NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 30, 2007

In "Does Child Abuse Cause Crime?" authors Janet Currie and Erdal Tekin focus on the effect of child maltreatment on crime using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

The authors find that child maltreatment roughly doubles the probability that an individual engages in many types of crime.  This is true even if we compare twins, one of whom was maltreated when the other one was not.

According to the authors:

  • Having access to a gun at home increases the propensity to commit a variety of crimes by about 30 percent among adolescents.
  • Decreases in gun ownership over the 1990s can explain up to a third of the decline in crime over the same period.
  • Exposure to firearm violence approximately doubles the probability that an adolescent will engage in serious violence over the subsequent two years, so that effects of maltreatment are similar to those of exposure to gun violence.

One potential explanation for the large effects is that children who experience maltreatment start engaging in crime earlier, an explanation that appears to be supported by studies the authors highlight.  Abused or neglected children are more likely to be arrested as both juveniles and as adults.  Starting to engage in criminal behavior early may increase illegal human capital by raising experience in criminal activities, and decrease human capital in legitimate activities, such as schooling or being in the labor market. This would further increase criminal propensities.

Estimates suggest that the crime induced by abuse costs society about $6.7 billion per year at the low end and up to $62.5 billion at the high end.  The estimates depend on the social costs attributed to crime, and specifically, whether those costs include estimates of willingness to pay to avoid crime, say the authors.

Source: Les Picker, "Does Child Abuse Cause Crime?" NBER Digest, January 2007; based upon: Janet Currie and Erdal Tekin, "Does Child Abuse Cause Crime?" National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 12171, April 2006.

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