Monday, July 16, 2007

"We Think a Brother did This."

I believe it was 60 minutes that I was watching last night where they had a story on how crime often runs in families and were making the claim that this was a genetic connection between relatives. Unfortunately, this was just one more case where the writers/producers of a story failed to work through an argument logically. Their argument is that because the children of convicted criminals often become criminals themselves, the family carries some sort of criminal DNA. Of course since many of the people we have convicted and imprisoned are african-american, this was really the old story claiming that black people are genetically criminal. Wow, how we have progressed as a society! Not. But, what is wrong with this argument? Surely, I can't disagree that there is some connection, given the statistics...afterall, I'm a mathematician. It is not, however, the statistics that I am questioning. It's the logic of the argument, the conclusions they are drawing from that data. Given the same information, it is very easy to make a completely different and not unreasonable argument about why some criminals have "criminal families." First, consider who most convicted criminals are, where they come from. Never was white-collar crime discussed in the story. We weren't apparently talking about Martha Stewart or Scooter Libby. And most prisoners in our society do come from disadvantaged, low-income communities with terrible school systems (which I have taught in). If you live in Crenshaw, CA or Camden, NJ, drug use and violence are familiar parts of your life. Okay, so here is where the crime is coming from and it didn't require any nascent criminal tendencies. When people have very little to look forward to in their lives and few positive role models in their community, it's easy to get pulled in by the bad crowd. Just go talk to any group of teenagers if you doubt that.

But then, once imprisoned, surely we cannot expect their children to be attending ivy league schools and starting fortune 500 companies or otherwise being well on the way to completing their American dream? By looking at the children or even the siblings of convicted criminals, we are immediately narrowing our focus to those people who are also living in an environment that has demonstrated itself to be conducive to criminal behavior. If your father is in prison, then you are growing up in a single-parent household and thus your mother is working her butt off to support you all the time and therefore likely not around, as much as she might like, to keep you from giving in to the temptations of the neighborhood. It's a well documented fact of psychology that people often unconsciously copy the behavior of "lost" parents, no matter how abusive. These kids are disadvantaged and abandoned because their parents are in jail. What's to stop them from following in daddy or mommy's footsteps? I think the producers of that story are focusing entirely on nature and neglecting to look at how "nuture" or environment plays a role in the opportunities that people have in life. And the truth is, it's not always a 'bruther' that did it.

Furthermore, where was the positive side of this? Knowing that relatives are more likely to commit offenses, why don't we use this to enact preventative programs...why not focus all the more on educating those children of our most lost members of society. Believe me, the children aren't lost. They are not doomed by DNA. On the contrary, they need us more than anyone.


TomCat said...

Agreed. Relatives come from the same dysfunctional conditions, so of course they are more likely to commit crime, but instead of a culture based on prevention and restoration, our is based on judgment and retribution.

two crows said...

hey, AC--
the pendulum swings again. for some reason, people want simplistic answers to life's complex problems.

back in the 70's it was all nurture, nurture, nurture.
now, it's all nature, nature, nature.
I've long been an advocate of complex reasons behind complex results though with something like crime I come down much more squarely on the nurture side.

do you want to create a criminal? simple: send the child to a school where the building is deteriorating, where the student/teacher ratio is 30+/1, where the teachers, themselves, are uneducated, where parents are not recruited to be involved in their children's education.

when school lets out, put the children out on streets with no adult supervision and where the only role models are pimps, prostitutes and drug pushers. the only people with any real influence and money who look like them are the basketball players they see on tv. and don't explain to the children what the odds of growing up to be a professional basketball player are.

sit back and allow the mix to ferment for 16 years or so.

oh, one more thing: while you're waiting, build more and bigger prisons. you're going to need them.

Alien Citizen said...

Tomcat, I'm glad I wasn't the only one who saw a problem with this story's logic. If those kinds of arguments are winning, people can be convinced of anything. Even attacking foreign countries without provocation!

Yes 2C, I prefer to think that social, political, and cultural phenomenon are interconnected (overdetermined being the term that Freud first coined). Rather than one phenomenon causing the other, they each play a role in the other's existence. One's biological make-up and the environment in which they are raised is also interconnected. For example, a mother may be on heroine partly because of the destitute conditions in which she grew up but this substance abuse will lead to her children having lower IQs and thus being less likely to be able to break out of the ghetto conditions into which they are born, continuing the same cycle.

TomCat said...

AC, I do volunteer work helping prisoners prepare for release and establishing themselves upon release. Their defective jeans are because the prison laundry never repaired the holes.

Alien Citizen said...

Tomcat, I didn't notice this comment back when. It's fortunate that there are good people like you working to help them repair the holes.

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