Forensic and Criminal Psychology – The Study of Criminal Behaviour

Criminal Behaviour:
     Before talking about what forensic and criminal psychology is, we must define criminal behaviour first. Criminal behaviour suggests a large number and variety of acts. Andrew and Bonta (1998) suggest four broad definitions of criminal behaviour and the acts and behaviours that fit within these domains. These four areas are legal criminal behaviour or actions that are prohibited my the state and punishable under the law, moral criminal behaviour which refers to actions that violate the norms of religion and morality and are believed to be punishable by a supreme spiritual being, social criminal behaviour which refers to actions that violate the norms of custom and tradition and are punishable by a community and finally psychological criminal behaviour that refers to actions that may be rewarding to the actor but inflict pain or loss on others – it is criminal behaviour that is anti-social behaviour.

     A good working definition can be seen as: “antisocial acts that place the actor at risk of becoming the focus of the attention of the criminal and juvenile professionals (Andrews and Bonta, 1998). It is difficult to define criminal behaviour as ideas of what is considered immoral, unconventional, illegal or antisocial is not stable over time or place. For example, not wearing seatbelt, homosexual activity or spanking a child are all items that have been considered both illegal or legal at one point in time.

     Delinquency must be distinguished from criminality. Delinquency is defined as behaviour that is illegal, immoral or deviant with respect to societal values. Criminality on the other hand is defined as a breaking of existing laws, there is little or no confusion as to what constitutes illegal and legal behaviors.

     When measuring criminal behaviour we are trying in a way to predict future criminal behaviours. We may measure criminal behaviour by arrests and charges, however not everyone charged is found guilty. We can also measure the amounts of convictions and incarcerations. We can also measure the amount of self-reported offences and some believe that this may be a more accurate way to measure criminal behaviour. This is debatable as there may be reasons that the individuals participating in the anonymous self-report surveys may distrust that their responses are anonymous. As well, individuals may over or underestimate their crimes for personal reasons. Therefore, when we study criminal behaviour we typically study what is known about persons who have been defined as criminals through the criminal justice system.

     Estimates of actual crime rates are usually obtained from official sources, yet different sources may yield different estimates. Crime reports generally categorize crimes by type of crime and offender characteristics such as age, gender, race and location.

     By estimating crime rates we want to predict recidivism. Recidivism is the future criminal offences following a previous offence and is defined through new arrests, new charges and new convictions. In general the best single predictor of recidivism is number and type of previous criminal offences, and these rates will vary due to age, gender and type of crime. Items such as prior youth or adult offences, present offences, charges or and arrests under the age of 16. As well, offence history is important – such as the use of a weapon, an assault on authority, sexual assault and impaired driving – in predicting future offences.

     A risk factor for criminality is anything in a persons psychology, developmental or family history that may increase the likelihood that they will become involved in some point in criminal activities. A protective factor is anything in a persons biology, psychology, developmental or family history that will decrease the likelihood that they will become involved in criminal activity.

     Risk factors generally include: lower class origin, family of origin, poor personal temperament, lower aptitude, early behavioural histories, poor parenting, school based factors, poor educational/vocational/socioeconomic achievement, poor interpersonal relationships, antisocial associates which support crime, antisocial attitudes/values/beliefs and feelings and psychopathology.

     Delinquency also has a relationship to attachment to peers. Brownfield and Thompson (1991) found that boys who had committed delinquent acts were more likely to have friends who had done so as well. This increased when the friend was considered a “best friend.” As well, risk factors can be divided into the various childhood time periods that they may occur and increase later criminal activity. Patterson, De Baryshe and Ramsey (1989) proposed the Patterson model. Risk factors that may be experienced in early childhood include poor parental discipline and monitoring, poor family environment, coercive parent-child relationships, instability in the family and early childhood conduct problems. Middle childhood risk factors include rejection by normal or conventional peers, and academic failure and underachievement. Late childhood and early adolescence risk factors include a commitment to a deviant peer group.

     The “cycle of violence hypothesis” predicts that abused children will become abusers and victims of violence will become violent offenders. Abused and neglected children are more likely to exhibit delinquent characteristics as well as criminal and violent behaviour as adults.

     Some possible factors about the individual that may lead to crime can be speculated. Things such as chromosomal patterns, physiological under arousal, hyperactivity/ADHD, impulsivity, learning disabilities, fetal alcohol syndrome and other neurological damage, low IQ, hormonal imbalances, antisocial personality disorder, psychopathology and biochemical imbalances may contribute to risk of criminal behaviour.

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