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.
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