Criminals - born or made? (2023)

CUTTING edge thinking about how we should prevent and punish crime centres on the question of whether criminals are born or made. Is the behaviour of troubled children and teenagers innately biological and inherited? Or is it the result of social deprivation and moral anarchy? And do the answers to these questions offer any solutions?

Regardless of the cause, flogging criminals is our only hope, says Dr Richard Lynn, Professor of Psychology at the University of Ulster and director of the Ulster Institute for Social Research. Criminal behaviour has been increasing virtually throughout the Western world for 50 years because such behaviour is passed on from father to son and the genetically deprived criminal under class is breeding faster than the rest of society, he argues.

The two psychological factors which inhibit criminal behaviour are fear and conscience. "Most criminals do not have much conscience, so all you could do is to deal with their fear," he argues. The threat of the whip would deter where the threat of a prison sentence does not, he believes.

Yet psychological research with hamsters at the University of Massachusetts has concluded the opposite that violence begets violence. Neuroscientist at the university discovered that hamsters have in their brains the same chemical transmitters that regulate behaviour in humans. When these transmitters are disrupted by fear and trauma at an early age, the hamsters become extraordinarily anti social and violent to their fellow animals. Therefore, aggression in adults can be blamed on their being neglected and brutalised as youngsters, rather than on their being born violent.


Dr Craig Ferris, who led the study, believes that the lesson is clear. "The best thing we can do for kids is have a better policy of perinatal health care and parent care. We need to build resilience in children, not volatility, for when they face unemployment drugs, and violence," he says.

The "short sharp shock" argument whether used in support of flogging or American style boot camps is based on the notion that fear will prevent young people with criminal tendencies from indulging them. But many adults working with juvenile delinquents have found that fear cannot deter them because they are incapable of understanding consequences.

"People who have been victims of crime understandably want the sources of their fears removed from society, but putting youngsters together in schools for crime with no therapy and no rehabilitation in places like Mountjoy and St Patrick's in Dublin is not the answer. In the long term you have more angry people emerging to do worse things," says Marie Murray, a psychologist at St Joseph's Adolescent Services.

At Oberstown Boys' Centre in Lusk, Co Dublin, where he is director, Michael O'Connor has no doubt that boot camps do not decrease crime levels, basing his view both on his experience and on US studies.

If you treat people with abuse, you are teaching them that it is okay to intern and inflict pain on other people. A bullying regime will promote bullying and teach them that might is right."

"It's an age old cry that they should be locked up and we should throw away the key," says Oberstown's deputy director, Ann Wall. "But if you do that, all you are doing is storing up the problem for two years. We have to adopt a caring philosophy in trying to build up their conscience."

The lack of conscience and the inability to see consequences appears to have biological roots, says Professor Jim Sattersfield, associate clinical professor of Psychiatry in the Division of Child Psychiatry at the Oregon Health Sciences University in the US. Children who grow up to be criminals often suffer from conduct disorder, a suspected brain abnormality which makes them so impulsive and lacking in control that even when they understand intellectually that their aggressive, oppositional behaviour will end in punishment, they still cannot stop themselves.

"This is why in Oregon we have seen that boot camps do not work. It's not that these kids don't know that if they don't follow the rules of the game they'll be punished, they do know that. But they cannot control their behaviour. Putting kids in prison is no solution to the problem. It may be part of the problem, in fact, in that they become recidivist," he says.

We need to find children at risk and treat them when they are young during a "window of opportunity" between ages six and 12, he believes. "If you could identify these children early on, as early as six or even four, and offer them the right kind of preventive measures you could reduce criminality by about 50 per cent," he believes.

But in the Republic, such children are treated only when they get into serious trouble and that usually happens around the age of 12 when it may be too late. Dr Nuala Healy, psychiatrist with St Joseph's Adolescent Services explains that through primary school, these children who tend to be of low intellectual ability often manage to slide through, although their lack of achievement contributes to chronic low self esteem. Once the academic demands of secondary school hit them, these troubled children start to rebel and their lack of self esteem encourages criminal behaviour.

I feel very strongly that too much is being expected of them. They're doing 10 subjects and they can barely read. It's only alienating them further," says Dr Healy.

We are very often looking at kids where the only thing they are successful at is crime," says Ms Murray. They say, I can do something right. I can attack that old woman and take her bag and get away with it

THEY believe that we are failing these young people by ignoring their problems in primary school and that we need to develop programmes of early intervention, with the Departments of Health, Justice and Education working together.

Noel Howard of the Irish Association of Careworkers also sees the way in which we are socialising our children in schools as contributing to the moral anarchy in which many of them are being reared, rather than counter acting it. "When corporal punishment was taken from the schools nothing replaced it," he says. While he does not support corporal punishment, he does believe that we need to replace lost authority figures.

Professor Donald West, whose research is being used by the British Home Secretary Michael Howard in an attempt to construct a brave new world of crime prevention, agrees that the main problems lie in the school system. Starting in 1961, Professor West, with Professor David Farrington, of the Institute of Criminology, Cambridge University, monitored 411 average boys to see which ones would become criminals and found that teachers unerringly predicted which boys would grow up to be trouble. West and Farrington came up with a list of risk factors, including parents' criminal record, low income, large family, inadequate parenting and below average intelligence.

British police forces, with the support of the Home Secretary are talking with companies in the neural computing industry in an attempt to target six year olds, using the risk factors compiled by Farrington and West. Both men are appalled at the prospect.

Crime prevention lies not in targeting trouble makers but in developing school programmes which build self esteem, says Professor West. "Today schools are very competitive and have become less tolerant of those who cannot achieve in terms of intellectual effort. There is a need for an alternative for the less able so that they can feel good about something," he says.

A strong stand against targeting children at risk has also been made by the Gulbenkian Foundation Commission, which was set up in the wake of the Jamie Bulger murder. "Attempting to identify high risk children wrongly identify some, miss many others and create stigmatising services which may not be accepted and which do little to emphasise every individual's responsibility for creating a non violent society," it stated.

Those who believe that we will be able to "treat" criminal behaviour as if it were a biologically based mental illness have difficulty accepting the foundation's argument, however "Vandalism isn't mindless, it's the consequence of minds hungry for sensation," says Ann Moir, co author with David Jessel of A Mind to Crime, the book of their TV series screened on Channel 4 last September.

US research has shown that young people with a low level of brain arousal fail to be engaged or interested in the normal stimuli of life. They need bigger, bolder, rasher challenges in order, to make themselves feel alive. This could explain why so many Irish juvenile delinquents can explain their destructive behaviour by saying it is "for the buzz". If low arousal is the problem, then the young teenage boy who craves excitement and achievement needs to have that craving fulfilled. The future of crime prevention lies not in punishment, but in treating what is essentially a biological handicap, Moir and Jessel believe.

IN THE Republic, the need for super charged arousal has already been recognised as a personality trait in delinquents, if not a biological condition. "If the police chase of 200 m.p.h. down the dual carriageway or the chase across the factory roof at two o'clock in the morning is what does it for them, we need to be asking, how can you replace that buzz?," says Mr O'Connor.

It seems worth considering why, when we can assess low IQ and psychopathology in childhood, we do not invest the money we might later spend on locking people up on giving them the support in early childhood to overcome their handicap? With the scientific information about the biological roots of criminality flooding in, this is a question which policy makers are eventually going to have to be brave enough to answer.

"The bottom line," says Ms Murray, "is that these are young people's lives and the future of our country. If we do nothing and as a result have an increasingly upset and needy population, what kind of parents will these young people grow up to be? How will they be able to help their own kids?"

When you have been a victim of crime, it is hard to be compassionate and offer help rather than punishment. But evidence is increasing that if we want to stop crime at the roots, compassion may be our only chance not in the so called bleeding heart, do gooder tradition but out of sheer common sense. The survival of society may depend on it.

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