Magazine article Insight on the News

The Apple Doesn't Fall Far in Families Linked to Crime; Recent Studies Show That Crime Runs in Families, but Experts Disagree on Whether the Reason for This Is Genetic or Environmental

Magazine article Insight on the News

The Apple Doesn't Fall Far in Families Linked to Crime; Recent Studies Show That Crime Runs in Families, but Experts Disagree on Whether the Reason for This Is Genetic or Environmental

Article excerpt

Don't I know you?" asks Judge Geoffrey M. Alprin of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, leaning over his high bench to study a woman on the witness stand. "Didn't you just recently testify [in another case], and didn't I send your daughter to Georgia after she slashed those tires?"

As it turns out, the judge knows not only Lenita Burrell and her daughter, but also her son, standing trial for murder, and her boyfriend, George Melson, charged with obstructing justice for trying to keep his nephew from testifying. As a prosecutor years ago, Alprin had worked on a manslaughter case involving Melson, who lives with Burrell in Northeast Washington.

Judge Alprin's familiarity with the family exemplifies the adage that the apple never falls far from the tree, but psychologists and criminologists have studied the phenomenon of criminal families more system-atically. "Recent studies have shown crime tends to run in families," says Charles Bahn, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Within a family, you learn how to behave by your role models. Often, there is a lot of criminality around and the guy who sells drugs on the corner is the hero of the neighborhood. Some call it being caught in the swamps of psychosocial problems."

New research has rekindled the old nature or nurture debate: Is criminality inherited or learned? Professor David Silber, a crime and violence specialist who teaches psychology at George Washington University, favors the nurture theory. "They live on mean streets," he says of families who turn to crime. "Their peers reward them for tough, antisocial behavior." Young people in poor communities often find themselves acting as parents, with their own children or with siblings, before they are ready to accept such responsibility. "They don't have enough experience in living," says Silber. "It all stacks the deck."

But other researchers claim to have reams of data showing a link between genetics and crime. One well-known Danish study of 14,000 boys "adopted away" between 1924 and 1947 found that those who had criminal biological fathers were far more likely to commit crimes than those with law-abiding biological fathers. More recently, California psychologist Sarnoff Mednick found that the longer the criminal record of the biological father, the longer the criminal record of the son -- although in most cases father and son never met. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.