The Heritage Foundation

News Releases on Crime

March 13, 2000

March 13, 2000 | News Releases on Crime

Better Family Data Needed to Explain, Prevent Juvenile Violence, Study Says

WASHINGTON, MARCH 13, 2000-The wave of school shootings plaguing the nation has inspired a fresh search for answers to the problem of youth violence, but a new Heritage Foundation study says the federal government isn't even asking the right questions.

Social science research shows a strong correlation between family breakdown and the likelihood that a young person will commit crime, says Patrick Fagan, Heritage's William H.G. FitzGerald fellow in family and cultural issues. "When fathers are absent from their families, the rate of juvenile delinquency rises dramatically," he says.

But the Justice Department doesn't even ask about family structure in surveys designed to explain juvenile crime. "The Justice Department has ignored family structure," says Fagan, a former family counselor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bush. "As a result, it has overlooked perhaps the most successful delinquency prevention 'program' in America today-the intact married family."

Wisconsin is currently the only state that looks at crime by family structure, Fagan says. It has found that juveniles from never-married, single-parent families are 22 times more likely to land in jail than juveniles from always-married, two-parent families, the strongest family setting by most social-science measures.

For its forthcoming survey on juvenile incarceration, the Justice Department should gather information on the family background of offenders, Fagan says. Congress can ensure this happens by writing such a requirement into the juvenile justice bill pending before Congress.

Fagan notes that the Justice Department asks about racial heritage in its survey, a requirement Congress imposed on the department in 1993 to see if minority juveniles were being locked up at disproportionate rates. But he says race is not as big a factor as family structure in explaining juvenile crime. Indeed, once you take into account the martial status of the parents of juvenile offenders, crime rates for whites and blacks are very similar, Fagan says.

About the Author

Related Issues: Crime