Intergenerational Transmission of Criminal and Violent Behavior

Jul 11, 2013 - 0 Comments

Special to Crime Magazine: An excerpt taken from the introduction, summary and conclusion of Intergenerational Transmission of Criminal and Violent Behavior (published by Sidestone Press February, 2013).

by Sytske Besemer


“She’s going to end up like me. I do not want her to live that life. I do not want her to be out there making money or using drugs or running in and out of jail.”

(Giordano, 2010, p. 152)

Children whose parents exhibit criminal behavior have an increased risk of becoming criminal themselves. Criminal or antisocial parents appear to be the strongest family factor predicting offending. Similarly with aggression, children of aggressive parents tend to become aggressive. Although many studies have shown the existence of this phenomenon, little research has focused on the mechanisms underlying this transmission. This dissertation investigates mechanisms that might explain intergenerational transmission of criminal and violent behavior.

Crime and violent behavior is widespread in our society: in the Netherlands as well as in England and Wales about 25 percent of the population become victims of a crime every year, and between 3 to 5 percent experience a violent offense. It is increasingly recognized that especially being victimized by a violent crime can have long-term physical, emotional, practical and financial consequences.

Because of these profound negative consequences for those who are often the most vulnerable members of society, such as children, it is important to design effective interventions to reduce violent and criminal behavior. To do this, a more comprehensive understanding of the aetiology of such behaviour is necessary. This study contributes to that effort by providing knowledge about the development of violent and criminal behavior and pointing to relevant factors and mechanisms that a prevention program could tackle.

In addition, most intervention programs are targeted at individual offenders. A greater understanding of the mechanisms that cause children of violent or criminal parents to become violent or criminal themselves would enable interventions that would operate not only at the level of the offender, but at his or her entire family system.

Intergenerational Transmission

Intergenerational transmission does not literally mean that something physical is transmitted, such as a car or money, but means that some characteristic or behavior is seen in both the parent and the child. Intergenerational transmission is also referred to as intergenerational continuity. Intergenerational transmission of behavior can be wide ranging, from socioeconomic status, education, mental health status, parenting behaviors, substance use, to criminal behavior.

In this study, I have investigated mechanisms that might explain why children with criminal parents have a higher risk of committing crime. Several explanations for this intergenerational transmission have been contrasted, such as social learning (imitation of behavior), official bias against certain families, and transmission of risk factors. I have investigated this in England as well as in the Netherlands.

Some of the questions answered in my study are: Does it matter when the parents committed crime in the child’s life? Do more persistent offenders transmit crime more than sporadic offenders? Do violent offenders specifically transmit violent behavior or general crime to their children? Might the police and courts be biased against certain families? Might continuity of a criminogenic environment explain why parents as well as children show criminal behavior? Does parental imprisonment pose an extra risk?

I find some support for social learning and strong support for the transmission of a criminogenic environment and official bias. It does not matter at what point in the offspring’s youth parents commit crime; the risk of transmission is similar at different ages. Contrary to predictions, persistent offenders do not necessarily have more criminally active children than sporadic offenders, but violent offenders do specifically transmit violent offending. Official agencies appear to target offenders’ children more and thereby these children have a higher risk of being convicted, regardless of their level of offending. Subsequently, these children appear to increase their offending after being convicted. Growing up in an environment with many risk factors for crime seems to be an important explanation for why children of criminals have a higher risk to commit crime. Finally, parental imprisonment increases offspring offending in England, but not in the Netherlands. This could possibly be explained by the fact that, comparatively, Dutch prisons and penal policy were much more humane and liberal in the period during which our subjects experienced parental imprisonment (1946-81

Implications for policy and politics

Criminological research is vital in informing policy makers and politicians about what we know about what works to reduce criminal behavior. The research in this dissertation provides a compelling case for the existence of intergenerational transmission and for the need to intervene in this cycle of violence and offending.

It is desirable to focus attention on the children of convicted parents to try and stop this intergenerational transmission. A first suggestion would be to provide family-based intervention programs, such as parent education and parent management training. These have been shown to be effective in reducing offspring offending behavior. Parent education involves educating parents about the health of their children, but also serves to improve parents’ and children’s well being. Parent management training involves training parents to alter their child’s behavior. The results from this study demonstrate that these prevention programs would be desirable for all offspring with convicted parents, but especially for offspring whose parents are convicted more often and whose parents have been sent to prison.

In the case of parental imprisonment, several specific issues could be improved. Policy makers could expand opportunities for contact between prisoners and their children, through special children’s visits, affordable phone calls, schemes to record and playback stories and messages. Special child-centred visits remove a great deal of the stress involved in visiting parents in prison. Searching methods for normal visits vary for every prison, but can be rigorous and stressful for children; they range from walking through an electronic portal, taking off shoes, to walking past a drug dog, and some prisons require fingerprinting for all visitors. During normal visits, children and parents need to stay seated in their own chairs. Family visits take place in rooms specifically fitted for leisure time, parents can move around freely, children can play, run around, and sit on their parent’s lap. Such visits can be used to build family bonds and create positive experiences for parents and children. Children also show preference for such visits: “I like it when he doesn’t have to wear the red vest because he is like my dad not like a prisoner” (Lösel et al., 2011, p. 54).

A specific prevention program focused on prisoners and their children is Betere Start - Better beginnings - which supports incarcerated mothers in the last three months of their detention and afterwards. The program, based on the internationally recognised training program Incredible Years (Webster- Stratton, 1992), focuses on parent training and education. Preliminary results from the randomized controlled trial in the Netherlands show that children of incarcerated mothers involved in the program show less problem behavior and score lower on risk factors for delinquent behavior compared with children of incarcerated mothers who were not involved in Betere Start(De Castro, October 2011). The final results of this randomized controlled trial will be published mid-2012, so conclusions are still preliminary, but such a program might be effective in decreasing the risk of future criminal involvement for prisoners’ offspring.

Furthermore, financial support for prisoners’ families could be offered. Social support organizations should particularly pay attention to older children and adolescents who experience parental imprisonment. Moreover, children who experience many and longer parental imprisonments should be specifically targeted for support.

This study also demonstrated that risk factors appear important in the intergenerational transmission of criminal behavior. Some of these risk factors, such as a large family or having a mother who was a teenager when her first child was born, are static and therefore harder to change. Others are dynamic and hence more open to change, such as low family income, poor housing, poor job record of father and low interest in education by parents.

Even though the current study was unable to examine whether these risk factors are causing the offspring’s criminal behavior, these factors likely add to the risk and might be an opportunity to intervene in the cycle of intergenerational transmission. For example, improving someone’s employability might not only decrease that person’s criminal behavior, but also their offspring’s future criminal behavior. Even the more static factors, such as teenage motherhood, are open to intervention through the use of programs to reduce teenage pregnancy. When trying to reduce or prevent criminal behavior, it is important to focus not only on this behavior itself, but also on areas of life that might interactively impact on each other. As Farrington (2011, p. 133) suggested, we should perceive intergenerational transmission as “a larger cycle of deprivation and antisocial behavior.” The results from this study provide justification for targeting interventions at this larger cycle of deprivation.

Furthermore, the results from this study suggest an impact of penal, police, and prison policies on offspring of offenders. It appears that offspring of convicted parents are more likely to be convicted. This is not necessarily because they commit more crime, but because their parents are known offenders and because they live in poorer social circumstances characterised by having a father with a poor job record, low family income and poor housing. These offspring also tend to commit more criminal behavior than offspring with unconvicted parents and offspring who do not grow up in these poorer social circumstances, but if we take this into account, these individuals still have a higher risk of getting convicted. This is a crucial finding, and at the same time ethically undesirable. This finding conflicts with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations General Assembly, 1989). According to this convention, the state should protect children from discrimination or punishment based on the status or activities of the child’s parents. Moreover, the “the best interests of the child” should be the “primary consideration.” When children of convicted parents are disproportionally convicted, this clashes with the convention just quoted.

Official agencies might not be aware of their possible bias against these individuals. In social interaction and when perceiving information, people use schemas, or “cognitive frameworks for organising, interpreting, and recalling information” (R. A. Baron, Byrne & Johnson, 1998, p. 127). Prejudice and stereotypes help us to perceive the world around us, a world with often too much information to handle easily. Stereotypes conserve energy and save cognitive resources. The biasing variables are also risk factors for criminal behavior, so it is not surprising that police and other justice agencies might use these to focus their attention on. These stereotypes work, because people whose parents have been convicted and live in poor housing do have a higher risk to commit criminal behavior. However, it is vital that the police and courts are aware of this bias and that, in their decision-making, they try to reduce the impact of this bias. Furthermore, instead of convicting these people disproportionally often, it might be more fruitful to intervene on these poorer social circumstances. For example, housing or neighborhood improvement programs, and again improving someone’s employability would be ethically more appropriate and possibly also more effective interventions.

This study also demonstrated that offspring of convicted parents increased their offending behavior after they themselves had been convicted. Even though this study only found a significant effect for children of convicted parents and not for children of unconvicted parents, previous research has demonstrated evidence for this labelling effect as well. It is critical that politicians and policy makers are aware of this phenomenon. Penal policies aim to reduce criminal behavior, but by their actions, they actually increase the behavior that they want to decrease.

When comparing the impact of parental imprisonment in the Netherlands versus England, no additional impact of parental imprisonment was found in the Netherlands, but a strong impact was found in England. These results suggest that a country’s penal policy might impact on offenders’ children. Again, when trying to reduce criminal behavior, offending appears to increase in the next generation by these policies. By creating a less punitive penal atmosphere the impact of parental imprisonment on children might ease. This could be achieved by the earlier mentioned opportunities for child-friendly visits, but also by a more general shift towards prevention and rehabilitation instead of the emphasis on punishment. Instead of the current exclusion of offenders and their children (see also Garland, 2001; Micklewright, 2002; Murray, 2006; Young, 1999), we should strive to offer offenders opportunities out of crime and thereby also offer their offspring better opportunities. The message from this research would be that by developing and enforcing penal and prison policies the consequences for offenders’ children should be of vital importance. It is crucial that this knowledge is communicated to the general public and politicians, so they can design interventions for crime that might actually decrease criminal behaviour.


With the research in this study I have attempted to increase our knowledge of mechanisms of intergenerational continuity of offending and on the impact of sentencing of parents on offspring offending. Particularly the results on official bias and parental imprisonment are cause for concern, as they show that conviction of parents might actually increase offending behavior in the next generation. There is a clear need for replication studies to determine whether these findings are replicable, generalizable and whether parental conviction and imprisonment have a causal impact on offspring offending. This study also provides points of intervention in the cycle of intergenerational offending. It highlights how changes in research, practice, and policy could assist to reduce the part of intergenerational continuity that appears to originate in collateral consequences of parental conviction and imprisonment.

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