Social Environment Contributes to Crime

Introduction

The September 6, 2002 issue of the Columbus Dispatch carried an article by syndicated columnist Cal Thomas. It’s a good example of the saying that a little knowledge can be dangerous.

Thomas uses one book – and ignores a mountain of contrary evidence – to argue that crime is caused by human flaws and not external factors.

Thomas’s inclination to ignore evidence is clearly exposed on the one issue where he disagrees with the book’s author – namely, the author’s support for evolution.

Overwhelming evidence for evolution comes from many scientific fields. But Thomas dismisses it all by sniffing that evolution “carries its own set of epistemological and even theological problems.”

The article shows he’s just as prone to ignore reams of evidence about the causes of crime.

Crime and international comparisons

A comparison of crime rates among various nations indicates that social environments strongly influence criminal behavior.

For instance, the homicide rate for young whites in the U.S. has been six times the rate for all races combined in France. And the rate has been twenty times the total homicide rate in Japan.

A similar phenomenon is seen in regard to Hispanics. The incidence of juvenile delinquency among Puerto Rican youth in New York City is far higher than that of their peers in Puerto Rico.

Overall, murder rates in the U.S. have been between three and twenty times those of other industrialized countries.

Even Canada’s murder rate is only about a fourth of the levels experienced by its next-door neighbor to the south. For homicides committed by youth, the U.S. rate has been as much as ten times the Canadian levels.

Rates of robbery, burglary, rape, and other serious crimes are also generally much higher in the U.S. than in other industrialized nations.

Because genetic differences among human populations are miniscule, it’s not surprising that environmental factors have been correlated with crime.

Crime and child abuse

Much evidence points to a strong connection between child abuse and crime. Time magazine reports that 90% of boys who commit homicide share a similar background: “Their lives start with abuse, neglect and emotional deprivation at home.”

U.S. News states that “trauma, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse can have severe effects on a child’s developing brain.” The magazine says those effects leave children at risk for drug abuse, teen pregnancy, psychiatric problems, and criminal behavior later in life.

Cathy Spatz Widom, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany, points to a National Institute of Justice Study conducted in 1992. It said childhood abuse or neglect increases the chances of arrest as a juvenile by 53% and as an adult by 38%.

According to Benjamin B. Wolman, a leading psychologist who has studied sociopathy for over 50 years, sociopathic behavior usually stems from inadequate parenting and abusive childhood environments.

In his book Antisocial Behavior, Wolman emphasizes: “The vast majority of sociopaths are not born sociopaths. Children who are exposed to parental neglect and/or abuse and children who witness interparental violence turn sociopathic. Inadequate guidance, lack of moral encouragement, and frequent exposure to pathological selfishness foster sociopathic personality development.”

A similar position is held by Dr. John Money of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He asserts: “The hard-core delinquent has almost always, if not invariably, an antecedent history of having been abusively neglected, assaultively brutalized, capriciously tyrannized, and sexually coerced, singly or severally.”

Money says children raised in those environments are likely to develop rage and learn that violence is the way to deal with problems. 

Research by the American Psychological Association is consistent with Wolman and Money’s views. Its Commission on Violence and Youth concluded that “parental rejection of the child, and inconsistent and physically abusive parental discipline all seem to contribute to early aggressive behaviors.”

The link between child abuse and antisocial behavior holds true for girls as well as boys. Leslie Acoca, a researcher for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, reports that the “almost universal characteristic of girls in the juvenile justice system is a history of violent victimization.”

Shortly before his death, Carl Sagan wrote: “Abuse of children has been implicated as a major probable cause of social problems. According to one survey, 85 percent of all violent prison inmates were abused in childhood. Two-thirds of all teenage mothers were raped or sexually abused as children or teenagers. Rape victims are ten times more likely than other women to use alcohol and other drugs to excess.”

Criminologist Elliot Currie summarizes the research in his book Crime and Punishment in America.” The correlation between later violent crime and childhood abuse is strong and consistent. . . .”

Currie also says the “connection between child maltreatment and later violence is widely accepted across the political spectrum. . . .”

Thomas has apparently fallen off the far-right side of that spectrum. 

Reducing child abuse 

A number of studies indicate that for households where child abuse is likely to occur, intervention in the form of home visits by skilled and caring outsiders can alleviate the problem.

Those persons give parents valuable information about child-raising skills and nonviolent resolution of conflicts.

And they assist parents in handling stress that can contribute to child abuse. The stress often results from worries about housing, day care, and health care.

They also help children who are performing poorly in school. Poor academic performance is often a result of abusive or neglectful home environments. 

After-school programs involving music, sports, or theater can further aid children who are at risk of joining gangs or abusing drugs. For younger children, early preschool lowers the risk of later involvement in crime.

Many persons point to the widespread use of home visits and other youth programs as a reason why crime rates in Europe are much lower than in the U.S. One of them is John J. DiIulio Jr., a Princeton professor whose work is admired by conservatives.

He reports: “We now can say with some confidence that programs that get responsible adults involved with at-risk kids can reduce later delinquency and crime.”

A similar view is held by those on the front lines of dealing with youthful offenders. This was shown when the Northeastern University Center for Criminal Justice Policy surveyed 540 police chiefs in the U.S.

The vast majority of the chiefs felt that investing more in programs to help young people get a good start in life – rather than imposing harsher punishments – is the key to reducing crime rates.

Northeastern University criminologist James Fox agrees. He cites studies showing that such programs, when intense enough and implemented early enough in the lives of at-risk youth, can decrease by as much as 80% the number who will later be involved in crime.

Poverty

During the past 25 years, the income gap between rich and poor in the U.S. has increased drastically. But little attention has been paid to how this trend can contribute to crime.

The increasing income disparities are described by David Brooks in an Atlantic Monthly article. He notes that the remuneration for top-level executives skyrocketed in the 1990s.

Brooks also explains: “People with graduate degrees have done well over the past couple of decades: their real hourly wages climbed by 13 percent from 1979 to 1997. . . . But those with only some college education saw their wages fall by nine percent, while those with only high school diplomas saw their wages fall by 12 percent, and high school dropouts saw a stunning 26 percent decline in their pay.”

Michael Moore complains that having a Democrat in the White House in the 1990s did little to correct the problem. “The rich made out like bandits during the Democratic Years of the 1990s,” he laments. “Absolutely nothing has been done to alleviate the hardships faced by forty-five million Americans who have no health coverage. The minimum wage remains unchanged at a slave wage of $5.15 an hour.”

According to Daniel M. Friedenberg, a consequence of these trends is that “the richest 1 percent of Americans own more than 20 percent of all America’s wealth; the richest 5 percent own over 40 percent; the richest 10 percent own over two-thirds; while the poorest – almost half of Americans put together – own little more than 3 percent of the total. Some one-fifth of our population, about 70 million households, has a net worth close to zero. In effect, we have economic apartheid.”

Friedenberg also says the U.S. is more economically stratified than any other advanced country. Its levels of income inequality and relative poverty are triple those of other wealthy nations.

Decreases in welfare spending contribute to the problem. According to Elliot Currie, the amount spent is below 4% of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). That is the lowest level in the industrialized world, and it’s been declining since 1980.

In contrast, even after years of conservative rule, Great Britain spent twice that amount on welfare programs. Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands spend from 12% to over 14% of GDP on such programs.

American children have been particularly hard hit. The U.S. reduced spending on poor children by a third between 1979 and 1993. Currie says 22% of American children now live in poverty.

The figure is about 14% in Canada and Australia, which are the industrialized nations having the next-highest child poverty rates. The rates for most European countries are between 3% and 6%.

Moreover, the severity of poverty in the U.S. is usually far greater than in other industrialized countries. Currie reports that poor American children “are considerably worse off – sometimes dramatically so – than their counterparts in other advanced countries.”

And he says adults face a similar problem: “Being poor in America means being at the bottom of an exceptionally harsh system of inequality. . . .” 

The bottom line is that poverty in the U.S. is much more widespread and severe than in other industrialized countries.

Crime and poverty

There is little doubt that crime rates are adversely affected by these increasing differences between rich and poor in the U.S. 

International comparisons show that developed countries having relatively low levels of income inequality have low crime rates. But in countries where one segment of the population has great wealth while another segment is in extreme poverty, crime rates are high.

As Currie explains: “Around the world, the countries with relatively low levels of violent crime tend to be not only among the most prosperous but also those where prosperity has become most general, most evenly distributed throughout the population.”

Currie also says: “The countries where violent crime is an endemic problem are those in which prosperity, to the extent that it is achieved at all, is confined to some sectors of the population and denied to others.” 

Similar results are seen in the U.S. In areas having large economic disparities between rich and poor, rates of crime and violence tend to be high. And the rates are highest in the poorest of the poor areas.

Moreover, countries providing a comparatively generous “safety net” for the poor have lower crime levels.

Based on studies of crime in the U.S. and throughout the world, Currie points out: “The links between extreme deprivation, delinquency, and violence . . . are strong, consistent, and compelling. There is little question that growing up in extreme poverty exerts powerful pressures toward crime.”

Michael Harrington adds that the relation between poverty and crime “holds without regard to creed or color.”

Further, University of Sussex professor Richard Wilkinson notes that economic inequality increases the general populations’ susceptibility to health problems, because “more unequal societies are marked by higher levels of violence, lower levels of trust, more hostility and less involvement in community life.”  

Crime and responses to it

The strong connection between crime and social conditions calls into question the practice – pursued in the U.S. for more than 20 years – of locking up more lawbreakers and giving them longer sentences.

Since 1980, that policy has caused a fourfold increase in the number of persons incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. Between 1990 and 2000, the number went from 1.2 million to more than 2 million.

The U.S. incarceration rate is far higher than in other developed countries. It’s five times the per capita rate of Canada and seven times that of all of Western Europe.

The American approach causes a substantial diversion of public resources to the criminal justice system, such as for constructing and operating prisons. 

Most prisoners will eventually be released. But because of a lack of rehabilitation programs and treatment for drug addiction in U.S. prisons, they often come out worse than when they entered.

Moreover, the absence of after-release support for ex-convicts, along with their criminal records, makes it difficult for them to obtain employment and turn their lives around.

A similar problem is seen with juvenile offenders. Research shows that their recidivism rates are increased by the growing trend of sending them to adult prisons. And the crimes they commit after being released are often more serious and occur sooner. 

On the other hand, young people sent to juvenile facilities are less likely to relapse into criminal behavior. Those facilities focus more on rehabilitation.

Additionally, some juveniles are better off receiving intensive counseling at home instead of being locked up.

The consequences of prison are particularly tragic and unnecessary for people who never harmed anyone and never would have. Examples include those imprisoned for simple drug possession or other victimless crimes. Many of them seem to need treatment or other assistance instead of punishment.

It’s a waste of pubic resources and otherwise socially harmful to overburden the police, courts, and prisons with such harmless people. By treating them as dangerous criminals, the outcome can be to ruin their lives and the lives of their families, and turn them into actual hardened and bitter criminals.

Those persons should not be incarcerated. And the same can often be said about minor property offenders. Prison should be reserved for persons who are truly dangerous to society.

Some business leaders have begun to question the policy of massive incarceration, particularly after seeing its effects on governmental budgets.

Businesses have a strong interest in having a skilled and healthy workforce. Spending more on prisons means society has less to invest in education, health care, and other public services.

By inadequately funding those programs, the U.S. not only increases crime but also jeopardizes its ability to compete economically with nations that give more priority to social services.

Conclusion

Studies of criminal offenders and the experience of other nations show that low crime rates correlate significantly with societal conditions.

The conditions include maintaining a strong social safety net for the poor; helping parents learn correct parenting skills; providing proactive assistance to at-risk children; ensuring that all segments of the population have adequate housing, education, health care, and nutrition; and avoiding extreme disparities between rich and poor in terms of income, wealth, opportunities, and quality of life.

To move toward those goals, the U.S. needs to discontinue its policies of giving huge tax cuts to the rich and building more prisons for the poor. Instead, more resources should be directed toward alleviating the social problems that contribute to crime.

As criminologist Gary Kleck puts it: “To accomplish a significant reduction in violence will require a return to serious consideration of the fundamental social and economic causes of violent behavior, a course which criminologists have repeatedly advocated for decades.”

In the long run, that approach is far less costly to society than massive and indiscriminate incarceration.

Unfortunately, Thomas and many others ignore the facts and support social policies favoring the selfish and greedy at the expense of the disadvantaged and downtrodden. 

All of society suffers the consequences of those policies.

[Update: In 2007 the federal minimum wage was raised to $5.85 an hour beginning July 24, 2007; $6.55 beginning July 24, 2008; and $7.25 beginning July 24, 2009. Some state laws or city ordinances provide a higher minimum wage.]