Can we predict which infants will grow-up to become offenders?

The intention of this essay is to construct a discussion on if we can predict which infants will grow up to become offenders, taking into account sociological or environmental influences and also biological factors. Lombroso’s positivist theory of crime that uses scientific approach to criminality will also be used to predict which infants who will grow to become offenders. Points made during the discussion will be backed up with evidence and examples. Conclusion will summarise points that have been provided in the main body.
Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) who is also known as the father of scientific criminology was an Italian physician. He disagreed with the classical school of thought, which held the view that crime is caused by an individual’s free will. The work of Lombroso’s theory was influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Lombroso argues that the “born criminal” could be determined by the physical shape of an individual’s head and face, they are what Lombroso named as “atavistic” (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990)

The positivist school of thought who understood themselves as scientists were interested in identifying the causes of criminal behaviour in individual offenders, and argues that crime is not simply down to an individual’s free will to engage in a criminal activity but is rather to defining internal (biological, psychological) and external (sociological) factors. External being as a result of their environment, either way, both factors mean that the individual may commit an act they have no control or ‘free will about’. For example, if a child is being brought up by a parent who sexually abuses him or her, when the child grows up he or she is more likely to also abuse his or her children. Lombroso also believes criminal activities that are committed are mostly beyond people’s control (Watts R et al 2008). A study conducted by Ressler et al (1988) showed that 42% out of 36 sex murderers interviewed in the USA were found to have been sexually abused when they were young.
There are two main risks factors that will be discussed, the first being individual risk factor and the second being Family risk factors.
Individual risk factor is one of the factors that can predict if a child will grow up to become an offender. According to Lipsey and Derzon (1998), the most important individual risk factors that predict offending includes low intelligence and attainment, low empathy, and impulsiveness. These factors will be discussed individually.
Low intelligence and attainment are very important as they are one of the predictors of offending, this can be measured at an early stage in life. A study conducted by Stattin and Klackenberg- Larson (1993) in a longitudinal survey of about 120 Stockholm males indicated that low intelligence measured at the age of 3 to a degree predicted officially recorded offending up to the age of 30. Offenders who have offended four or more times had an average IQ of 88 at age 3 compared to non-offenders who had an average IQ of 101. In the Perry pre-school project in Michigan, Schweinhart et al. (1993) reported that low intelligence at the age of four predicted the number of arrests up to 27 years.
Low empathy is believed to be an important personality trait that is linked to offending, believing that if individuals puts themselves in a victim’s position to know how they feel, then, they are less likely to victimize someone. From a study conducted by Mak (1991) in Australia reported that delinquent females had lower emotional empathy compared to non-delinquent females (Maguire et al. 2007).
Impulsiveness is the most important personality dimension which predicts offending. There are several studies that indicate that hyperactive predicts later offending. In the Copenhagen study, results showed that hyperactivity (restlessness and poor concentration) predicted arrests for violence up to 22 and is mainly among boys experiencing delivery complications (Brennan et al. 1993, cited in Maguire et al. 2007).
In terms of family risk factors, there are five categorises and these are: (1) criminal and antisocial parents; (2) large family size; (3) child-rearing methods (poor supervision, poor discipline, coldness and rejection, low parental involvement with the child); (4) abuse (physical or sexual) or neglect; and (5) disrupted families. The factors above does not include socioeconomic factors like low family income, low social class of the family, living in a poor environment, and the residential mobility of the family (Maguire et al. 2007).
According to classic longitudinal survey done by McCord (1977) in Boston and Kobins (1979) in St Louis, the results showed that criminal and antisocial parents tend to have delinquent and antisocial children. From a Pittsburgh Youth study, results showed that having a mother, father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers who have been arrested predicts a boy’s later offending and antisocial behaviour. (Farrington et al, cited in Maguire et al. 2007).
Large family size is also a strong predictor of delinquency (Ellis, 1988, cited in Maguire et al. 2007). In the Cambridge study, results showed that there is a higher risk of a boy becoming a delinquent if he has four or more siblings by the age of 10. There are several reasons why a large number of siblings might increase a child’s delinquency. One of the possible reasons is that, the amount of attention given to one particular child reduces as the number of children increases in the family (Maguire et al. 2007)
There are different types of child- rearing methods that predict a child’s delinquency. The most important methods of child- rearing are supervision or monitoring of children, discipline or parental reinforcement, warmth or coldness of emotional relationships, and parental involvement with children. Parental supervision is the monitoring of a child’s activities by the parents. Out of all the child- rearing methods, poor parental supervision is the strongest predictor of offending (Smith and Stern 1997; Farrington and Loeber 1999). Several studies have shown that parents who do not have any idea about their children’s whereabouts when their out, and also parents who allow their children to wander the streets from a very early age without supervision, tend to have delinquent children. An example of this is the Cambridge- Somerville study in Boston, results showed that poor parental supervision in childhood was the strongest predictor of violent and property crimes up to age 45 (McCord 1979). Parental discipline is refers to how parents rewards or punishes a child in terms of the child’s behaviour. It is believed that harsh discipline predicts a child’s delinquency as shown by Haapasalo and Pokela (1999) review. From John and Elizabeth’s Newson (1989) follow-up study of almost 700 Nottingham children, they discovered that physical punishment at ages 7 and 11 predicted later convictions; 40 per cent of offenders had been smacked or beaten at the age of 11 years, compared with 14 per cent of non- offenders.
Twenty years ago in the Cambridge- Somerville study, McCord (1979) found out from the study that, cold, rejecting parents tend to have delinquent children. Recently, McCord (1997) concluded that parental warmth could act as a protective factor against the effects of physical punishment. Her study showed that 51 per cent of boys with cold physically mothers were convicted whereas 21 per cent of boys with warm physically mothers were convicted.
From the Nottingham survey, the Newsons found out that low or lack of parental involvement in a child’s activities predicts delinquency (Lewis et al. 1982). The Cambridge study suggests that having a parent who does not join in a child’s activities increases the risks of conviction (West and Farrington 1973:57, cited in Maguire et al 2007).
Majority of the explanations of the link between child- rearing methods and delinquency is based on attachment and social learning theories. The most influential in this particular theory is Bowlby (1951), and argues there is a tendency for a child to become delinquent if the child is not emotionally attached to warm, loving, and law- abiding parents. Social bonding theory is the sociological theory similar to attachment theory, and suggests that delinquency is based on the strengths and weaknesses of a child’s bond to society (Catalano and Hawkins 1996, cited in Maguire et al. 2007).
Social learning theories (Patterson 1982, 1995) propose that a child’s behaviour is determined by parental rewards and punishments and also the manner in which parents behaviour. A child will tend to become delinquent if parents do not act consistently to the child’s antisocial behaviour and if parents themselves behave in an antisocial way.
It is believed that there is a high possibility of a child becoming an offender if he/she has been physically abused or neglected. The most famous study that was used to prove this statement was carried out by Widom (1989) in Indianapolis. She conducted the study by using court records to identify over 900 children who had been abused and neglected before they were 11 years of age, and then compared them with a control group with the same age, race, gender, elementary school class, and place of residence. After a 20-year follow-up, results showed that the children who were abused or neglected were more likely to be arrested as juveniles and as adults than were the controls, and is also a high possibility of them been arrested for juvenile violence (Maxfield and Widom 1996, cited in Maguire et al. 2007). A study based on literature review on the long-term consequences of childhood physical abuse indicates that physically abused persons, mostly men, tend to be more violent and engage more in criminal behaviours than non- abused subjects. (Malinosky- Rummel and Hansen 1993) .It is also believed that child sexual abuse, and child physical abuse and neglect are also predictors of adult arrests for sexual crimes (Widom and Ames 1994, cited in Maguire et al. 2007).
There have been similar results that have been gained from other researches. An example is the Cambridge- Somerville study done in Boston and conducted by McCord (1983), results from the study showed that around half of the abused or neglected boys were convicted for serious crimes, some also became alcoholics or mentally ill or even died before they were 35 years. There have been several theories that have tried to define the connection between child abuse and later offending. There were three main ones that were described by Brezina (1998). Social learning theory argues that a child learns to adopt the abusive behaviour patterns of their parents by doing exactly what they do and also parents supporting and encouraging that imitation. Social bonding theory suggests that maltreating a child can end up with low attachment to parents and therefore to low self-control. Strain theory believed that negative treatment by others can produce negative emotions like anger and frustration, which can then lead to a wish for revenge and increase aggression.
A disruptive family is another factor that can predict which infant will grow up to become an offender. Several studies of broken homes have based their attention on the loss of the father instead of the mother as the loss of the father is much more common. It has been proved that children who are detached from their blood parent are more likely to offend rather than children from intact families. For instance, in their birth cohort study of more than 800 children born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Kolvin et al. (1988) found out that boys experienced separation or divorce in the first five years of their life had a higher risk of conviction up to 32 years of age.
McCord (1982) in Boston conducted a research of the relationship between homes broken through the loss of the biological father and later on serious offending by boys. She discovered that the occurrence of offending was higher for boys from broken homes without affectionate mothers (62 per cent) than for those from unbroken homes described by parental conflict (52 per cent), regardless of whether or not they had affectionate mothers. The occurrence of offending was low for boys from unbroken homes without conflict (26 per cent) and was also equally low for boys who were from broken homes but with loving and caring mothers (22 per cent). The results above show that it might not be the broken home that causes the crime rather it is the parental conflict. It also proposes that an affectionate mother in some way might compensate the loss of a father (Maguire et al, 2007).
In conclusion, we can actually predict which infants will grow up to become offenders as there are several factors that determine criminality. There have also been a number studies conducted in the subject area. The strongest and most convincing factor was that, having a criminal and anti-social parent will increase the risk of the child becoming an offender as the child learns the behaviour of the parent through imitation and reinforcement. Another strong factor in predicting offending was that if a child has been physically abused or neglected, then there is a higher risk of the child offending later in life this argument was supported with evidence.
Gottfredson, R. M., Hirschi, T (1990). A General Theory of Crime. California: Stanford University Press.
Malinosky-Rummell, R., Hansen J. D (1993). The Long-Term Consequences of Childhood Physical Abuse. Psychological Bullentin 114 (1): 68-79
Maguire, M., Morgan, R., Reiner R (2007). The Oxford Handbook of Criminology. 4th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Ressler, R., Burgess, A., & Douglas, J (1988). Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives. New York: Lexington Books.
Watts, R., Bessant, J., Hil, R (2008). International Criminology. Oxon: Routledge.

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