The Malta Independent 17 July 2019, Wednesday

Family member convicted of a crime is a risk factor for crime continuity - criminologist

Rebekah Cilia Sunday, 14 April 2019, 11:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

According to a study carried out by local criminologist Janice Formosa Pace, criminal activity is more likely to occur in families where a parent, sibling or spouse has already been convicted of a crime ­– a risk compounded by factors including co-offending, social and familial links between inmates and time spent within respective hometowns.

Joseph Bonnici is currently on trial for murdering his mother and sister earlier this month ­­­– the third instance of bloodshed within the same family. His father, Paul Bonnici, was found guilty of murdering two neighbours in 2000 and is serving a 31-year prison sentence, while his grandfather was shot dead in 1978.


Through a study of all inmates interned at the Corradino Correctional Facility (CCF) between 1950 and 2010, PhD student Formosa Pace explores the incidence of criminal convictions within Maltese families. She explains that while crime in Malta is generally on the decrease, certain offences, such as domestic violence, are becoming more common.

Throughout the 60-year period under review, a third of prisoners were found to belong to the same family, suggesting that while family is mostly seen to play a positive role as a social structure, it can also serve to enable or promote crime. One possible reason for this is the fact that families in Malta tend to be close.

The study also indicates a positive correlation between the number of family members convicted of a crime and the likelihood that other relatives will become involved in criminality. Formosa Pace warns, however, that not all criminal parents bear criminal children.

While it appears that father-son crime duos are rare in other countries, the situation in Malta is completely different, with the most common intergenerational crimes being robbery, aggravated theft and drug-related offences. Formosa Pace also points to multiple risk factors for intergenerational crime in Malta, including economic inactivity, poverty and residing in neighbourhoods with a large number of crime families.

A look at individual and economic risks and mediating factors revealed that most of the offenders in the study were educated in state schools and were only likely to have completed compulsory education (between the ages of 5-16). Irrespective of whether there is crime within the family, illiteracy rates among offenders have been dropping since Independence, possible reflecting changes within the education system since then.

Most of these people, however, do not work for a living, Formosa Pace explains. “They do not want to work and so the family’s economic needs go unmet,” she continues.

“Just as I am used to waking up each morning and going to work to earn money, crime becomes a norm or routine for these families. This is called readiness to offence.”

In one particular family identified in the study, 54 members had been incarcerated. The study also found that five different crime families had fused together through assortative partnering, indicative of both vertical and horizontal relationships featuring the extended family’s involvement in crime, through which offending persists over two to five generations.

Formosa Pace says that such families may be considered criminal networks – a type of organised crime – and as concentration increases, offences become more serious. The study indicates that family members are likely to engage in similar criminal behaviour.

As part of the study, Formosa Pace used demographic statistics to map poverty pockets and offender hotspots across Malta. It was found that crime families tend to live in the same areas. “What this means,” she says, “is that these people are exposed to poverty and crime in their communities. Crime promoters are found within the family and their surroundings.”

Valletta and Cospicua are home to a particularly large number of crime families, whose members accounted for 24.5 per cent and 23.6 per cent of those identified in the study, respectively.

Significantly, a large proportion of convictions were attributable to a relatively small number of families.

Among her conclusions, Formosa Pace says that studies will have to be carried out on the rental market to determine how increasing prices might affect poverty and crime. She also believes that a study into prostitution and intergenerational continuity is necessary, together with a focus on gender-specific mechanisms.

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