Theories concerned with how and why individuals become criminals have been circulating since the late nineteenth century and range from physiological reasons to issues concerned with the community and social problems. One such discussion point for the former is the impact of problems in the family environment as being the cause of offender behaviour in childhood, adolescence and beyond into adulthood. In practice, it becomes clear that these problems are a significant cause of delinquency and criminality, and whilst they may not be held entirely to account for the behaviour of the individual, their impact certainly doesn’t help the situation. On study carried out by Brown et al. in 1992 led them to draw the conclusion that, “early intervention with high risk youths and their families is needed to address effectively their problems and troubled behaviour before drug use and delinquent careers become firmly established.” (Brown et al, 1992, p245). Equally, in another study carried out by Donker et al. in 2011, of the 2076 child subjects they assessed, 1335 of them reported on their delinquent behaviour some twenty-four years later (Donker et al, 2011, p187). Clearly, the links between problems in childhood and the family and criminality are there, suggesting that the crux of the problem is the family – a situation which needs addressing.
Exposure to problems in the family home usually indicates that the individual has been witness to domestic abuse. Kelly Richards produced literature for the Australian government entitled Children’s Exposure to Domestic Violence in Australia. In the course of this, Richards defines what is meant to be ‘exposure to domestic violence’ by pinpointing specific events such as hearing the violence, being used as a physical weapon, being forced to take part in the assault, being forced to spy on a parent, being told that their parents’ actions are because of their behaviour, being used as a hostage, defending a parent against violence and/or intervening to prevent violence (Richards, June 2011, p1). This broad spectrum of events is designed to highlight the exact details of what could later cause criminality and instead, Richards refers to the overview of resulting effects which include increased aggression, antisocial behaviour, lower social competence and an increased likelihood of substance abuse (Richards, June 2011, p3) indicating that early exposure to domestic abuse and violence can lead to an increased chance of criminality. In this instance, criminality is discussed as being acts which go against either the law or society’s expectations of ‘good’ behaviour. Criminality is a type of deviancy and in this instance; it is deviance from the social expectations placed upon an individual. Richard’s study clearly demonstrates an increased chance of behaving in a socially unacceptable way – substance abuse, lower social competency, antisocial behaviour and an increased level of aggression are all indicators that the individual is more likely to act violently or aggressively in a circumstance where those who had not been exposed to early domestic violence, would have not reacted at all. In another study, carried out in February 2011, Richards discusses how in Australia, between the years of 2007 and 2008, “the offending rate for persons ages 15 to 19 years was four times the rate for offenders aged more than 19 years (6387 and 1818 per 100,000 respectively).” (Richards, Feb. 2011, p2). This study seems to indicate that for the most part, adolescent offenders are more prevalent in society than adult ones indicating that, for the most part; juvenile offenders ‘grow out’ of their delinquent behaviour. The further suggestion here is that those who do continue on with such behaviour into adulthood and more likely to be those who are severely affected by domestic circumstances as a child as they represent a minority rather than a majority.
A 2007 study, carried out by Donna Bishop et al. stated that “Research has thus produced some fairly compelling evidence of interactions between neuropsychological factors and family environments in the co-production of juvenile delinquency and adult crime.” (Bishop et al, 2007, p1242). The discussion is formed around pre-existing studies which address different family and neighbourhood factors which can contextualise the criminality of young people. One study discussed is a 2002 one by Rankin & Quane, in which they conclude that “Parental monitoring was significantly higher in neighbourhoods with greater social cohesion, and youths whose parents monitored their actions more effectively had lower involvement with in delinquency.” (Bishop et al, 2007, p1245). The implications of this are clear: the more pro-active the parent, the less delinquent the child. From this, it is easy to draw conclusions which indicate that children, whose parents are less involved in their child’s behaviour and in controlling their child’s immature impulses, are more likely to become involved in criminal activity. Parental reasons for not being as involved with their child’s activities could be a wide range of reasons but, it is clear that parenting must be ‘hands-on’ in order to prevent juvenile criminality. Bishop et al. also carried out their own study to investigate these effects on a national sample – something which is discussed as being ‘noteworthy’ due to the previously smaller samples in similar studies. The national sample consisted of high-risk adolescents and was categorised into two distinct sections: “life-course-persistents” or “adolescence-limiteds” (Bishop et al, 2007, p1246). The importance of this latter element is to demonstrate the overall impact of childhood disruptions in the family environment in terms of its long-term consequences – do the individuals in question stop acting up as they mature into adults or does their criminality continue on into adulthood? With a focus on the impact of the neighbourhood as a context, the study focuses on “perceptual measures” which indicate, with a higher degree of qualitative accuracy, the impact of youths’ views of criminogenic influences in their neighbourhood. The study looked at 513 young people who were aged fifteen by 1994 and who produced “valid interviews during the years 1994, 1996 and 1998.” (Bishop et al, 2007, p1247). The study produced results which strongly demonstrated that the ‘life-course-persistents’ group were largely males who had had prenatal problems and who were more likely to be born to an unmarried mother. By comparison, the ‘adolescence-limited’ group were shown to have slightly elevated family circumstances with their maternal circumstances being slightly improved. Overall, the study states a number of conclusions including being male and non-white as being major factors in young people becoming lifelong offenders, and strongly indicates that prenatal problems and maternal issues can instigate a stronger chance of criminality, regardless of neighbourhood as parents will or won’t be involved with their child and that ultimately, it is this parental disregard that enhances the individual’s chance of delinquency (Bishop et al, 2007, p1255).
Another study concerned with the long-term effects of disruptive childhood behaviour is the 2011 study, carried out by Andrea G. Donker et al. and entitled Predicting adult violent delinquency: Gender differences regarding the role of childhood behaviour. The study took a sample of 2600 randomly-selected children, aged between four and sixteen years old and from the Dutch province of Zuid-Holland. And initial assessment was carried out by 2076 parents in which they answered questions on a Child Behaviour Checklist. Following this initial assessment, the sample were approached repeatedly over the years until in 2007, all members of the remaining sample reached the age of middle-adulthood (ages 28 to 40) – many had dropped out or died or were otherwise unable to complete the study meaning that the final sample was for 1335 individuals – 67% of the initial sample (Donker et al, 2011, p190). The study was concerned with charting the continued criminality of these individuals: did they simply grow out of their disruptive behaviour or did they grow into criminal adults? Of the 1335 individuals, 66 males and 32 females self-reported one or more violent offences (Donker et al, 2011, p191). Equally, the study concluded that girls, whose parents reported disruptive behaviour when they were children, were five times more likely to report violent delinquency in adulthood (Donker et al, 2011, p192). The study also indicated that teachers and parents were more likely to report male aggression and under-report female aggression (Donker et al, 2011, p192) which indicates that the findings could be somewhat swayed towards boys being considered as having a higher level of criminality. Simply put, this study highlights the association between childhood disruptive behaviour and adulthood criminality. Where this study does fail, is in its discussion of what causes that childhood behaviour in the first place. Based on the aforementioned studies, it is clear that it is borne out of an unhappy home life where there may be instances of domestic abuse or even physical abuse carried out upon the child himself. It is, however, clear that there is a correlation between childhood behaviour and adulthood behaviour – indicating further, the importance of early intervention for such matters.
It is clear that there is a certain correlation between childhood and adulthood behaviours. Furthermore, these behaviours seems indicative of a deeper root of criminality in those whose delinquent behaviour continues on into adulthood, demonstrating that their familiar circumstances as a child were unsatisfactory in what is deemed necessary for producing a health, law-abiding, socially-able adult. In all the studies discussed here, a major point for discussion in each was the need for greater investigation into the effects of earlier intervention with regard to its impact on reducing the number of adult criminals. Development in childhood can be easily hampered by uneasy domestic circumstances such as the existence of domestic abuse, physical abuse upon the child, parental involvement with the child’s activities or even disruptive behaviour in school. A simple fact can be drawn from this which is that disruption in childhood (meaning a broad spectrum of issues) often leads to a much higher chance of adult criminality.
Bishop, D. M. et al. (2007). The Effects of Prenatal Problems, Family Functioning, and Neighbourhood Disadvantage in Predicting Life-Course-Persistent Offending. Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 34(10), pp. 1241-1261.
Donker, A. G. et al. (2011). Predicting Adult Violent Delinquency: Gender differences regarding the role of childhood behaviour. European Journal of Criminology 8(187), pp. 187-197.
Brown, C. H. et al. (1992). The Role of Family Factors, Physical Abuse, and Sexual The Role of Family Factors, Physical Abuse, and Sexual Victimization Experiences in High-Risk Youths' Alcohol and Other Drug Use and Delinquency: A Longitudinal Model. Violence and Victims 7(3), pp. 245-266.
Richards, K. (Feb. 2011). What Makes Juvenile Offenders Different From Adult Offenders? Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice 409, pp. 1-8.
Richards, K. (June 2011). Children’s Exposure to Domestic Violence in Australia. Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice 419, pp. 1-7.