Legacies of Crime: An Analysis of the Mechanisms Underlying Intergenerational Transmission

How does parental criminality influence child outcomes? How do attitudes, communications, and everyday parenting practices foster continuities or influence positive changes in youth?

Parental criminal behavior has long been considered a significant predictor of many child behavioral outcomes, but the frequently observed similarity across generations has rarely been studied directly. In 2005, the investigator completed a unique prospective study, also funded by the Foundation, that examined how families are influenced when one or both parents have a history of delinquency. She initially found that children born to serious offenders experience high levels of psychological distress, truancy, school dropout, and other significant problems. This grant provided support to complete additional analyses of child interviews, including comparison between siblings to explore the influences on outcome variation. The investigator elaborated on a new theory of the mechanisms underlying intergenerational behavior transmission and documented the influence of other social contexts (particularly extended family, peer, school, and religious settings) on family dynamics. As a final step, she conducted interviews with practitioners and other stakeholders about her findings in an effort to determine the most useful way to share her results with user communities. Detailed interviews were conducted with 152 adults with backgrounds of extensive involvement in crime, drug abuse, and violence, and 157 of their biological children. Giordano found that many juvenile offenders continued a pattern of crime and drug abuse well into their adult years, and that the female offenders, although more likely to be in contact with their children than their male peers, often did not cease criminal activity after the birth of their first child. Giordano also concludes that while most studies of intergenerational crime transmission has focused on poor parenting skills, her interviews highlight the equally important influence of parental modeling and parental attitudes about the non-crime world. Her theory of intergenerational transmission also centered on the role of emotional processes, as children varied significantly in their emotional reactions to the parents’ lifestyles and periods of incarceration. Feelings of alienation and resentment were thus associated with an increased likelihood of continuing a pattern of antisocial behavior as the young respondents navigated the transition to adulthood themselves.