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August 1, 2003

Parents or Prisons

When the family fails, the state steps in


For some people, prisons are a substitute for parents. This apparent overstatement is shorthand for two more precise points. First, without parents — two of them, married to each other, working together as a team — a child is more likely to end up in the criminal justice system at some point in his life. Without parents, prison becomes a greater probability in the child’s life. Second, if a child finds himself in the criminal justice system, either in his youth or adulthood, the prison will perform the parental function of supervising and controlling that person’s behavior.

Of course, prison is a pathetic substitute for genuine parents. Incarceration provides extreme, tightly controlled supervision that children typically outgrow in their toddler years and does so with none of the love and affection that characterize normal parental care of small children. But that is what is happening: The person has failed to internalize the self-command necessary for living in a reasonably free and open society at the age most people do. Since he cannot control himself, someone else must control him. If he becomes too much for his parents, the criminal justice system takes over.

These necessary societal interventions do not repair the loss the child has sustained by the loss of a relationship with his parents. By the time the penal system steps in, the state is engaged in damage control. A child without a conscience, a child without self-control, is a lifelong problem for the rest of society.

A free society needs people with consciences. The vast majority of people must obey the law voluntarily. If people don’t conform themselves to the law, someone will either have to compel them to do so or protect the public when they do not. It costs a great deal of money to catch, convict, and incarcerate lawbreakers — not to mention that the surveillance and monitoring of potential criminals tax everybody’s freedom if habitual lawbreakers comprise too large a percentage of the population.

The basic self-control and reciprocity that a free society takes for granted do not develop automatically. Conscience development takes place in childhood. Children need to develop empathy so they will care whether they hurt someone or whether they treat others fairly. They need to develop self-control so they can follow through on these impulses and do the right thing even if it might benefit them to do otherwise.

All this development takes place inside the family. Children attach to the rest of the human race through their first relationships with their parents. They learn reciprocity, trust, and empathy from these primal relationships. Disrupting those foundational relations has a major negative impact on children as well as on the people around them. In particular, children of single parents — or completely absent parents — are more likely to commit crimes.

Without two parents, working together as a team, the child has more difficulty learning the combination of empathy, reciprocity, fairness, and self-command that people ordinarily take for granted. If the child does not learn this at home, society will have to manage his behavior in some other way. He may have to be rehabilitated, incarcerated, or otherwise restrained. In this case, prisons will substitute for parents.

The observation that there are problems for children growing up in a disrupted family may seem to be old news. Ever since Barbara Defoe Whitehead famously pronounced “Dan Quayle Was Right” (Atlantic Monthly, April 1993), the public has become more aware that single motherhood is not generally glamorous in the way it is sometimes portrayed on television. David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America (Basic Books, 1995) depicted a country that is fragmenting along family lines. Blankenhorn argued, and continues to argue in his work at the Institute for American Values, that the primary determinant of a person’s life chances is whether he grew up in a household with his own father.

Since these seminal works, it has become increasingly clear that the choice to become a single parent is not strictly a private choice. The decision to become an unmarried mother or the decision to disrupt an existing family does not meet the economist’s definition of “private.” These choices regarding family structure have significant spillover effects on other people. We can no longer deny that such admittedly very personal decisions have an impact on people other than the individuals who choose.

There are two parts to my tale. The first concerns the impact of being raised in a single-parent household on the children. The second involves the impact that those children have on the rest of society.

 

Current events

The two parts of my story were juxtaposed dramatically on the local page of the San Diego Union-Tribune one Wednesday morning at the end of January. “Dangling Foot Was Tip-Off,” explained the headline. A security guard caught two teenaged boys attempting to dump their “trash” into the dumpster of the gated community he was responsible for guarding. The guard noticed what looked like a human foot dangling out of the bag. He told the boys he wanted to see what was in it. They refused. As a private security guard, he had no authority to arrest or detain the pair. He took their license plate number and a description of the duo and called authorities.

The “trash” proved to be the dismembered body of the boys’ mother. They had strangled her, chopped off her head and hands, and ultimately dumped her body in a ravine in Orange County. The boys were half-brothers. The elder was 20 years old. His father had committed suicide when the boy was an infant. The younger boy was 15. His father had abandoned their mother. As of this writing, the older boy, Jason Bautista, was being held in lieu of $1 million bail. The younger, Matthew Montejo, was being held in juvenile hall.

At first glance, the second news item seems unrelated to the first. On the same page of the newspaper, a headline read, “Mayor Wants 20% Budget Cuts.” This particular mayor presides over the city of Oceanside, the same city where the brothers tried to dump their mother’s body. In nearby Vista, the mayor’s “State of the City Address Warns of Possible Deep Cuts.” In Carlsbad, one freeway exit to the south, the city’s finances were “Called Good Now, Vulnerable in Future.” All these mayors were tightening their cities’ belts in response to severe budget cuts proposed by California Governor Gray Davis. The governor expects to reduce virtually every budget category in the state budget except one: the Department of Corrections.

Therein lies the tale: These stories are connected by more than just the date and time of their reportage. The increase in serious crimes by younger and younger offenders is absorbing a greater percentage of state resources, necessarily crowding out other services. The Bautista brothers and others like them do have something to do with the budget woes of state and local governments.

Several other high-profile cases of juvenile crime fit this pattern. Alex and Derek King, aged 12 and 13 respectively, bludgeoned their sleeping father to death with a baseball bat and set fire to the house to hide the evidence. The mother of the King brothers had not lived with them for the seven years prior to the crime. Derek had been in foster care for most of those years until his behavior, including a preoccupation with fire, became too difficult for his foster parents to handle. The murder took place two months after Derek was returned to his father’s custody.

John Lee Malvo, the youthful assistant in the Beltway Sniper case, came to the United States with his mother from Jamaica. His biological father has not seen him since 1998. His mother evidently had a relationship with John Allen Mohammed, who informally adopted her son. Mohammed himself, probably the mastermind if not the triggerman in the serial sniper case, was also a fatherless child. According to one of his relatives, Mohammed’s mother died when he was young; his grandfather and aunt raised him because his dad was not around.

While these high-profile cases dramatize the issues at stake, excessive focus on individual cases like these can be a distraction. As more information about the Bautista family comes in, for instance, a variety of mitigating or confounding circumstances might emerge to suggest that factors other than living in a single-parent home accounted for the horrible crime. A family history of mental illness, perhaps, or maybe a history of child abuse by the mother toward the children may surface as contributing factors. And indeed, many of the most gruesome crimes are committed not by fatherless children in single-mother households, but by motherless boys, growing up in a father-only household. Some, such as John Lee Malvo, had essentially no household at all. But these confounding factors should not distract us from the overwhelming evidence linking single parents or absent parents to the propensity to commit crimes.

 

The statistical evidence

This result has been found in numerous studies. The National Fatherhood Initiative’s Father Facts, edited in 2002 by Wade Horn and Tom Sylvester, is the best one-stop shopping place for this kind of evidence. Of the many studies reviewed there, a representative one was reported in the Journal of Marriage and the Family in May 1996. Researchers Chris Couglin and Samuel Vuchinich found that being in stepparent or single-parent households more than doubled the risk of delinquency by age 14. Similarly, a massive 1993 analysis of the underclass by M. Anne Hill and June O’Neill, published by Baruch College’s Center for the Study of Business and Government, found that the likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity increases substantially if he is raised without a father.

These studies, like most in this area, attempted to control for other, confounding factors that might be correlated with living in a single-parent household. If single mothers have less money than married mothers, then perhaps poverty is the fundamental problem for their children. But even taking this possibility into account, the research still shows that boys who grew up outside of intact marriages were, on average, more likely than other boys to end up in jail.

Another set of studies found that the kids who are actually in the juvenile justice system disproportionately come from disrupted families. The Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services, in a 1994 report entitled “Family Status of Delinquents in Juvenile Correctional Facilities in Wisconsin,” found that only 13 percent came from families in which the biological mother and father were married to each other. By contrast, 33 percent had parents who were either divorced or separated, and 44 percent had parents who had never married. The 1987 Survey of Youth in Custody, published by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that 70 percent of youth in state reform institutions across the U.S. had grown up in single- or no-parent situations.

 

Causal links

There are several plausible links between single parenthood and criminal behavior. The internal dynamic of a one-parent household is likely to be rather different from that of a two-parent household. Two parents can supervise the child’s behavior more readily than one. Misbehavior can continue undetected and uncorrected for longer periods of time until it becomes more severe and more difficult to manage.

Likewise, the lowered level of adult input partially accounts for the lowered educational attainments of children of single parents. Such families report parents spending less time supervising homework and children spending less time doing homework. Not surprisingly, kids in these families have inferior grades and drop out of school more frequently. Leaving school increases the likelihood of a young person becoming involved in criminal behavior. It is similarly no surprise that adolescents who are left home alone to supervise themselves after school find more opportunities to get into trouble. Finally, the percentage of single-parent families in a neighborhood is one of the strongest predictors of the neighborhood’s crime rate. In fact, Wayne Osgood and Jeff Chambers, in their 2000 article in the journal Criminology, find that father absence is more significant than poverty in predicting the crime rate.

These kinds of factors are easy enough to understand. A more subtle connection between the fractured family and criminal behavior is the possibility that the child does not form strong human attachments during infancy. A child obviously cannot attach to an absent parent. If the one remaining parent is overwhelmed or exhausted or preoccupied, the child may not form a proper attachment even to that parent. Full-fledged attachment disorder is often found among children who have spent a substantial fraction of their infancy in institutions or in foster care. (Think of Derek King.)

An attachment-disordered child is the truly dangerous sociopath, the child who doesn’t care what anyone thinks, who does whatever he can get away with. Mothers and babies ordinarily build their attachments by being together. When the mother responds to the baby’s needs, the baby can relax into her care. The baby learns to trust. He learns that human contact is the great good that ensures his continued existence. He learns to care about other people. He comes to care where his mother is and how she responds to him. Eventually, he will care what his mother thinks of him.

This process lays the groundwork for the development of the conscience; caring what she thinks of him allows him to internalize her standards of good conduct. As he gets older, bigger, and stronger, his mother can set limits on his behavior without physically picking him up and carrying him out of trouble. Mother’s raised eyebrow from across the room can be a genuine deterrent against misbehavior. As he matures, she doesn’t even need to be present. He simply remembers what she wants him to do. Ultimately, he doesn’t explicitly think about his parents’ instructions. Without even considering punishments or approval, his internal voice reminds him, “We don’t do that sort of thing.” He has a conscience.

In most families, the parents win the race between the growth of the child’s body and that of his conscience. By the time a child is too large and strong to muscle around, he had better have some self-command. If he doesn’t, somebody will have to monitor his behavior all the time. He’ll lie and steal and sneak. Punishments won’t have much impact. He will become more sophisticated at calculating what he wants to try to get away with.

If the parents weren’t abusive to begin with, they can become so at this point. They may keep trying to step up the penalties without realizing that the penalties aren’t the point. The problem is that the child isn’t listening to any inner voice of conscience. The child shouldn’t even be thinking about the severity of penalties. The child ought to be thinking, “I am not the kind of person who even considers doing that.”

 

Mental illness and genetics

One alternative hypothesis is that a family history of mental illness provides the causal relationship between crime and family structure. People who have a family history of certain kinds of mental illness may also have a higher propensity to become single parents. The same mental instability that contributes to a higher propensity to commit crimes may also make it more difficult for the person to form and sustain long-term relationships such as marriage.

A number of studies examine the relationship between single parenthood and some kinds of mental and emotional problems. A Swedish study by Gunilla Ringback Weitoft, Anders Hjern, Bengt Haglund, and Mans Rosen, released in January 2003 in the British medical journal Lancet, considered the impact of single-parent households on adolescents. This study explicitly took account of the family’s history of mental illness. The Swedish adolescent children of single-parent households were twice as likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, twice as likely to attempt suicide, and about one and a half times as likely to suffer from a psychiatric illness. Parental history of mental illness accounted for very little of the variation in these various adolescent problems.

An extensive study of British data, reported by Andrew Cherlin and colleagues in the April 1998 issue of the American Sociological Review, also establishes a link between living in a single-parent household and some kinds of emotional problems over the child’s entire lifetime. These researchers found that having divorced parents increases the likelihood of a wide range of problems, including depression, anxiety, phobias, and obsessions, over the entire lifetime. In addition, these children are more likely to be aggressive and disobedient during childhood.

The increased likelihood of aggressive behavior is confirmed in a variety of American studies, including Michael Workman and John Beer’s 1992 study in Psychological Reports and Nancy Vaden-Kiernan’s 1995 study in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Not every instance of aggressive behavior is criminal behavior, of course, but it is fair to say that something that increases the likelihood of aggression probably raises the possibility of some kinds of crime.

 

The cost of controlling people

People who do not control themselves have to be controlled by outside forces. This very costly business may, for a while, be hidden from the public eye. The family absorbs the costs. A single mother, for instance, may try to enlist the help of her parents or other extended family members if she has a truly out-of-control child. The family, however it is structured, rearranges itself to protect itself from the child who is disruptive, defiant, or violent. The family has to provide extremely tight supervision or else bear the brunt of the child’s behavior.

If the behavior gets serious enough, the criminal justice system will be called into action. People outside the family then have to manage the child’s behavior. These people might include some combination of police officers, prison guards, social workers, psychiatrists, judges, and parole officers, depending on the child’s age and the seriousness of his crimes. All these people have to be paid, either by the family or by the taxpayers. When the public sector gets involved, the costs become visible to the rest of society.

These costs add up. In California, for instance, the corrections budget has doubled since the 1960s as a percentage of the state’s budget. By 2002-03, the prison system accounted for about 6 percent of the state budget, or more than $5.2 billion, an amount greater than what the state spends on transportation. Despite the current California budget crisis forcing cutbacks in most areas, the Department of Corrections is gaining a small boost of $40 million.

Some critics have claimed that these increases are political paybacks: The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has been one of the governor’s biggest campaign contributors. This charge has some plausibility, since most of the increases in the department’s budget are going to personnel costs. But being a prison guard is not a particularly pleasant job, and somebody, as they say, has to do it. Many of the facilities are in remote, unattractive parts of the state where attracting workers presents a continuing challenge. For instance, the Pelican Bay maximum-security prison in the far north of California is considered, if I may use the term, “godforsaken.” The all-male facility recently had to use an ob-gyn as a primary care physician due to the difficulty of attracting an internal medicine doctor there.

While it may be easy for some to conclude that Davis is courting favor with his contributors, the teachers unions are also powerful political players in California, and education faces unprecedented cuts. The Department of Corrections spends $26,700 per adult inmate per year. Nobody seriously wants the governor to empty the prisons to save money.

Other critics claim that California’s prison costs have escalated because the system is too tough on criminals. These critics cite the “Three Strikes” law, which requires a lifetime of incarceration for criminals with three offenses, no matter how trivial. Because of the law, an unprecedented number of relatively young people will spend the rest of their lives in prison at taxpayer expense.

Although such a law seems harsh, we should remember why we have a Three Strikes law in the first place: Richard Allen Davis. The sociopathic, unrepentant killer of Polly Klaas had a long history of criminal behavior. He had been recently released from prison when he stole Polly from her own bedroom and killed her. In the courtroom, he not only showed no remorse for his crime, he shouted obscenities at her parents. The people of California were sickened by the thought that a person so obviously dangerous should ever have been released.

As it happens, Richard Allen Davis was part of a disrupted family. His parents divorced when he was nine years old. He had virtually no contact with his mother after that. His father was often absent from the home and would leave his children with his own mother or with his different wives.

We could pose the question of costs to the taxpayer in this way: Suppose the kids in the juvenile justice system were functioning well enough that they could be a reasonably normal part of society. They could then be in the educational system instead of in the juvenile justice system. Look at the per-person cost of incarceration for a year, compared with the cost of education.

The California Youth Authority is the juvenile branch of California’s criminal justice system. The system works with youngsters in a variety of settings, including camps, schools, and residential treatment facilities. According to the state Legislative Analysts Office, the state spends approximately $49,200 per year per person on these programs.

If that same young person could function normally in society, he would cost taxpayers about $8,568 per year while in k-12 education. If he went on to the community college system, he would cost about $4,376 — or about a tenth of the cost of a year under the jurisdiction of the Youth Authority. If he went to the prestigious University of California system, he would cost the state $17,392. Think how much the state would save for every young person who can go on to create a life of his own rather than have to have his every move controlled or monitored by someone else.

The educational system represents an investment; the state’s expenditures are likely to be repaid over the years by its graduates when they become productive citizens. By contrast, the money spent on incarceration has little prospect of turning the individual into a more productive citizen. These expenditures merely neutralize the negative impact on society of an individual who can’t or won’t control himself.

 

Statistics and probabilities

Some might respond that they personally are acquainted with many wonderful children of single parents. The parents are loving and giving; the children are thriving. But these anecdotal cases are not decisive. For every such story, we could produce a counter-story of a struggling single-parent family that fits the more distressing profile. The mother is a lovely person who did her best, but the boy got out of hand in his teenage years. Or the mother started out as a lovely person, but she became preoccupied with her new boyfriend or her job troubles. Her parents are heartbroken because they can see that their grandchildren are headed for trouble.

Besides, it is important to understand what statistical evidence does and does not prove. To say that a child of a single mother is twice as likely to commit a crime as the child of married parents is not to say that each and every child of every unwed mother will commit crimes or that no child of married parents will ever commit crimes. It is simply to say that growing up with unmarried parents is a significant risk factor.

Nor does saying that single-parent households are a risk factor diminish the possibility that some propensity for criminal activity might be genetically determined. Some individuals may well have a genetic propensity for aggression or for mental instability — or even for sociopathic behavior. These individuals are surely at higher than average risk for criminal activity, whether their parents are married or not. But the claim that some sociopaths are born does not preclude the possibility that some sociopaths are made. It makes sense to minimize the risk factors over which we can exercise a reasonable amount of control.

Some of the causal links between single-parent households and criminal behavior are better established than others. The causal connection between dropping out of school and higher probability of criminal behavior seems pretty straightforward and is well-documented. The link from single-parent households to attachment disorder is a weaker causal connection with a lower probability. But because a lifetime without a conscience is such a serious problem, it makes sense to try to lower the risk.

Look at it this way: When the evidence linking smoking with lung cancer first came to light, many people wanted to minimize that link. People with a serious addiction felt it was impossible for them to give up smoking. They didn’t necessarily welcome the arrival of accurate information about a ship that had already sailed. “I know someone who smoked for a lifetime and never had cancer,” skeptics replied. And indeed, that could be true. Smokers do not all die of smoking-related illness.

However, looking at the vast sweep of the evidence, enough people do die of smoking-related illnesses that smoking can safely be classified as a serious risk factor. And it is a choice-related risk factor, unlike genetic predispositions toward disease that might increase the likelihood of contracting lung cancer. It makes sense to have public health campaigns to educate the public about the risks associated with smoking, even though people irredeemably addicted to smoking might prefer not to be afflicted with this guilt- and anxiety-provoking information. Similarly, there is now enough evidence about the risks associated with growing up in a single-parent household that people are entitled to accurate information about those risks.

 

What to do?

No serious person would claim that the government can or should take over marriage as a matter for “public” regulation and control, even if there are significant externalities to some behaviors. At a minimum, though, the government ought to refrain from counterproductive policies that discourage family formation or encourage family dissolution. The current regime of no-fault divorce, for example, really amounts to unilateral divorce.

Divorce imposes large costs on children. A unilateral divorce also imposes costs on the person who wants to preserve the marriage. Such people are willing to exert effort to stay married, but they don’t even have the opportunity to state this case in court. These injured parties, adults and children alike, can never be made fully whole as the law would ordinarily require in a tort. It is a distortion of the idea of freedom to claim that no-fault divorce is the only policy consistent with individual liberty. Even a purely economic theory suggests that the imposition of costs on third parties should not be allowed to occur willy-nilly. Common decency requires that people who impose costs on others at least offer an account of themselves. The law should do no less.

But real policy recommendations have to go well beyond the reach of the law. In matters relating to the family, the dichotomy between “private” and “public,” so familiar in policymaking circles, does not really work; these are not mutually exhaustive categories. We need an additional analytical category: “social.”

Family matters are first and foremost social matters because a family is a little society. The larger society is built in crucial ways upon the little society of the family. The family is more than a collection of individuals who make quasi-market exchanges with each other. And families are not miniature political institutions. The label of “social” also points us in the right direction for solutions. The most important tools for building up the family are not primarily economic and political, but social and cultural. Accurate information is a necessary educational tool in reversing the culture of despair around the institution of marriage.

A young woman needs to know that the decision to have a child by herself is a decision that exposes her and her child to a lifetime of elevated risks: of poverty, of lower education, of depression, and of prison. Getting and staying married may seem formidable to a young pregnant woman because marriage is filled with a hundred irritations and difficulties. She might think it simpler to strike out alone rather than to put up with the innumerable adjustments and accommodations that are inevitable in married life. And it is easier for us to remain uninvolved in such a decision. But we are not doing the young person any favors by acting as if we are ignorant of the likely consequences of her choices. The time-honored American ethos of “live and let live” has metamorphosed into a categorical imperative to keep our mouths shut.

For years we have heard that single parenthood is an alternative lifestyle choice that doesn’t affect anyone but the person who chooses it. We have been instructed that society should loosen the stigma against it in order to promote individual freedom of choice. We have been scolded for being insufficiently sensitive to the plight of single mothers if we utter any criticism of their decisions. At the urging of various activist groups, the government and society at large have been developing a posture of neutrality among family arrangements. There are no better or worse forms of family, we are told. There are no “broken families,” only “different families.”

The premise behind this official posture of neutrality is false. The decision to become a single parent or to disrupt an existing family does affect people outside the immediate household. These words may seem harsh to adults who have already made crucial life decisions, but it is time to be candid. We need to create a vocabulary for lovingly, but firmly and without apology, telling young people what we know. Surely, telling the truth is no infringement on anyone’s liberty. Young people need to have accurate information about the choices they face. For their own sake — and for ours.