Dear President Bush,
The rate of violent crime in the U.S. in 1993 was five times the rate in 1960. In response to this epidemic, the number of inmates in U.S. prisons began to rise rapidly in 1975 from some 200,000 to at least 1,400,000 today. Locking up seven times as many criminals produced a recent (and temporary) dip in the crime rate but the latest statistics show crime to be starting upwards yet again. Who are these violent criminals? Where do they come from? Neither our state nor federal prison systems normally collect the data required to answer these questions.
Dr. Louis Sullivan, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, reported in 1992 that 70% of juveniles in long-term correctional facilities did not live with their biological father while growing up. About 70% of teenage mothers, 72% of teenage runaways, 70% of elementary school pupils with at least 22 unexcused absences per year, were reared without fathers. In Minneapolis, 70% of 135 children guilty of felonies ranging from arson to burglary and assault, children 9 years old or younger, were found to be domiciled with single mothers. There is strong reason to suspect that our crime problem, involving perpetrators both black and white, is an inevitable consequence of a growing and self-reproducing underclass consisting of the unsocialized offspring of single-mothers who were immature, over-burdened, and/or unsocialized themselves.
A research project to collect accurate, detailed information about the psychological and demographic characteristics of all American adjudicated felons, adult and juvenile, contrasted with a non-criminal control group matched for age, race, and gender, would reveal whether I am right in predicting that the great majority of current prison inmates would have become law-abiding neighbors and citizens had they gone home from the obstetrical hospital with a mature, self-supporting, socialized mother and father. The definite confirmation of that hypothesis would encourage state and federal legislators to give serious consideration to, and at least local experimentation with, legislation designed to inhibit further growth of the underclass and to preserve the right of all American children to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
One promising example of such legislation would be a program of parental licensure requiring persons, wishing to birth and rear a baby, to demonstrate at least what we should minimally require of persons wishing to adopt someone else's baby. These minimum requirements, for undertaking one of the most important and most demanding of human responsibilities, would include a mature married couple, who are self-supporting, not incapacitated by mental or physical disease, and without a prior conviction for a violent crime. Family-court judges would be empowered to grant exceptions to these simple requirements in special cases (e.g., to socially responsible gay or lesbian couples). Babies born to unlicensed parents would be placed for permanent adoption.
I believe that a well-designed, large-scale research program would produce results that would motivate public demand for legislative action. I think that this demand would come both from citizens who fear crime and its heavy price tag and also from citizens who feel a responsibility for those millions of once-innocent children whose fatherless rearing has deprived them of a reasonable chance to grow up as socialized citizens and neighbors.
David T. Lykken, PhD.
Emeritus Professor of Psychology
University of Minnesota
Author of Happiness: What Studies on Twins Show Us about Nature, Nurture, and the Happiness Set Point.