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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson April 18, 2013

Rep. John Duncan Jr. says 90 percent of felons grew up in fatherless households

A reader recently sent us a letter he received from his congressman, Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., asking us to check a surprising claim.

"Well over 90 percent of felony cases, all over the nation, are committed by defendants who grew up in father-absent households," Duncan wrote.

Patrick Newton, a spokesman for Duncan, said the letter was based on the congressman's "knowledge obtained from nearly eight years as a criminal court judge dealing with mostly felony cases."

The spokesman went on to say that on Duncan’s first day as a criminal court judge in Knoxville, Tenn., chief probation counselor Gary Tullock told him it was actually 98 percent, a figure Duncan lowered slightly in his letter.

"Mr. Duncan then went on to preside over 10,000 cases in nearly eight years," the spokesman said.  "In each case, he was given a report or information on the defendant’s background. Congressman Duncan says in well more than 90 percent of cases, the defendant was described as being from either a ‘fatherless home’ or a ‘broken home.’ He found Mr. Tullock’s comment to be true through his own experience as a judge, and he fully stands by his remark."

We should point out, however, that Tullock’s claim is based on data roughly 35 years old, while Duncan’s observations from his tenure as a judge are now a quarter-century old. That is inconsistent with Duncan’s use of the present-tense "are committed" in the constituent letter. In addition, even if these numbers were true for Knoxville, the statistics wouldn’t reflect conditions "all over the nation," as Duncan said in the letter.

And of course, PolitiFact always prefers to deal in hard data. So we took a look at the available research.

The few studies that address this question aren’t a perfect match to Duncan’s wording, because the data we have often addresses individuals who are in jail or prison, rather than people who are facing a "felony case." Still, the data is close enough for us to make an educated assessment.

First, we looked at data from the Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, a sample of 7,000 inmates by the U.S. Justice Department.

In 1996, almost 40 percent of the sampled inmates had lived with both parents, with just over 60 percent of inmates saying they grew up with only one parent, with grandparents or in another arrangement. The numbers were similar in 2002 -- 44 percent growing up with both parents and 56 percent growing up in other situations.

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These numbers suggest that there’s a strong link between growing up in a non-two-parent household and becoming an inmate, but at rates well below the 90 percent Duncan cited.

Second, we looked at data from the Justice Department’s Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities. The 2004 survey asked inmates who were parents themselves about what kind of family arrangements they had while while growing up. In state prisons, 43 percent of the inmates said they grew up with both parents, while 57 percent said they grew up in other arrangements. The data was similar for federal prisons -- 45 percent with both parents and 55 percent in other arrangements.

Once again, this suggests rates lower than 90 percent

Finally, we looked at a study co-authored by Cynthia C. Harper of the University of California at San Francisco and Sara McLanahan, a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who has authored a wide range of studies about disadvantaged Americans.

They found that once you control for other factors, such as family income, a child growing up in a mother-only household was almost twice as likely as a child growing up in a mother-father household to end up incarcerated. That would put the percentage somewhere around 60 percent, which is broadly in line with the other studies.

Sixty percent is a significant number, but it is not as great as the 90 percent figure Duncan cited.

When we contacted McLanahan, she said she was skeptical that the 90 percent figure was accurate. "I cannot think of any data that would give this information," she said.

Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia, said that even if Duncan’s statistic were true, "it would be misleading and incomplete," because it does not address how many people grew up in father-absent households and did not commit felonies.

"We could point out that 99 percent of felony offenders drank milk as a child, too, but it is easy to see the fallacy here because we have no preconceptions about milk the way we do about father absence," he said. "Father absence is surely an important concern, but it is only one of a number of risk factors for felony criminal behavior."

Our ruling

The data we found supports Duncan’s impression that growing up in a fatherless home is one of the factors that contributes to eventual incarceration. But the quantitative research does not show the near-certain link between felonies and fatherlessness that Duncan portrays. We rate the claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

John Duncan Jr., letter to a constituent, submitted to PolitiFact April 13, 2013

Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002," July 2004

Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children," revised March 30, 2008

Cynthia C. Harper and Sara S. McLanahan, "Father Absence and Youth Incarceration" (Journal of Research on Adolescence), 2004

Email interview with Vincent DiCaro, vice president for development communication at the National Fatherhood Initiative, April 16, 2013

Email interview with Ann Mullis, associate professor in family and child services at Florida State University, April 16, 2013

Email interview with Sara McLanahan, professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, April 17, 2013

Email interview with Patrick Newton, spokesman for Rep. John Duncan Jr., April 17, 2013

Email interview with Dewey Cornell, clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia, April 17, 2013

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Rep. John Duncan Jr. says 90 percent of felons grew up in fatherless households

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