Is there a biological contribution to offending

In England and Wales in 1997 police recorded nearly 5 million crimes, almost an eightfold increase in the crime rate since 1950. (3) Broadly similar increases have been reported over the same period elsewhere in the western world. Crime is therefore common. A third of men and 8 per cent of women born in 1953 were convicted of an offence by the age of 40, though one-fifth of the men (7 per cent of the male population) accounted for more than 60 per cent of the crimes. (4) Most crimes are committed by teenagers and young adults; the rates peak between 15 and 17 years of age for males and decline after the age of 18. Females account for about one in five offenders and their peak age for offending is 2 to 3 years earlier than for males. Theft, car crimes, and criminal damage account for over 90 per cent of notifiable crimes.

Crime is widespread, diverse in nature, and increasing in frequency. Most observers agree that explanations for crime require a multifactorial perspective. Criminal behaviour, as any other, occurs in a context: psychological factors in the offender cannot provide a complete explanation for the criminal act. Social and economic factors, together with the inconsistencies of the criminal justice system, influence who does and who does not become an offender, and crucially which of those offenders are arrested and punished. Does psychiatry have anything useful to say about the concept of criminality? The clinical approach to criminology emphasizes the psychiatric condition of the offender. It has become unfashionable, partly because it concentrates on detained and therefore unsuccessful offenders, but also because it disregards the social contribution to offending. It is also scarred by an abhorrent history rooted in Lombrosian attempts to identify criminals by their constitution (e.g. the shape of their heads) and in the search for other supposed stigmata of degeneration associated with the eugenics movement. (5)

Early twentieth-century notions of constitutional inferiority gained political and legislative recognition in England in the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, in which the moral imbecile was identified as someone who from an early age displayed some permanent mental defect coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities. Such notions not only live on but are having a rebirth. The legal category of psychopathic disorder in the Mental Health Act 1983 refers to a psychiatric disorder manifested by antisocial behaviour (it makes no reference to thoughts, affect, feelings, or perceptions), and there are fresh calls for the protection of the public by incarceration under mental health law of potentially dangerous people before they offend. (6Z.) The medical designation of selected criminals as 'dangerous' rests on fragile theory, yet is likely to lead to their incarceration for longer than would otherwise be the case. This issue of civil liberties is the principal reason why radical criminologists find psychiatric theories of criminality so repugnant.

West(89) has persistently argued that, despite these objections, the clinical approach remains important because examination of the individual offender's problems provides the only route to his treatment. Determining whether, and if so how, offenders differ from their law-abiding peers is a prerequisite to any attempt to formulate treatment. Although it would be absurd to suggest that a biological difference such as an abnormality of the brain or a type of psychiatric disorder, if it exists, is the 'cause' of offending, the search for evidence of a criminal trait, and exploration of biological factors which may make a contribution to criminal behaviour, both continue.

Farrington in Chagt§I..11.i2. and elsewhere(li° provides a review of the social factors associated with criminal behaviour, and Smith (H) in the major report of the Academia Europaea(l2) postulates how the complex correlates of the recent increase in juvenile crime might act together. Offenders differ from non-offenders by having lower intelligence in IQ tests (though still well within the normal range) and chronic personality difficulties, particularly impulsivity. Their family environment is characterized by low income, large size, and parents with behavioural (often criminal) and mental health problems who exercise inconsistent and harsh discipline. External social factors include peer influence, economic disadvantage, and an impoverished and deprived living environment. These issues are discussed further in Chapter ...11.2.

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