NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Is Criminality Hereditary?

September 5, 2002

The Justice Department reports that nearly half of all prison inmates have close relatives who have been in prison. That realization could re-ignite an old debate: is a tendency to a life of crime passed along genetically from generation to generation?

  • There is "a significant genetic component to antisocial behavior," according to David Comings, director of medical genetics at City of Hope National Medical Center in California, adding that such behavior must be due to a combination of many different genes, rather than a single one.
  • Social factors are the cause of crime, according to Dina Rose, a director of the Women's Prison Association and Home, a New York nonprofit that provides transitional services; among those factors is the fall in families' living standards that often occurs when the father is imprisoned and the social stigma children suffer from having a criminal father.

Ben de Haan, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections and creator of a program aimed at reducing the number of children who follow their parents into crime, encourages prisoners to develop healthy relationships with their children while they are still behind bars.

A program underway at Oregon's women's prison assigns participants teddy bears, which the prisoners must treat as though they were their own children.

Oregon's programs are too recent to show results. But de Haan is encouraged. One female prisoner, for example, refused to allow her teddy bear to remain alone with convicted sex offenders.

Source: John Ritter, "A Town Wonders: Does Crime Run in Families?" USA Today, September 5, 2002.

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