Crime and Family Breakdown

Crime and Family Breakdown

Crime and Family Breakdown


The study focuses on the social disorganization theory. The theory focuses on how disintegration of social institutions such as family, friendship, and church contributes to crime. According to the theory, these institutions help to establish organized and cooperative relationships among individuals within communities. The relationships, in turn, result in the development of bonds and a sense of belonging among people (Porter, Capellan & Chintakrindi, 2015). The breakdown of these social institutions leads to less deterrence for crime. The development of social disorganization as an explanation of differences in crime level was informed by increase in individualism and rapid societal change and the disintegrative or disorganizing forces which followed (Porter, Capellan & Chintakrindi, 2015). While the theory focuses on the wider society, in this study, it is narrowed down to family, by looking at how changes in household dynamics as a result of breakdown influence crime. The argument is family breakdown breaks the strong bonds among people, removing the family norms that could deter one from committing crime.


In this study, 200 individuals who have been convicted severally were interviewed. The interview focused on their childhood and the kind of family environment they grew in. Most importantly, the interview was focused on trying to determine whether they experienced family breakdown through divorce, separation, or one of the parents being convicted. To control the effect of other factors, such as race and socio-economic status, participants were selected across the socio-economic and racial divide. Logistic regression was used to determine the relationship between crime and family breakdown.

Research Questions

  • Does family breakdown increase the propensity for crime?
  • Does the level of crime depend on the severity of family breakdown?


Family breakdown increases the propensity for crime among people

Null hypothesis

Family breakdown is not related to propensity to crime among individuals


            From the interview, 60% of the participants had experienced family breakdown in their childhood due to either divorce or separation while 20% indicated that while there was no family breakdown in terms of their parents divorcing or separating, their families were rife with constant fights between their parents. A logic regression showed significant correlation between family breakdown and crime. One important discovery from the results is that family breakdown does not only involve actual separation of family members but even in the way of life.  For the 20% of the participants who indicated that their families were characterized by constant fights, their criminal activities were significantly laced with violence. It was also found that the level of crime among the participants was also dependent on the severity of the breakdown.


The results show crime is positively related to family breakdown. That is, individuals raised in broken families are likely to engage in criminal activities. Accordingly, family breakdown does not only involve separation but also the relationship among family members. A toxic relationship between members also constitutes a family breakdown. The results support the social disorganization theory, which shows a positive relationship between breakdown of social institutions and the tendency to commit crime among people.

Also, the results echo findings from previous studies. For example, in their study, Theobald, Farrington, and Piquero (2013) established that experiencing a broken home before the age of 14 was positively related to violent criminal conviction by the age of 50. To determine this, Theobald, Farrington, and Piquero (2013) analyzed 411 men who had been followed for 40 years to determine how their lives panned out. Of the original number, 394 were alive and 353 (93%) were interviewed. The criminal records of the individuals were also analyzed to determine whether they had been involved in criminal activities and the frequency of their involvement. It was established that 44 participants experienced family breakdown in their childhood where their parents separated or divorced. Out of the 44, 14 (31.8%) of them were convicted for a violent crime between the age of 15 and 50. It was, therefore, concluded that family breakdown is a significant contributor to tendency to commit crime.

The primary role of the family is to socialize children so that they become productive members of society.  When the family breaks down, socialization is compromised. The effects of the breakdown on children include participation in antisocial behavior and maladjustment. As such, there is increased risk of the children committing crime as they grow into adulthood.

One of the reasons family breakdown increases the risk of crime is the reduced support and participation in formal organizations, which weaken the social control mechanism of the community on individuals (Wong, 2011). When the family breaks down, there is limited control on children. For example, when parents separate or divorce, children remain with one parent, in most cases, the mother. With the reduced input of the father in providing the needed guidance, the risk of the children engaging in antisocial behavior increases (Wong, 2011). The situation is worsened when the remaining parent spends limited time with the children due to work.

Family breakdown also reduces the development of social networks that act as informal control mechanism.  Human beings are social beings and they constantly look for ways to associate with others (Wong, 2011). With the reduced development of social networks due to family disruption, children look for alternative ways of socializing, which may give rise to criminal gangs. Furthermore, family breakdown depletes resources, weakening the collective community efficacy. As such, it lowers the ability of the community to act as a control mechanism.

For families characterized by constant conflicts, there is poor communication, rejection of parental relationships, and verbal and/or physical abuse. Children who grow up in such an environment are likely to have poor problem-solving skills and hostile attribution biases (Theobald, Farrington & Piquero, 2013). The development of hostile attribution bias could be the reason the participants who grew in a family characterized by constant fights between parents engage in violent criminal activities.

The general characteristics of broken families include lack of parental affection, lack of discipline and supervision, parental neglect or abuse, rejection of the child, and domestic violence. Parents can only show affection to their children if they are emotionally healthy. However, family breakdown causes stress, making it hard for parents to be affectionate towards children (Theobald, Farrington & Piquero, 2013). For example, mothers who experience domestic violence are unlikely to show love to their children because of their poor emotional state. For divorced or separated individuals, the stress of taking care of children alone makes it hard for a parent to show affection (Theobald, Farrington & Piquero, 2013). In addition, children need the affection of both parents. The reduced parental affection increases the risk of delinquency among children.

Family disruption reduces the level of discipline, mainly due to reduced interaction between children and parents. For example, when parents separate, one of them has limited access to the children, making it hard for them to discipline them (Theobald, Farrington & Piquero, 2013). With reduced supervision and discipline, children are left to do as they please, increasing the risk of developing antisocial behavior. Such children are likely to be involved in crime in future.

Essentially, family breakdown is one of the significant factors that determine the involvement in crime. The findings in the study indicate that family is an important institution with respect to helping individuals grow into responsible adults. The findings imply that family disruption negatively affects the psychological wellbeing of children, increasing the risk of them engaging in crime (Theobald, Farrington & Piquero, 2013). As such, in preventing crime, focus should be drawn on promoting the maintenance of the family institution.


The aim of this study was to determine the relationship between crime and family breakdown. The study was based on the social disorganization theory, which indicates that crime is a consequence of the breakdown of the social institutions, such as the church and family.  Results indicate that individuals who experienced family breakdown are likely to engage in crime in future. As such, family is an important institution that plays a critical role in the development of individuals to responsible adults. It provides the social environment that creates a sense of belonging and security. Family breakdown disrupts this environment, affecting children psychologically. As result, the risk of developing antisocial behavior increases, culminating into criminal activities. In addition, family breakdown reduces parental affection, discipline and supervision, and domestic violence, factors which increase the risk of individuals engaging in crime in future. The findings, therefore, support the hypothesis.


Porter, J. R., Capellan, J., & Chintakrindi, S. (2015). Social Disorganization Theory. The Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment, 1-7. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314337144_Social_Disorganization_Theory

Theobald, D., Farrington, D. P., & Piquero, A. R. (2013). Childhood broken homes and adult violence: An analysis of moderators and mediators. Journal of Criminal Justice, 41(1), 44-52. Retrieved from http://www.antoniocasella.eu/restorative/Theobald_2013.pdf

Wong, S. K. (2011). Reciprocal effects of family disruption and crime: a panel study of canadian municipalities. W. Criminology Rev., 12, 43. Retrieved from http://www.westerncriminology.org/documents/WCR/v12n1/Wong.pdf


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