Sunday, June 9, 2013

"The criminal mind"

That's the title of a very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal today.  As a former prison chaplain, I'm intensely interested in what makes criminals tick, and ways to better understand, treat, and 'recondition' them.  The article analyzes how new scientific discoveries are changing our understanding of why criminals act as they do, and how we can change both sentencing and release policies to better help them and protect society.  Here's an excerpt.

The field of neurocriminology—using neuroscience to understand and prevent crime—is revolutionizing our understanding of what drives "bad" behavior. More than 100 studies of twins and adopted children have confirmed that about half of the variance in aggressive and antisocial behavior can be attributed to genetics. Other research has begun to pinpoint which specific genes promote such behavior.

Brain-imaging techniques are identifying physical deformations and functional abnormalities that predispose some individuals to violence. In one recent study, brain scans correctly predicted which inmates in a New Mexico prison were most likely to commit another crime after release. Nor is the story exclusively genetic: A poor environment can change the early brain and make for antisocial behavior later in life.

. . .

It is growing harder and harder ... to avoid the mounting evidence. With each passing year, neurocriminology is winning new adherents, researchers and practitioners who understand its potential to transform our approach to both crime prevention and criminal justice.

. . .

This brings us to the second major change that may be wrought by neurocriminology: incorporating scientific evidence into decisions about which soon-to-be-released offenders are at the greatest risk for reoffending. Such risk assessment is currently based on factors like age, prior arrests and marital status. If we were to add biological and genetic information to the equation—along with recent statistical advances in forecasting—predictions about reoffending would become significantly more accurate.

There's much more at the link.  Highly recommended reading.

There's always the potential for misuse of these discoveries, of course.  An overly 'Big Brother' administration might decide that if someone who's never committed a crime in his or her life shows evidence of brain traits or characteristics similar to those of hardened criminals, he or she should be 'preventively' detained, or have their civil liberties curtailed as a precaution.  That's not acceptable, and hopefully never will be - but it's a risk.  I'll be interested to see how scientists and specialists propose to deal with it.



Rich said...

"might decide that if ..."

"WILL decide that if" is, unfortunately, far more likely. I know it's unconstitutional, but they'll find a way to justify it.

Well Seasoned Fool said...

Forwarded this to a friend. His family has a member in prison who is about to complete his full sentence. He has failed every early release program; that is why he is still in. I feel for the family as this individual hasn't changed his attitude or outlook at all. I have known all of them for many years and know the prisoner cannot use lack of familial support as an excuse.

Billll said...

Has anyone looked into the difference between a mugger and an aggressively successful entrepreneur or politician?

tweell said...

In my (continuing) work in the prison system, I've found that the most common deficiency is a lack of forethought. Most criminals simply do not think past a week in advance. Anything that is not immediate has no meaning to them.

I'd also note that I know quite a few decent folks who behave the same way. Planning is something that they simply cannot comprehend.

I doubt we'll ever see any correlations done between a criminal mastermind and a politician. My bet is that the politician's brain would show the same characteristics, only more so (they've figured out where the REAL loot is, and how to get it with minimal downsides attached).

Anonymous said...

@Billl - As a matter of fact that very question has been posed and answered - and not just in this most recent round of neurobiological criminality. What the most recent studies have done is quantify what was presumed to be taking place as opposed to merely qualifying the difference.

@tweel - the major difference you would see is in the amount of activity in the frontal cortex - with the criminal mastermind showing the greater activity! (The politician needs less planning/foresight as his victims are more trusing and expect such behavior.)

Samenow and Yokelson said in the 1970's that criminals think differently than the rest of us. Now we have objective proof. But I doubt it will help one bit in figuring out how to either deal with them or habilitate them. Yokelson's "fake it till you make it" prescription for changing criminal behavior still seems to be the only real hope. The trick is still how to get criminals to want to fake law-abiding behavior long enough that it becomes a habit.

stay safe.

Scott said...

For a kinda scary look at what could happen if/when a society starts preventively incarcerating people is the anime "Psycho-pass."

People who have been labeled as 'Latent Criminals' are incarcerated, and only those willing to act as hunting dogs for active criminals are allowed out of the prisons at all. Even then, the hunting dogs are never released unattended, there's always a 'normal' person there as their leash.