August 24, 2006


Lives of crime: Tony Blair's "tough on the causes of crime" and David Cameron's "hug a hoodie" speeches reflect the dominant sociological model of crime. But research into the "criminal personality" suggests some people from troubled backgrounds are far more likely to offend than others. Policymakers are taking an interest (David Rose, August 2006, Prospect)

For most of the past century, analysis of the origins of crime has been dominated by sociological models. When Tony Blair declared in 1992 that his party would be "tough on the causes of crime," his audience presumed that he meant that Labour would try to eliminate crime-generating social ills such as poor housing, unemployment and inadequate schools. Discussion of the possible roots of offending and antisocial behaviour within individuals rarely formed part of elite public discourse. Punishment, the courts held, should be regulated by the severity of the crime, not the criminal's propensity to commit further offences.

One of the few challenges to this orthodoxy was made in the 1960s by Hans J Eysenck, for many years a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry. Eysenck believed that criminals' personalities could be rigidly categorised and that most of their behaviour was inherited. But his work on crime was attacked by mainstream sociological criminologists and had little influence on policy. Indeed, for most criminologists the concept of a personality more likely to commit crime was abhorrent.

The resistance to Eysenck was especially fierce because he was writing during the vogue for "radical criminology," when crime was seen as a social construct and the "labelling" of deviants an aspect of social control. Thirty years later, intellectual fashion has shifted beyond recognition, with, for example, a heavy new emphasis on the experiences of victims of crime. Nevertheless, investigation of the factors that put an individual at high risk of engaging in criminal and antisocial behaviour remains controversial, and most criminologists continue to steer well clear of it.

Some consideration of the risk profile of individuals has, in fact, long been part of penal policy, especially in assessing prisoners for parole. But its scope is increasing. The 2003 Criminal Justice Act introduced "indefinite public protection" sentences for convicts judged at high risk of reoffending, and its provisions have been widely used: by the end of June 2006, a year after the relevant provisions of the act came into force, more than 1,000 people had received the indefinite sentence.

The act, and the new emphasis on risk assessment in general, entail a big shift from the principle that has governed sentencing in the past—that of punishment tailored to fit the crime, of proportionate "just deserts." Although it has been subjected to little public debate, this new approach requires penal decision-makers—other than those dealing with murder—to take a radical step: to assume some of the characteristics of the insurance actuary, and to base the length of incarceration on future probabilities. At the same time, the act contains an analysis of offending that departs significantly from sociological models. Under its terms, many of those judged to pose a high risk will have been assessed by forensic psychologists or psychiatrists, on the grounds that they exhibit a "dangerous severe personality disorder," or DSPD—a disorder that makes them likely to reoffend.

It is unfortunate that the term DSPD does not match any accepted clinical definition. Some of those who have already been so described are psychopaths—callous, emotionally affectless, careless of the damage their crimes cause to their victims. Others, however, have been diagnosed with conditions including borderline personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as the much more common antisocial personality disorder. Nevertheless, the approach that the 2003 act represents poses important questions to which sociological theories of crime have no answers. Why do some people from deprived or abusive backgrounds become violent criminals, while others, whose upbringing appears to have been equally disadvantageous, go on to lead productive, law-abiding lives? Might there be ways to spot high-risk individuals before they commit serious offences, perhaps even in childhood? And are there interventions that might modify children's behaviour over the long term, diverting the course of those at high risk before they reach adulthood?

The focus on future risk requires a means to differentiate between individuals from similar environments. It places the offender, not the crime, at the centre of the penal decision-making universe, and asks those who make such sentencing decisions to base them on clinical assessments of the defendant's personality and its associated disorders. It hands great power over individuals' future to a group unused to wielding it—forensic psychologists and psychiatrists, and academic researchers in this field.

Even those most wedded to a sociological model of offending accept that a relatively small proportion of those convicted of criminal offences account for a very large proportion of total crime.

Forget assessing personalities--our mix of broken-windows policing, three strikes and you're out and the willingness to incarcerate two million people has resulted in the predictable and desirable drop in crime rates. No decent society can tolerate nonconformity.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 24, 2006 11:41 PM

The notion that poverty "causes" crime is nothing less than a cynical fraud perpetrated by academia upon the rest of us.

In the first day of class in Sociology 101 vulnerable undergraduates are told that the sociological conception of "causation" is merely metaphorical as causation is understood by all the rest of us. Sociaological causation in mere coincidence, the element of efficiency having been dispensed with.

Then straighaway this concession to reality is cast aside, and the blatent "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" error is enshrined is the guide of policy and even morality. Those stick-in-the-muds adhering to efficient causation, requiring that a phenonema produce another in order to be considered its cause, are thereafter dismissed as unlettered peasants.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 25, 2006 8:33 AM

And yet, despite years of this indoctrination, here in the good ol' anti-intellectual USofA, we insist that criminals get tossed in the klink.

They don't get tossed in nearly long enough in some cases, but at least we're moving in the right direction.

Posted by: Dreadnought at August 25, 2006 10:16 AM

No decent society can tolerate nonconformity

Worst. Line. Ever.

Posted by: BJW at August 25, 2006 11:03 AM

Yet America, as is so often observed, is the most conformist society in the world. Odd that.

Posted by: oj at August 25, 2006 11:13 AM

It's only the decent societies that can properly define non-conformity.

Posted by: Brandon at August 25, 2006 4:30 PM