Findings from this study elucidate the complex associations related to serious violent crime. In this study and as guided by the CHSCP, participants who had committed serious violent crimes were more likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse, poor parental relationships, and early-onset incarceration (prior to 21 years of age). Past gang membership and physical or sexual victimization within the 6 months prior to their current incarceration were also associated with the commission of serious violent crime. Being married was another factor found to be associated with serious violent crime. This finding may suggest the presence of spousal involvement in violent crime as well. Of note, none of substance use, coping, or current social support measures was related to serious violent crime in the regression models.
Although abstinence from drugs, more adaptive coping, and enhanced social support are laudable goals for re-entry programs, they are unlikely to keep parolees from re-offending in the absence of efforts to address the multidimensional problems confronting them. Further investigation of the impact of marriage on crime may also be of interest.
The impact of childhood exposure to violence, including physical and sexual abuse and inter-parental violence, and of social violence on an adult’s commission of serious violent crime is well documented (Christofferson et al., 2010
; Felson & Lane, 2009
; Sarchiapone, Carli, Cuomo, Marchetti, & Roy, 2009
). A large cohort study of young men found that those convicted of a lethal violent crime were 4.5 times more likely to have been physically abused and neglected than those not convicted (Christofferson et al., 2010
). In addition to homicide, childhood physical abuse has been linked to an adult’s sexual or physical assault on other adults (Felson & Lane, 2009
). As for childhood sexual trauma, Sarchiapone et al. (2009)
found that childhood neglect and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse were associated with high levels of aggression, conviction at an early age and more than once, violence in prison, and continued violence on release. Finally, physical and sexual maltreatment during adolescence increases the risk of violent offending in both late adolescence and early adulthood (Smith et al., 2005
Our findings support what is documented in current research, namely, that childhood trauma is strongly associated with violent crime and has a deleterious effect on a young adult’s maturation. Therefore, interventions for violent offenders must address their personal histories of trauma and victimization as both children and adults. For example, assessment and treatment of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), should be integrated into substance abuse treatment (SAT) programs for this population (Ford, Russo, & Mallon, 2007
). Given the high-rates of SUDs, physical and sexual trauma, and mental illness in the correctional population (James & Glaze, 2006
; Mumola & Karberg, 2006
), the SAT setting is an appropriate place to address the manifold problems that violent offenders experience. Coordinated efforts could improve parolees’ mental well-being, increase successful community reintegration, and decrease violent crime.
Family dynamics, in particular, parental relationships, also influenced participants’ commission of serious violent crimes. Of those participants committing such crimes, two-thirds had poor parental relationships and close to one-half described their families as not being close. Parental engagement and child-rearing practices, as well as parental substance use and incarceration, have been described as predictors of violent behavior in the literature (Phillips et al., 2009
; Turner et al., 2007
; Woldoff & Washington, 2008
). A longitudinal, multiple cohort study of delinquency in boys from adolescence to young adulthood found that boys with four or more violence risk factors were six times more likely to commit violence and 14 times more likely to commit homicide as young adults than those with less than four risk factors (Loeber et al., 2005
). Parental risk factors included unstable child rearing, (i.e., more than one caregiver before the age of 10), physical punishment, and poor supervision and communication (Loeber et al., 2005
; Turner et al., 2007
). Each of these factors can set the stage for long-term parent child disaffection. Other factors that may negatively influence the child-parent dynamic include parental substance abuse (Phillips et al., 2009
; Woldoff & Washington, 2008
). Parental risks increase a child’s exposure to poor living conditions, decrease access to education, and foster emotional and behavioral problems; these factors place the youth at risk for criminal behaviors, including violent criminality (Phillips et al., 2009
; Turner et al., 2007
). Results from this study provide further evidence that poor parental relations may negatively influence violent criminal activity into adulthood. Policies, programs, and interventions for reentering violent offenders must begin to consider their problematic behaviors across the varied domains in which they occur, including the family (Huey, Henggeler, Brondino, & Pickrel, 2000
One such program,—multisystemic therapy (MST),—is a psychotherapeutic intervention that considers the family essential to long-lasting behavior change (Swenson, Schaeffer, Henggeler, Faldowski, & Mayhew, 2010
). MST has demonstrated efficacy in treating adolescents with serious antisocial behaviors (Borduin, Schaeffer, & Heiblum, 2009
) and may be appropriate for addressing violent adult offenders’ problems, particularly around parenting, resolving family conflict, and establishing meaningful relationships with children, partners, and other family members (Huey et al., 2000
; Swenson et al., 2010
). MST’s holistic and individualized approach for addressing problematic behaviors across multiple social arenas provides a model for improving relations within the violent offender’s familial context, as well as potentially preventing intergenerational incarceration. Future research should consider residential drug treatment programs that incorporate the MST approach into other treatment modalities parolees receive, such as anger management training, and parenting courses.
Gang membership was found to be a correlate of violent crime in the final model. Gang membership is associated with violent crime and increased involvement in crime generally (Bellair & McNulty, 2009
; Bjerregaard, 2010
). Although gang membership increases exposure to violent crime, it also reflects the economic disadvantage experienced by many communities where gangs are prevalent (Bellair & McNulty, 2009
). For many gang members, criminality, in particular selling drugs, is a primary form of income generation (Bellair & McNulty, 2009
). Involvement in drug sales is associated with increased firearm use and, therein, increased opportunity to commit a violent crime (Bjerregaard, 2010
). Cutting gang ties may be an important component of successful rehabilitation. Regarding homicides, both gang- and non-gang-related homicides were committed by young, African American males who killed their victims with guns (Decker & Curry, 2002
). Thus, both groups were likely to engage in and experience violence, but being in a gang increased both risks (Decker & Curry, 2002
). Our findings concur that being a perpetrator and victim was correlated with serious violent crimes.
Finally, current research describes the connection between violence and socioeconomic disadvantage, and our findings support this observation as well-64% of the violent offenders in this sample were either poor or working class (Bellair & McNulty, 2009
; Bjerregaard, 2010
). Thus, programs that encourage education, employment, and financial equity are critical for this population. Education and employment are associated with decreased criminal activity and increased community stability (Lochner & Morette, 2004
). Work-place readiness, computer literacy, general education courses, and employment assistance should be incorporated into all programs serving the parole population. Future research should also examine the relationship between stable employment and reductions in crime, including serious violent crimes.
This study is limited by a small sample whose characteristics may reflect the urban residential drug treatment program where the sample was recruited (e.g., older than average for California parolees, larger percentage of African Americans) and, therefore, may differ from other homeless parolee populations. We also do not know participants’ ages when they committed their crimes. Another limitation is the restricted geography of the current sample. However, California is the largest state in the nation and a logical place to begin interventions to improve community reintegration of parolees. This study is also derived from baseline data; thus, no causal associations can be made. Other limitations include self-report data, such as substance use, although parolees must have had a substance use problems to qualify for treatment. Moreover, the sample had limited ranges in education and family SES, making it difficult to detect associations. Nevertheless, many of the associations found in this sample concur with those found in other studies of parolees. Furthermore, there was a relatively large subgroup of Latinos, reflecting California’s diverse ethnic population.
This study sheds light on the environmental and social factors that are associated with the commission of violent crime. These factors include deficits in family structure and childhood support, early exposure to and experience of sexual violence that can continue into adulthood, easy access to gang membership, early exposure to the correctional system, and socioeconomic disadvantage. It is important for clinicians, other service providers, and policy makers to be aware that homeless violent offenders who are homeless bring complex backgrounds and marginalized circumstances with them to the community on release. These individuals’ family and social histories and mental health status must be considered if programs and policies are to effectively address their reintegration needs, and, in turn, prevent future violent crime.