Mounting social science research confirms
what most Americans already know: The breakdown of the family
contributes significantly to many of society's ills, including
poverty, crime, drug addiction, school drop-out rates, and poor
health. From this same research, Americans also are learning that
when fathers are absent from their families, the rate of juvenile
delinquency rises dramatically.
Americans are less likely to know that the
federal and state juvenile corrections systems generally act as if
this significant relationship between family breakdown and juvenile
crime did not exist--as if, in other words, the absence of fathers
and married parents in a juvenile delinquent's life had no effect
on the incidence of juvenile crime.
Startling data available from
Wisconsin--the one state that has identified some of the family
background of its delinquents--indicate that the probability of
incarceration for juveniles in families headed by never-married
single mothers might be at least as much as 22 times higher than
for juveniles in the two-parent family. Yet despite such evidence,
the juvenile justice system and the U.S. Department of Justice's
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) seem
intent on ignoring the best prevention strategy in society today: a
family environment in which the child's mother and father remain
Because tracking family background never
enters the juvenile justice policy debate or underlying research,
promoting strong families is never part of juvenile delinquency
prevention programs. Now, however, with the OJJDP constructing a
new Census of Juveniles in Residential Base, Congress has an
opportunity to act quickly in the appropriations process to demand
that accurate and detailed data be gathered.
WISCONSIN OPENS THE DATA BOTTLENECK
the last decade of the 20th century, Wisconsin was the only state
to have conducted a study on the relation between family structure
and juvenile incarceration. Its results should
serve as an eye-opener to the juvenile justice system.
the results of the 1994 Wisconsin study, based on data collected in
1993, are combined with census data for Wisconsin from the Current
Population Survey for 1993, it is possible to go beyond the
Wisconsin study to see the dramatically different probabilities of
incarceration for each type of family, or household, structure. The
rate of incarceration of juveniles is lowest among two-parent
families, five times higher among families with
married-but-separated parents, 12 times higher among
divorced-single-parent families, and 22 times higher among families
with always-single parents. (See Chart 1.)
UNDERESTIMATING THE TRUE PICTURE
Dramatic though these numbers are for
Wisconsin, they most likely understate the powerful effects that
life in an intact family with married parents has in preventing
juvenile delinquency. Though the incarceration rate for juveniles
in always-single-parent families is 22 times higher than that of
juveniles in two-parent families, based on the Wisconsin data, the
difference in incarceration rates between juveniles from "intact
married" families and "always-single-parent" families may be even
greater--perhaps as much as 44 times higher. This is because the
Wisconsin study includes "intact married families" in the category
of "two-parent families" along with "stepfamilies" and "cohabiting
Previous research has disclosed enormous
differences among these types of families in rates of child abuse,
a significant precursor to delinquency and crime. Therefore, it is
likely that an equally large difference exists in the rates of
juvenile crime for these three types of two-parent families.
Research on child abuse, for example, shows
that the rate of abuse in British stepfamilies is at least six
times higher than the rate in intact-always-married families, while it is 20
times higher in cohabiting-biological-parent families than intact
married families (see Chart 2). Chart 3 shows the rates of fatal
child abuse in these different family structures. This finding
indicates at least the possibility that the probable rates of
incarceration shown in Chart 1 are not an exaggeration. The
probable difference in the rates of incarceration of juveniles from
the non-intact family structures is likely to be even greater.
RESISTANCE TO COLLECTING DATA
One would think that everyone would have an interest in collecting
complete data on the family background of juvenile delinquents. If
the strong relationship between household type and juvenile
incarceration shown in the Wisconsin data holds true in other
states as well, a fundamental rethinking of public policy is
especially since 1993, when Congress required that the states
address the issue of "Disproportionate Minority Confinement" for
juveniles, bureaucrats at the
OJJDP and in most states other than Wisconsin have shown no
interest in doing so. Their desire to find out whether there is a
strong causal role between juvenile delinquency and the absence of
marriage and fathers seems to be virtually nonexistent.
instance, in research reports like the OJJDP's "Disproportionate
Minority Confinement: 1997 Update," the Department of Justice
regularly details how the OJJDP ensures state compliance with the
1993 congressional mandate. But none of its
reports investigate the detailed family background of juveniles who
The 1993 mandate was Congress's answer to complaints that
minorities, especially African-Americans, were being locked up at
disproportionate rates, compared with the population as a whole.
The response of the Department of Justice, and subsequently of the
states, has been to assume that race and racism, not family
structure, are the principal driving forces behind these
disproportionate rates of incarceration.
Consider the example of Maryland in 1994.
The Maryland Juvenile Crime Commission procured a study of juvenile
crime, which concluded that racism resulted in the incarceration of
a disproportionate percentage of African-American teenage juvenile
delinquents from the Baltimore area. African-Americans, however,
were serving as Baltimore's mayor and prosecutor, and another was a
prominent official in Maryland's Department of Juvenile
Moreover, there was substantial
African-American representation in the police force as well as the
judiciary, making the
allegation of racism seem even more unlikely. And the director of
the study, Lakshmi Iyengar, when questioned by the chairman of the
Juvenile Crime Commission, Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Townsend,
had to acknowledge that her research had not controlled for family
structure factors, such as single parenthood.
THE LINK BETWEEN CRIME AND FAMILY
Leaving marriage and family structure data
out of the discussion in establishing juvenile crime policies is
completely at odds with social science literature. Criminology
studies have long asserted a strong link between juvenile crime and
family breakdown, as Francis Fukuyama noted recently in The Great
Disruption and as this author
has reviewed in "The Real Root Causes of Violent Crime: The
Breakdown of Marriage, Family, and Community." Yet none of the
standard federal crime surveys looks at this fundamental
connection, even though they scrutinize almost every other aspect
Although there is a large disparity
between the crime rates of whites and those of African-Americans, any perception
that this is based solely on racism quickly evaporates when family
structure is considered in the data. When researchers control for
marriage, the rates of crime for whites and blacks in each family
group are very similar.
Douglas Smith and G. Roger Jarjoura, for
instance, found in a major 1988 study that "the percentage of
single-parent households with children between the ages of 12 and
20 is significantly associated with rates of violent crime and
burglary." They went on to dismiss as false the popular assumption
that there is an association between race and crime. Instead, they
found that the absence of marriage, combined with the failure to
form and maintain intact families, explains the incidence of high
crime in both white and black neighborhoods.
social scientists have said that once socioeconomic variables
(poverty or family income) are considered in the analysis, the
relationship between family type and delinquency disappears, but
this is not the case. According to University of Illinois
sociologist Robert J. Sampson, writing in an earlier study on the
differential effects of poverty and family disruption on crime in
the prestigious American Journal of Sociology,
Overall the analysis shows that rates of
black violent offending, especially by juveniles, are strongly
influenced by variations in family structure. Independent of the
major candidates supplied by prior criminological theory (e.g.
income, region, size, density, age and race composition) black
family disruption has the largest effects on black juvenile robbery
and homicide.... The effects of family structure are strong and
cannot be easily dismissed by reference to other structural and
cultural features of urban environments.... The effect of family
disruption on black violence is not due to the effect of black
violence on family structure.
fact," Sampson concludes, "the predictors of white robbery are in
large part identical in sign and magnitude to those for blacks."
THE OJJDP's OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE ITS
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's failure to
track family data in its survey on incarcerated juveniles,
Juveniles Taken Into Custody, does not appear to be corrected in
the more robust Census of Juveniles in Residential Base that the
OJJDP is now constructing. While data will be gathered on family
and education, they will be misleading because such information
will not be specific enough on family structure.
same oversight was found to be a problem with the National
Incidence Surveys of Child Abuse and Neglect administered by the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 1980, 1986,
and 1993. These HHS studies were considered less than successful
because, among other things, the surveys on child abuse commingled
data on three two-parent family structures (always-intact married
family, stepfamily, and cohabiting biological parents) by
collapsing the three into one category, the "two-parent family."
Mixing these data hid more truth than it revealed.
instance, comparing data from the United States with data from
Great Britain yields a similar progression in the rates of abuse
among different family structures (see Chart 4), but the British
data are even more detailed than the data for the United States.
Consequently, researchers and analysts have data from Britain on
the three family structures with the "two-parent family" broken
out. They are able to see the dramatically different rates of abuse
among the three different family types within the mingled
Researchers cannot do the same analysis
with the U.S. data because no attempt was made to break down the
data in the "two-parent" and "single parent" categories to reflect
everyday family situations. There is some likelihood that the true
U.S. picture of child abuse by family type is akin to that of
Britain (see Chart 2 and Chart 3), but the case cannot be argued
persuasively in the absence of authoritative U.S. data.
the OJJDP decides, in its new Census of Juveniles in Residential
Base, to collapse the data on different family types into broad
categories such as "two-parent families," the result will be yet
another misleading picture of juvenile crime that will cause
policymakers to overlook what may be the most critical factor in
juvenile delinquency--family structure. In addition, the failure to
collect accurate data could well have the devastating effect of
perpetuating divisive race-based theories.
WHAT CONGRESS CAN DO
solution is simple. Congress has the authority to set the
guidelines for OJJDP data collection. During the appropriations
process, the juvenile justice bill conference report (for S. 254
and H.R. 1501, the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender
Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999), or other vehicles,
Congress should direct the Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention to gather specific data on the family
background of the juveniles in the Census of Juveniles in
Federal Reserve Board's Survey of Consumer Finance, which does
incorporate such data, is the best model for the OJJDP to use. In
the Federal Reserve survey, seven categories of family background
are specified: three two-parent types ("always intact two-parent
family," "step family," and "cohabiting two-parent family"), and
three single-parent types (widowed, always-single, and
divorced-single). The Federal Reserve survey also looks at one
other important category: "neither parent raises the child." Social
science literature suggests that this category is a very
significant variable in juvenile crime.
However, even the Federal Reserve does not
collect data for another category that is of great importance in
understanding juvenile crime: "single mother cohabiting with a
boyfriend." This category yields the highest rate of serious child
abuse in data from Britain: 33 times higher than the "always intact
two-parent family" for serious child abuse and up to 73 times
higher for fatal child abuse. U.S.
criminologists, policymakers, and justice officials should have
comparable data to see how strongly this category is connected to
juvenile crime in the United States.
OJJDP census should consider at least eight family categories to
yield data that will drive the juvenile justice community in the
right direction in long-term prevention efforts. Those categories
are "always-intact two-parent family," "stepfamily," "cohabiting
two-parent family," "widowed," "always-single parent,"
"divorced-single parent," "mother cohabiting with a boyfriend," and
"child living with neither parent." Congress should make sure that
the OJJDP makes the needed adjustments in the census it is
designing to collect data for these eight family types.
be sure, many in Congress and academia will disagree--some of them
vehemently--with the suggestion that comprehensive data will
reflect Wisconsin's pattern. Even though the available evidence
suggests that they are incorrect, no one can know for certain
unless accurate data are collected. It is in everyone's best
interest to ensure that the new Census of Juveniles in Residential
Base is designed with the modifications proposed above.
research helps produce good public policy, and much research has
demonstrated the powerful effect that intact married families have
on children in preventing juvenile delinquency. Congress needs to
find out just how powerful that impact is by making sure that the
necessary data are collected in Department of Justice research.
Congress should act now to ensure that
this correction is made in the new survey now under construction.
Collecting the data will be the first step toward guiding the
nation in rebuilding this important institution--the family--and
helping to drive down the rates of juvenile delinquency.
F. Faganis the William H. G. FitzGerald Fellow in
Family and Cultural Issues at The Heritage Foundation.