Studies done in a number of American cities as well as in Europe, have shown that a mere five percent of families account for half of all crime, and ten percent of families account for two thirds of all crime. It's important to note that these findings are the same regardless of race or nationality.
Q: How is it that someone who spent fifteen years writing about Asia for The New York Times came to write about crime in America?
A: When I returned to the United States from Beijing, I ended up back in New York, working at the mother ship. No one could figure out what to do with me, so they assigned me to write about a young black man named Willie Bosket who had murdered several passengers on the subway in Harlem, for no apparent reason. The long story I wrote about Willie for The Times became a book, All God's Children. It was an odd turn for someone who speaks Chinese and covered the Vietnam war, but journalists are skilled at personal reinvention, and out of this switch I started a new beat at the paper covering crime and criminal justice. I was particularly interested in a series of criminological studies showing that crime tends to run heavily in families, which formed the basis for my new book, In My Father's House.
Q: Rooster Bogle and his family, the central characters in your new book, are a pretty odd bunch. How did you find them?
A: By accident, really. One of our most pernicious stereotypes is that white Americans tend to associate blacks with crime. But while blacks are overrepresented in prison, most crime is still committed by whites. I wanted to take race out of the equation, so I was very interested when an official from the Oregon Department of Corrections told me about a white family with what he thought was six members in prison, the Bogles. After ten years of research I have learned that the real number is at least sixty members.
Q: Why were they willing to cooperate with a book that doesn’t exactly make them look like the Brady Bunch?
A: That's a good question. My contact in the Oregon Department of Corrections arranged a first round of interviews with some members behind bars in the state, and several had heard about or read All God's Children. They thought appearing in a book might give them a kind of celebrity they otherwise would never have. But other family members did not want their stories made public. It took several years to get agreement from enough key members to write the book.
Q: What’s the big takeaway from the book?
A: That our criminal justice system needs to pay more attention to families and to learn more about the families of offenders when they are arrested, tried and sent to prison. We need to find creative ways of separating families like the Bogles so they don't keep spreading what amounts to a criminal infection. The Bogles themselves call it the family curse of crime.
Q: Are there any programs that do this?
A: In the past few years some innovative programs have been started in the United States and Europe giving housing subsidies to inmates when they are released from prison provided they do not move back in with their families.These programs cost far less than sending an inmate back to prison if he commits another crime. Early data show that this approach is an effective way to break the family ties that lead to a cycle of family crime.
Q: Can you describe some of the crimes the Bogles committed?
A: Two members of the family were sentenced to life for murder. Two others were convicted of kidnapping. There were multiple robberies, burglaries, stolen cars as well as assaults. Drug sales and possession cases are sprinkled around the family. Some of the women were convicted for Medicaid fraud or stabbing their boyfriends, one when her boyfriend went into a store and bought the wrong brand of beer.
Q: That sounds pretty bleak. Did any of the Bogles make it out and become productive citizens?
A: Yes, a very few. Tammie Bogle, whose father served time in jail and beat her mother, escaped by finding a deep faith in God and set up a Christian based half-way house for sex offenders after they were released from prison. Ashley Bogle succeed by earning straight A's in school. She became the first Bogle to graduate from college and now works in a doctor's office as a medical records technician.
Q: When you talk about crime running in families, are you suggesting this is some kind of genetic phenomenon?
A: Until very recently criminologists in America rejected any research into a genetic explanation for crime. In part this was because of the Nazis genetic experiments in their World War II concentration camps. It was also because of concern, with America's history of racism and overrepresentation of blacks in prison, that a genetic explanation would play into racist views. So I have focused largely on social and psychological theories: that the Bogle parents took their children out to commit crimes with them, just as some families take their kids camping or skiing, and the kids learned by imitating their parents. But I also uncovered some very new research, after the decoding of the human genome, which has found genes that may make people more prone to behavior like impulsivity, a frequent precursor of crime. The researchers are careful to stress there is no crime gene. And they have also found that the gene by itself does not cause criminal activity. It is only when there is an interplay between the gene and the environment, in this case a family like the Bogles, that the gene may have an impact.
Q: So what's next?
A: We'll see. The book was a long haul, and my wife has forbidden me to write anything lengthier than a grocery list.