Criminal Relatives: Crime Runs In Families
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Here’s a new Raj Chetty–style study where the researchers get their hands on a near-universe of anonymized government data so they don’t have to use much in the way of sampling because they are looking at almost half the kids born in the U.S. in the early 21st century. With millions of children in their database, they can slice and dice finely.

This one is about “intergenerational exposure to the criminal justice system”—e.g., Is your dad in the pen?

Not surprisingly, kids whose close relatives or mom’s latest boyfriend have tangles with the law tend to have problems themselves as they get older.

Weirdly, the authors have to write as if it’s mostly the criminal justice system itself that is causing the kids’ problems rather than mostly the nature and/or nurture they share with their jailbird relatives.

You used to be able to debate nature vs. nurture sometimes, but nowadays you aren’t even supposed to mention that kids growing up around criminals are probably getting bad nurture from their felonious relatives. Instead, they are suffering from “intergenerational exposure to the criminal justice system” as opposed to intergenerational exposure to lowlifes.

This makes modern social science papers hard to read. On the other hand, the quantity and quality of the data can be extraordinary in the Chetty Era.

Measuring Intergenerational Exposure to the U.S. Justice System: Evidence from Longitudinal Links between Survey and Administrative Data
Keith Finlay
U.S. Census Bureau
Michael Mueller-Smith
University of Michigan
Brittany Street
University of Missouri
June 9, 2022

Intergenerational exposure to the justice system is both a marker of vulnerability among children and a measurement of the potential unintended externalities of crime policy in the U.S. Estimating the size of this population has been hampered by inadequate data resources, including the inability to (1) observe non-incarceration sources of exposure, (2) follow children throughout their childhood, and (3) measure multiple adult influences in increasingly dynamic households. To overcome these challenges, we leverage billions of restricted administrative and survey records linked with the Criminal Justice Administrative Records System (CJARS). We find substantially larger prevalences of intergenerational exposure to the criminal justice system than previously reported: 9% of children born between 1999–2005 were intergenerationally exposed to prison, 18% to a felony conviction, and 39% to any criminal charge; charge exposure rates reach as high as 62% for Black children. We regress these newly quantified types of exposure on measures of child well-being to gauge their importance and find that all types of exposure (parent vs. non-parent, prison vs. charges, current vs. previous) are strongly negatively correlated with development outcomes, suggesting substantially more U.S. children are harmed by crime and criminal justice than previously thought. …

Cumulative exposure from all potential caregivers. Finally, we expand our measure of exposure to all observed potential caregivers: biological parents, stepparents, adoptive parents, foster parents, unclassified caregivers, grandparents, aunts/uncles, non-familial adults (cohabiting 2+ years) and unclassified adults (cohabiting 2+ years).

I think they are talking about adults residing at the same address as the child who thus might be lending a hand in caring for the child, not all the child’s aunts and uncles in the world. For example, I had an uncle who, if I recall correctly from my early years, was shot dead at a dice game in Harlem. But I never met him before his rather spectacular demise (he was not a subject of dinner table conversation), and I can’t say he had much influence upon my life.

(Also, I was a notably incurious child about relatives. For example, growing up I had a third set of relatives in addition to my father’s and mother’s families, whom we saw about once a month. I never asked how they were related. Finally, when I was 21 my mother told me she’d been married before and they were her first husband’s extended family.)

To be conservative, we do not include any criminal justice involvement from other potential caregivers prior to cohabitation in our exposure measures. For example, if a stepparent has a felony conviction when the child is 3, but does not co-reside with the child until the age of 6, then the child is not considered exposed to the event.

In Figure 2C, we report that 8.8% of children are exposed to a potential caregiver in prison by age 18, 18.3%, to a felony conviction, 21.4%, to a felony charge, and 38.9% to any criminal charge

Exposure by child’s race and ethnicity. Stark divides emerge when disaggregating exposure rates by the race and ethnicity of children. As seen in Figure 3A, 62% of Black, non-Hispanic (referred to as Black for the remainder of Sections 6 and 7) children grow up in a household where one or more potential caregivers are charged with either a misdemeanor or felony criminal offense. American Indian/Alaska Native children have a similarly high rate at 60%, and 45% of Hispanic children have a potential caregiver charged with a criminal offense. White… and Asian children have high but relatively lower rates of intergenerational exposure to criminal charges at 32% and 17% respectively. …

We observe a strong income gradient with regard to indirect criminal justice exposure by a potential caregiver, which is consistent with prior work suggesting parental criminal justice contact inhibits social mobility along a range of outcomes, including the child’s own likelihood of adult incarceration (Chetty et al. 2018). …

Roughly one-in-three Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children have an adult in their household face violent criminal charges, while the corresponding estimate for White children is only one-in-eight. Relative to the distribution of offense types for exposed White children, exposed Black children are more likely to grow up in households with drug charges and less likely to witness DUI offenses

County of birth appears to play a minor role. For the White-Black comparison, if anything, the racial gap would be larger if White and Black children were equally distributed across places of birth.

Not good for Chetty’s plan to move black mothers with sons to the white exurbs.

But that may be an artifact of whites in big cities tending to be particularly well behaved.

Similar conclusions can be drawn from the White-American Indian/Alaska Native decomposition. The White-Hispanic gap, however, does appear to potentially partially attributable to difference in county of birth, explaining roughly 7% to 27% of the raw gap.

When we add household income around the time of the child’s birth into the decomposition, a more substantial share of the raw gap across all minority groups is explained by observable characteristics. Conditional on county of birth, household income explains approximately 17% to 42% of the raw racial gap, depending on the specific type of exposure and minority group under consideration. …

Whether the source originated from a biological parent or another adult in the household, or whether the type of exposure was incarceration or something less serious, the estimated relationships are quite similar. This suggests that some sort of social, emotional, or other scarring effects may be at work. …

Or mom keeps picking out the same kind of boyfriend?

The largest effects of exposure on being charged with an adult crime (Panel G) stem from contemporaneous bio-parent justice involvement, regardless of the specific type of justice involvement.

So the kids with the highest chance of being accused of a serious crime before turning 18 are ones whose biological dads are in prison right now (one reason they aren’t out of prison yet is because they did something so serious or so frequently that they got a long term).

The estimated coefficients are roughly 3 times the size of the non-exposed child mean. Other forms of exposure (other potential caregivers, prior exposures) remain meaningfully high in the range of 1.5 to 2 times the non-exposed mean and are mostly statistically indistinguishable. …

Figure 8B shows stark differences in human capital development among exposed children by sex of the child. Boys appear to be significantly more sensitive to exposure, with estimated coefficients more than double the size compared to those for girls.

This is similar to Chetty’s finding that it’s a really bad idea for a black mother with sons to move to Detroit, Baltimore, or New Haven, probably because they are more likely to join a gang. In contrast, those places aren’t so terrible for daughters because there aren’t many girl gangs.

Given the disparity in the originating source of exposure by the sex of the adult, it may be that boys are uniquely impacted by the justice involvement or related events of their fathers and/or father-like figures.

Of if dad’s a bad man, maybe sons are more likely to grow up to be bad men than daughters?

More research is warranted to further probe this relationship.

It would be interesting to consider what exactly mothers could do in terms of relationships to keep their sons out of jail? For example, consider the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air situation of a slum cousin moving in with his suburban cousin. How often does rich Carlton help poor Will go straight? How often does Will drag down Carlton with him?

When you are talking about a detailed database of millions of people, unusual situations like that could conceivably be tested.

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