snip}

{snip} Not surprisingly, the fun thing to do in the Bogle household when Tracey was growing up was stealing. He learned by imitating his father and his older brothers and his uncles, all of whom eventually went to prison. {snip}

{snip} All of his children, seven sons and three girls, were incarcerated at one point or another.

When you come to realize the importance of family in crime, the $182-billion-a-year U.S. criminal-justice system seems fundamentally misguided. Mass incarceration has created a giant churn: The more people we lock up now, the more people we will have to lock up in the future. {snip}


{snip} After Hurricane Katrina hammered New Orleans in 2005 and pulverized large chunks of the city’s housing, the Oxford University criminologist David Kirk saw amid the wreckage an opportunity for a potentially once-in-a-lifetime study. Many recently released prisoners living in New Orleans couldn’t return to their homes, and a large number of them ended up moving to Texas. Several years after their release, the former prisoners who left for Texas had lower rates of recidivism than did those who stayed behind in New Orleans, because they had broken their social networks. Based on his findings, Kirk created a volunteer program for prisoners in Baltimore to receive housing allowances from the state of Maryland on the condition that they move to another part of the state after their release. The early results are encouraging, Kirk says, and the cost per inmate is $1,230 a month, a fraction of the cost of prison.


The stunning transmission of criminality from parents to kids doesn’t mean that some families are cursed to an eternity of crime: There’s no immutable “crime gene” that’s passed down from generation to generation. {snip}