Does Crime Run in Families?

When people are labelled 'criminal', this label or stigma might influence someone's self-perception; people will act in accordance with the label attached to them by society.

Sytske Besemer [2008] investigated intergenerational transmission of criminal and violent behaviour at the Institute of Criminology. She has recently been awarded a Rubicon fellowship from NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, and is now doing a post-doc at UC Berkeley in California. This blog is based on part of Sytske Besemer's dissertation which is shortly being published by Sidestone Press. Picture credit: sakhorn38 and

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree', 'Like father like son', 'chip off the old block'. Many people agree with these idioms and even more people have ideas as to why crime runs in families: bad upbringing, growing up in bad neighbourhoods, and 'it's in the genes' among them. To some extent these explanations are supported by empirical research and in my dissertation I examine some of these mechanisms. Something people do not generally think about, however, is whether criminal justice policies might nourish this cycle of intergenerational crime.

One way in which the criminal justice system might increase intergenerational transmission is through imprisonment of the parents (see earlier news post and the Gates Scholar Magazine). A less extensively investigated mechanism, however, is official bias. Official bias means that the police and other agents in the justice system such as judges focus their attention on a certain group of people, such as children of criminal parents. This mechanism suggests that such children are seen as 'usual suspects' and will get caught more often, get convicted more easily, and appear in criminal records more often. This would then explain why we find a relationship between parental and offspring convictions.

Using English data we investigated whether sons of convicted parents had an increased risk of conviction compared to sons of unconvicted parents. Not only did we have information about their criminal records, but over the years these sons were asked to report whether they had taken part in delinquent behaviour. We grouped sons with similar levels of self-reported offending and found that sons with a convicted parent had an increased risk of having a conviction compared to sons of unconvicted parents. This supports the idea of official bias.

Moreover, we know that a criminal conviction increases criminal behaviour. This process is called 'labelling'. When people are labelled 'criminal', this label or stigma might influence someone's self-perception; people will act in accordance with the label attached to them by society. Furthermore, the criminal label might block conventional and non-criminal pathways and thereby pushes people into a criminal lifestyle. This label could be a crucial event leading to a more persistent delinquent life course.

These are disturbing results, because it seems that the criminal justice system accomplishes exactly the opposite of what it aims to do: reduce crime. However, it is not surprising that justice agencies focus their attention on what they think will be the usual suspects. Prejudice and stereotypes help us to perceive the world around us, a world with often too much information to readily handle. These stereotypes work, because children from criminal parents do have a higher risk to commit crime. However, it is undesirable that criminal justice policies increase crime.

Therefore, it is vital to make criminal justice agents aware of this bias and the impact on future offending. Second, we know that other mechanisms such as growing up in a poor environment also impact on intergenerational transmission of criminal behaviour. Instead of increasing criminal behaviour among children of criminal parents, it would be preferable to try and prevent the development of this behaviour in the first place. Energy and resources would be better spent on family-based prevention programmes, such as parent education and parent management training. Such programmes have been shown effective in reducing offspring offending. If special attention were focused on children of criminal parents, this could be a more positive and effective means of preventing criminal behaviour.


What's Hot