The Making of Criminal Offenders

What research tells us is related to criminality.

Posted May 23, 2018

Conventional wisdom has it that criminality is largely a matter of making bad choices and/or hanging around with the wrong crowd. That simple reasoning also led to the simple solution.  How do we teach Johnny to make better decisions and stop associating with bad people?  Punishment.

The mantra of keep it simple may work well in many situations.  Unfortunately, it has played a key role in our decades long, monumental policy failure called tough on crime.  No matter how we measure it, except perhaps in terms of the electoral success of tough on crime politicians, our efforts to punish bad behavior out of criminal offenders has failed, resulting in enormous cost, compromised public safety, avoidable criminal victimizations, and wasted opportunity.

Crime is complex and wishing otherwise will not make it so. If the goal of the criminal justice system is to reduce crime in a cost efficient manner, we have to understand what we are dealing with in order to change it.  But before we see what the evidence tells us about the causes and correlates of crime, let me be clear that this is not a list of excuses.  The point here is not sympathy.  We expect that a physician would conduct a comprehensive exam before declaring the diagnosis and identifying the treatment plan.  Why would we not expect the same from the system that is charged with changing the behavior of criminal offenders?  It’s really pretty simple, at least in concept -- if we don’t know what’s wrong, we can’t fix it.

A common denominator of criminality is poverty and disadvantage, and the effects are pervasive.  Poverty in part limits options and alternatives, increasing the likelihood of criminal involvement.  Poverty is also associated with a variety of socioeconomic outcomes that are criminogenic.  Educational deficits set the stage for perpetuating disadvantage. Today, 80% of U.S. secondary students graduate from high school.  Two-thirds of state prison inmates, 70% of local jail inmates and over one-half of federal prison inmates dropped out before completion of high school.  School dropouts are between four and six times more likely than high school graduates to be arrested.

Unemployment and underemployment are characteristic of poverty and are criminogenic.  Just over two-thirds of prison inmates were employed at arrest, but most worked in jobs in the construction, maintenance, cleaning, automotive and food service industries.  The median hourly wage was $9.  One-third of inmates also relied on illegal income and family for financial support prior to incarceration. We all probably have some sense of the challenges ex-offenders have securing employment after release from the justice system.

Homelessness is another criminogenic factor. The incidence of homelessness among prison inmates in state and federal prisons is four to six times that of the general population.

In many respects, we are just scratching the surface when considering socioeconomic correlates of poverty and crime.  The effects of disadvantage span a variety of behavioral health consequences that are fundamental in understanding criminality and criminal justice involvement.  Although not unique to poverty, mental illness is nonetheless related to the variety of traumas and challenges associated with disadvantage. Mental illness is also a prominent criminogenic circumstance. Fifty percent of federal prison inmates, 55% of state prison inmates and 65% of jail inmates have a mental health problem, rates well above the incidence in the general population.  Fifteen percent of the prison and jail populations in the U.S. have severe mental illness, a rate that is two and one-half times that in the general population.

The vast majority of individuals in the criminal justice system have a substance use disorder, well above the incidence in the general population.  Again, while not unique to the circumstances of disadvantage, addiction and abuse are prevalent among those living in poverty.

Nearly two-thirds of prison inmates have had at least one traumatic brain injury. Over fifty percent of jail inmates and probationers in Colorado have a history of serious brain injury, compared to eight percent of the general population. There are a variety of other neurocognitive consequences, either directly or indirectly associated with poverty, which are also criminogenic.  These include executive dysfunction, lack of remorse/empathy, and problems with impulse control, attention and memory, among others.

The evidence is pretty clear that criminality is complex, especially so when we consider that many of these circumstances, conditions and disorders commonly are co-morbid. One of our major challenges is that the criminal justice system is currently ill equipped to accurately identify the variety of circumstances that bring people into the justice system, let alone provide the evidence-based interventions needed to address their criminality.  Until we get serious about mitigating criminogenic circumstances and in turn criminality, we will continue to have recidivism rates north of 70%.