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Good families reduce crime

Studies show the factors early in life that lead to juvenile and adult criminal behavior

As U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions advises federal prosecutors to get tougher on crime, Christians can use this as an opportunity to consider why it is that people commit crimes in the first place. While conservatives tend to highlight the individual’s choice to sin against society and progressives tend to point to structural issues like poverty, the truth is actually somewhere in the middle. For example, in the juvenile justice system, we see the tragic intersection of the breakdown of the family, acting out, and poor choices that often leads to adult criminal behavior.

In a well-known 1998 study titled “Self Reports of Early Childhood Victimization Among Incarcerated Adult Male Felons” researchers found that 68 percent of the men surveyed said they experienced some form of early childhood victimization before age 12 involving physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect (neglect can include poor living conditions, absentee parenting, malnutrition, among other factors). The study said physical abuse was the most common type of victimization reported. The Justice Department used this study to highlight the fact that nearly 35 percent of these adult male felons reported severe physical abuse when they were children. The Justice Department added, “Sexual abuse and neglect were less commonly reported and often occurred in combination with other types of abuse. About 14 percent reported some form of childhood sexual abuse.”

Ongoing research shows that touch deprivation and early childhood parental neglect are important risk factors for aggression and violence in youth and children. For example, neglect impairs cognitive functioning, which makes juveniles more likely to become trapped in cycles of committing more crimes. Variables like parental separations, disorganized and chaotic homes, marital disharmony, involvement of the child’s father, and parental supervision serve as accurate predictors of delinquency and deviance. Chaotic and leaderless home environments are particularly linked to future delinquent activity in juveniles and adults.

According to an April 2017 article in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence (“Effect of Victimization on Impulse Control and Binge Drinking among Serious Juvenile Offenders from Adolescence to Young Adulthood”), researchers report that youth in the juvenile justice system are five times more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than other youth living in their community, and more than 90 percent say they’ve experienced at least one violent event in their lives, compared to just 60 percent of other young people in their area. The researchers added that youth involved with the juvenile justice system who develop an early onset of problem behaviors tend to struggle more with impulse control.

If we really want to fight crime and close prisons, we need to do whatever we can to make sure that children are protected from abuse and neglect so that they will make wise decisions as adolescents and adults.

What does all this data tell us? Perhaps when we see a photo of a prison inmate or a juvenile delinquent in an orange jumpsuit charged with a crime, instead of seeing a “thug” it might be better to see a likely victim of child abuse and/or neglect who made a series of unwise, impulsive, and allegedly criminal decisions. Because of the convergence of factors like broken families, neglect, touch deprivation, physical and sexual abuse, lack of impulse control, and substance abuse (often as a form of self-medication), why are we surprised when these individuals act out and hurt others? In fact, it seems irrational to assume that the threat of a harsh prison sentence is an effective deterrent to crime against moral decisions made with these types of emotional and psychological challenges.

If we really want to fight crime and close prisons, we need to do whatever we can to make sure that children are protected from abuse and neglect so that they will make wise decisions as adolescents and adults. This is not astrophysics. A maltreated, neglected, or abused child is much more likely to commit a crime against a neighbor than a child from a two-parent home where he or she received years of warmth, compassion, affection, empathy, spiritual and intellectual nurture, and training in wisdom.

Anthony Bradley Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.


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