During my 35 years as a federal prosecutor, I have been exposed to biographical information about some of the most dangerous drug and violent defendants in the American criminal justice system. What has consistently struck me is how similar these offenders’ backgrounds are.

My experience has suggested that four features commonly combine in lethal fashion to create a dangerous criminal. They are:

* families that have fractured and re-configured repeatedly and consider criminal behavior to be an accepted element of family life;

* childhoods that are dominated by drugs, alcohol, physical abuse, verbal mistreatment, sexual predation, or all of those forms of abuse;

* upbringings that reflect no respect for education; and

* the absence of any influence of, or involvement in, religion.


Let me explain what leads me to this conclusion.

As any practitioner of federal criminal law knows, before a federal defendant is sentenced, the probation office prepares a report of pre-sentence investigation, or PSR. Each PSR follows the same format.

After explaining the charges against the defendant and the statutory penalties that apply, the PSR describes the crime, often drawing on the prosecutor’s representations to the judge at the guilty plea hearing or the evidence that was presented to the jury at trial.

The PSR then analyzes the various factors that are specific to the crime, for example whether the defendant occupied a leadership role, committed perjury in testifying in his own defense, or threatened witnesses. It also evaluates such positive attributes as the defendant’s prompt acceptance of responsibility for his conduct as demonstrated by a timely guilty plea and genuine expressions of remorse.

A second part of the PSR recounts the defendant’s criminal history: the crimes of which he has been previously charged or convicted, the punishment he received, and a brief description of the episode that produced the charges.

There follows what I consider to be the most telling part of the PSR: a description of the defendant’s background. The report describes when and where the defendant was born; who raised him; what happened during his youth; his education and employment history; and his own adult family connections.


I refer to defendants as “he” because the overwhelming majority of federal defendants are male.

It is from reading hundreds of explanations of this qualitative information about convicted defendants that I have drawn my conclusions about what makes a serious violent or drug criminal.

The family dynamic

It is easy to say that bad parenting produces criminals, but much harder to define what bad parenting is.

Almost every serious drug or violent criminal I have encountered comes from a family that never really was a family at all. Father and mother may never have married each other or the defendant may not even know who one parent or the other is.

Parents of future criminals who have married generally have stayed together only for brief periods. Then one parent – usually the father – deserts the mother and her offspring, sometimes never to be heard from again, and often to produce half-siblings the defendant knows barely or not at all.


The mother then forms serial attachments to other men, and also produces half-siblings with whom the defendant has no meaningful relationship.

It is not the dissolution of the family unit by itself that contributes to the development of a criminal. Fifty percent of American couples divorce, and although the children always pay the dearest price, many divorced couples succeed in giving their children the love and stability they need to become constructive contributors to society.

In families that produce criminals, it is the total lack of parental consistency that destroys the child.

If a child does not know from one day to the next what father or mother figure will be in his life, how can he develop any respect for that person or their generation?

Without consistency how can it be impressed upon a child that certain behavior is good and will be rewarded, and other behavior is bad and will be punished?

As an aside, defendants who are the products of such disintegrated families often repeat the same pattern in their own adult lives. Many federal defendants themselves have fathered multiple children by multiple women. One defendant whose case I handled fathered 14 children, three of them by different mothers, all three of whom gave birth to the defendant’s child during the same calendar year.


Adult examples of abuse

A corollary of the repeatedly fractured family that characterizes a dangerous defendant’s childhood is the conduct by the adults that sets examples for the child.

Seldom is the defendant being sentenced the first in his family to be convicted of a serious crime. Often, the father has spent years away from the child in prison and there may be uncles who have done so as well. Even when there has not been a conviction, the adults in a serious offender’s life have engaged in one or more forms of abuse — drugs, alcohol, verbal, and sexual and/or physical violence. Often that abuse takes place in front of the child.

There seems to be a relationship between the abuse the offender observed or suffered as a child and the crime the offender will perpetrate as an adult. If he witnessed repeated drug abuse during his youth, he will commit a drug-related crime when he comes of age or sooner.

If a parent routinely consumes excessive amounts of alcohol in the child’s presence, and behaves irrationally as a result, the child will follow suit.

If the defendant was physically molested as a child, as an adult he may abuse children and may traffic in – or, worse yet, produce — child pornography.


If he was repeatedly beaten as a child, or saw his mother or siblings be beaten, he will commit similar assaults on his own loved ones or total strangers.

The statistics from my home state of Maine bear out my observations.

In 2012, according to the Maine Sunday Telegram, of the children who were taken into state custody, for 47 percent the cause was a parent’s drug abuse; for 20 percent the reason was the parent’s alcohol abuse; 10 percent of removed children suffered physical abuse; 4 percent suffered sexual abuse, and 83 percent were neglected, a catch-all category that overlaps with all of the others.

Almost universally, defendants who commit drug crimes are drug-addicted themselves and formed that addiction very early in life.

A typical PSR reports that the defendant began smoking marijuana at age 9 or 10, graduated to cocaine or heroin, and by early adulthood was so addicted to one or more illegal drugs that he started selling drugs to support his own habit.

An alcoholic defendant frequently had one or more alcoholic parent or step-parent and began using alcohol at a very young age as well.


It seems that the parents’ negative patterns become the template for the future criminal’s development.

Instability of education

A third common feature of serious federal offenders is that their families generally hold education in total disregard.

Almost every violator of drug and violent crimes I have encountered was a chronic truant in elementary school and cut short his formal education as soon as is legally possible. The literature suggests there is a correlation between the future defendant’s chaotic home life and the decision to drop out of school.

According to The Economist, children who grow up in dysfunctional environments find it harder to sit still and concentrate, skills that are essential for doing well in school. Such children are also slower to rebound from life’s normal disappointments, such as a poor test grade or a bad report card.

Stress early in a child’s life apparently damages the prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain that regulates thoughts and behavior. A child raised in a household of domestic violence, substance or verbal abuse, or rotating parental figures certainly faces childhood stress. It is small wonder they find it hard to concentrate.


Moreover, life at home tends to reinforce a child’s life at school. More often than not, children from families that value education do well in school. They are likely to continue their education in part because academic success wins parental approval and in part because academic performance contributes to a sense of self-confidence.

The reverse is also true.

A child whose parents put no stock in education receives no praise at home for doing well academically. In the school setting, poor performance can make the child feel humiliated and want to avoid the situation that produces a low sense of self-worth: going to school at all.

In my experience, the typical time for a serious criminal to drop out of school is the 10th grade.

One effect of this prematurely truncated education is that any balancing influence that teachers may have on a child in relation to adults in his home life is totally lost. Equally lost are relationships with other children from more temperate homes whose behavior and values can counterbalance what the soon-to-be defendant sees in his own family.

On the streets unsupervised when everyone else his age is in school either makes the future defendant a loner or steers him into relationships with others like him, who become bands of truants or, in urban areas, members of organized gangs.


The school drop-out loses the benefit of developing constructive lifelong interests such as reading, athletics, art or music. Dropping out of school also produces another crime-inducing feature for a child: a pathway to poverty.

Without an education, jobs are hard to find, and the need to pay for the basic necessities of life becomes the justification for committing crimes such as burglary, which often result in violence.

Absence of religion

A fourth common characteristic of serious criminals is the absence of religion in their childhoods.

Jesuit priests are reputed to subscribe to the maxim “Give me a child for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man.”

Almost no serious federal offender I have encountered was exposed to any form of religion or religious education as a child. Many of them seem to find religion after they are arrested and convicted.


Indeed, a common plea for leniency at sentencing is that, while incarcerated without bail, the defendant has thrown himself into Bible studies and found Jesus. However, up until the criminal justice system catches up with them, most defendants have no contact with organized religion or even individual spirituality. The effect is that the common moral code that religion offers as an instinctive control on impulsive or destructive behavior is totally lost on the criminal.

Lacking religious education, offenders lose the benefit of a system of rules and rewards that could enable them to function constructively within society. Also missing is a sense of identification with a group and the positive influence and support that a group can offer an individual facing life’s challenges.

When these four common factors – disintegrated families, multiple forms of abuse, and the absence of education and religion – all combine in a child’s life, the result is all too frequently an adult who will sooner or later be sentenced for a serious crime.

The current system

It is hard to believe that any of the common denominators in criminal defendants’ lives is genetic. Rather, it seems that the repeated negative influences are transmitted from one generation to the next by example.

As it currently exists, the child welfare system considers primarily the parent’s right to raise the child as the parent sees fit. Instead, the system should focus on the child and the child’s prospects for the future.


Some checks on destructive families do exist in the current child welfare system.

For example, in most states, teachers and school administrators are required by law to report to state authorities any reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused at home and can face a penalty for withholding relevant information. The same is true of physicians and hospital personnel.

Valuable as such practices may be, my suspicion is that, even when they have been severely abused, many children will instinctively protect their parent – in part in an effort to protect themselves from future abuse – and will lie in response to official inquiries.

By his own public account, the current governor of Maine was raised in precisely the type of family I have described.

His father, an abjectly poor chronic alcoholic, regularly beat his wife and 15 children. As the governor tells the story, once, when his father administered such a brutal beating that the boy had to be taken to the hospital, the father offered his son 50 cents (an enormous sum at the time) to lie about the cause of his injuries. It is another story entirely, but the future governor’s self-described solution to his home situation was to run away at age 14.

In 2012, there were an estimated 3.3 million reports of abuse involving 6 million children, some reports involving more than one child in the same household. These figures are probably much lower than the circumstances warrant.


Even when reports of abuse do reach authorities, the common wisdom is that a parent’s right to keep a child is paramount. Indeed, parental prerogative is perceived to be among the unarticulated protections the Constitution gives individuals.

Most state health and human services departments operate under the assumption that any parent – no matter how dysfunctional — is better for a child than no parent. Even when the evidence of abuse and/or neglect is overwhelming, moreover, removing children from their homes is a cumbersome and costly process that requires the involvement of state case workers, state-appointed guardians ad litem for the child (who are frequently untrained and poorly supervised), and the judicial system.

Removing the child from his home also creates the need to find some other place for the child to live. Under the current system, children who are taken from their parents or other relatives generally go to live with foster parents.

The Child Welfare League of America estimates that one child in basic foster care costs the system $4,500 per year and justifies this cost by the comparison to the alternative: an estimated $36,500 per child per year when the child is placed in institutional care. Multiply either figure by the estimated 408,000 children who are currently in state custody in the country as a whole, and the price tag is staggering.

Viewed in isolation, the cost comparison between institutional care and foster care appears to justify the current system’s choice. The real question, however, is whether the lower cost is at the expense of giving a child from an abusive home a chance to become a well-adjusted and successful adult.

Justified or not, there are suspicions that some adults have mixed motives for becoming foster parents. Nevertheless, that the foster care system produces flawed results is well-documented.


One study in Baltimore shows that, within 12 to 18 months of having aged out of foster care, 27 percent of the males and 10 percent of the females were incarcerated. Of the same population, 33 percent required public assistance, and 37 percent had not finished high school (McCuistion, March 24, 2013).

Among the problems with the foster care system are the inexact methods for recruiting, screening, and retaining qualified foster parents; matching children with appropriate homes; and the logistical difficulties of supervising foster homes, especially in states that cover large geographic areas.

What is perhaps an even greater problem is the dislocation the children experience when they are bounced from one foster home to another. By one estimate, the average foster child is moved from one home to another at least once, with a quarter of children in foster care experiencing three or more moves (Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. “Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care” (2007)).

For many children, placement within the foster care system is only temporary. The system’s goal is to restore the birth family to sufficient functioning that the child can be returned to the custody of relatives.

Possible solutions

At the core of the current foster care system is a philosophy and practice of waiting until a child is actually and repeatedly abused to remove that child from a disruptive household and then returning the child to that same environment as soon as it appears to have stabilized.


There may be better alternatives for children whose family circumstances fit the description I have given. Although parents certainly have rights when it comes to their children, automatic deference to those rights is not justified.

When a family has exposed a child to so many corroding influences, the child has at least an equal right to the opportunity to lead a constructive life. However harsh the reality to the parent, the child’s right to a meaningful future should take priority over whatever right the parent has surrendered by the parent’s own destructive behavior toward the child.

One practical approach to breaking the cycle is to tighten the child protective system.

If a child is born into a family that has exhibited the overlap of common destructive characteristics, that family should be closely monitored from the day a new baby is born into it. When abuse becomes apparent, authorities should not delay acting. The affected child should be removed from the home as soon as practical and when the child is as young as possible.

Waiting until the child is 10 or 12 is too long, for by then the negative pattern has set in.

Of course there should be mechanisms for custody of children to be retained or restored to their parents.


For example, a mother whose partner has abused her child should be given time to sever the relationship with the partner and find other living arrangements. Some parents do.

One unsuspecting young mother in a case I handled was horrified to learn from the police that her husband had been taking pornographic photographs of their infant daughter while the mother was at work and posting the photos on the Internet. That mother immediately fled with the child to her parents’ home, divorced the father, and by all accounts has taken exemplary measures to give the child a good life. Surely, she should keep her child.

For parents who have inflicted abuse, however, or for those who have tolerated its infliction, the threshold the parent must meet to retain or regain custody of the child should be exceedingly high. There also should be no second chances in the event of a relapse.

If the foster home system is not working, the obvious question becomes what else is there?

For infants who must be removed from their birth homes, a reasonable solution is making adoption faster, easier and less expensive. Placing a child permanently with a family that wants the child and has been screened for suitability has the greatest potential for success when the child is still an infant and the damage the birth family caused can be blunted and repaired. Moreover, the financial cost to society of a successful adoption is far lower than the cost of keeping the child in foster care even for only a few years.

For older children, an alternative to foster care could be resurrecting the concept of group homes where children who have been removed from abusive parents go – and stay — unless the parent promptly demonstrates permanent reform.


Once called orphanages, group homes are a safety net for children of totally dysfunctional homes, but they have acquired as much of a stigma as prison itself.

What frequently springs to mind is the image of Oliver Twist. However, a reasonable alternative to foster care might be an institutional setting where two of the four contributors to a child’s future life of crime are eliminated: inconstancy of adult influences and abuse of any kind.

In a group home a third factor, education, could be injected into the child’s life as part of an accepted daily routine.

The fourth factor – religion or religious education– could not be required, but serenity of a stable atmosphere and a common code of moral conduct could partially take their place.

Group homes could provide many measures to help at-risk children that the current system of foster care does not.

For example, in a group home, children would be supervised by a consistent team of adults. It is much easier to hire, train, and oversee employees when all of them work under the same roof than it is to screen a frequently changing crop of foster parents, supervise them at geographically disparate locations, and relocate the children when the placements fail.


A well-run, physically attractive institutional facility where children are exposed to positive influences on a regular basis is far from a foreign concept in American culture.

Many well-meaning parents of ultimately successful children surrender the care of their children, even their infants, to institutional child care.

Why would putting a child from an abused home into such an institutional setting be so different?

Why is the concept of group homes alien or repugnant when some of America’s richest, most successful parents pay the equivalent of Ivy League college tuitions to send their children to such elite boarding schools as Exeter and Andover?

Boarding schools are institutions. The children live apart from their parents. The primary influences on the students’ day-to-day lives are not their families, but teachers and each other.

Why must a group home be viewed so differently and negatively, especially when, by contrast to the Exeter students, the candidates for group homes are not leaving behind loving, attentive families, but are being removed from relatives who have all but doomed them to lives of failure, if not crime?


To be sure, the cost of institutional homes is significantly higher than the current cost of a foster care placement, but the costs associated with incarcerating a criminal adult are even higher.

A report by the organization “The Price of Prison” put the price tag on imprisoning one inmate in 2010 in such states as Connecticut and New York at $50,000 to $60,000 per year. In Maine, the cost of incarcerating one 80-year old man who has been in and out of jail since his teens and is currently serving a life sentence for murder is an estimated $1.5 million, according to an April 2013 Maine Sunday Telegram report.

The total annual nation-wide cost to the taxpayers of the prison system is estimated to be $63.4 billion. These figures do not even attempt to quantify the cost of the opportunity lost when an able-bodied adult sits idly in prison. Nor do they account for the costs, both psychological and financial, to the victims of crimes.

One victim of Internet child pornography has represented to courts around the country that she expects to need $952,759.81 worth of treatment to help her cope with the atrocities that were inflicted on her as a child and the knowledge that, probably forever, strange men all over the world will continue being able to watch videos of her being raped (United States v. Fast, 709 F.3d 712, 722 (8th Cir. 2013)).

The maximum cost to the taxpayers from placements in group homes would be for 18 years. By age 18, children are considered adults, are able to work, and even many loving families consider offspring to be responsible for themselves.

Some 18-year-olds who fit the description of destined-to-be criminals wind up serving sentences of 30 years or, in the case of the 80-year-old Mainer, life in prison. If putting a child in permanent institutional care keeps even a fraction of the 408,000 children who have been removed from their homes out of jail, the $36,500 annual cost of institutional group homes is a bargain.


For too long, American society has tolerated a self-propelling downward spiral in which corrupting families have produced children who repeat the negative patterns of prior generations. Simply working with those families is not solving the problem. Nor is it being fair to the children whose futures are lost in the process.

Our priorities should be reversed: the children should come first, not the parents. Our objective should not be to leave children in home situations that doom them to failure.

Instead, we should place abused children in settings where they can receive the educational, behavioral and moral instruction that will enable them to become constructive adult members of society.

Margaret McGaughey of Brunswick is appellate chief of the United States Attorney’s Office in Portland.

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