Key factors in childhood which may lead to criminality

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When an accused is brought before the criminal justice system, accused, tried and convicted of a crime or many crimes, over a period of time or maybe just one very notorious deed, there is always a query from the public and even the persons within the criminal justice system. The main query is usually with respect to their background; what type of childhood did they have? Were they abused, neglected or mistreated? What type of parents did they have? and how did they behave at school?. If the crime committed is particularly heinous, then psychological and psychiatric analysis and observations are conducted to uncover all and any relevant information on their past and feelings. Most times the individual's past is being examined for evidence of deviant behaviour, strained family relationships, mental instability or disorders and unstable family structure. In most cases it is born out that there were some major problem factors in these person's childhood which has led them to a life of crime. The worse the crime or methods used to carry out the crime the worse the stories of their childhood and so it seems to indicate that somewhere buried in the roots of our childhood are the causes of the adult criminal behaviour. According to Husemann, Eron and Dubow (2002) aggressive behaviour in the childhood years is a good indicator of aggressive, anti-social and criminal adult behaviour. However, some of these factors which produce the problems of adult criminality can possibly be present in children and may go unnoticed because the child is able to hide the problem, this characteristic would be visible in those adult criminals who were deemed to "never have done a bad thing all their life" but suddenly exhibits criminal behaviour.

There are many contributing factors which may lead from childhood behaviour problems to adult criminality however they can be categorized into two main groups of risk factors which are i.) individual or genetic (nature) characteristics and ii) family or environmental (nurture) characteristics (Farrington 1989, 1991; Hawkings et al 1991, 1998; Lipsey and Derzon 1998; Reiss and Roth 1993; McCoord 1994; Tremblay and Carig 1995; Rotter et al 1998; Tremblay 2000 cited in Hee-Soon 2006). It has been held that children who learn violence in their homes, where a parent is abused or is abusive towards the child or in their social environment, poor neighbourhoods where gangs are a reality and where survival of the fittest is a daily routine, carry that cycle of violence with them through their life and it is usually manifested as aggression, similar violent or anti-social behaviour or possibly internalized hate or anger. Both males and females who experience childhood risk factors have the potential to become adult criminals; however the percentage of females who actually become adult criminals from these predisposing childhood factors is much lower than their male counterparts (Panko 2005; Hee-Soon, Doherty and Ensminger 2006), because females have the ability to channel some of these factors into other psychological issues which are dealt with in a different manner and which express themselves in less criminal manners (Panko 2005). In the following paragraphs some of these factors will be examined to show how they can be the causal agents of adult criminal behaviour.

Literature has no record of any particular gene, like the genes which determines height or hair colour, that determine if the individual will be a criminal or not and that like any other gene can be manipulated (turned off or on) once it is isolated. Therefore it can be safely said that there is no actual gene which make an individual a criminal, however genes do play a very important role. Joseph (2001 p.182 cited in Jones 2005) stated that in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century genetics was held accountable for crimes which were committed and there was even a sterilization effort to ensure the disappearance of "criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists" from society. Genes are responsible for human behaviour and also for most psychological illnesses, such as, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Conduct Disorder (CD) and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) in which the characteristics which manifest themselves in the childhood years have carried through to the adult years (Holmes, Slaughter and Kashani, 2001cited in Jones 2005). While these are not the only genetic based personality disorders which may predispose a child to adult criminality the encompass many of the lesser personality disorders which are also observed as being reasons for this problem.

ODD involves behaviors, such as non-compliance and opposition (Emond 2007, Holmes, Slaughter and Kashani 2001 cited in Jones 2005), which is predominantly directed against authority figures (Emond et al. 2007), while ADHD children are hyper-active both physically and mentally and are unable to keep their concentration trained on one thought, job or activity for any prolonged period. Children with CD behave in a similar manner to those with ODD, where they are seen to be acting against rules, regulations and societal guidelines/norms. These personality disorders are formed as a result of a change in the serotonin levels in the blood (Caron 1999) and are the primary link in the instability of the children confronted with these issues. Most children tend to have all three behavioural problems which is then classified under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), this continues to worsen as the child moves into adult years and manifest itself in criminal actions. ASPD decreases the child's ability to react in a disciplined and regulated or "normal" manner when faced with taxing situations, they become impulsive and move to a high energy state where all actions and meanings are intensified and they are not fully in control of the actions they are taking, in situations such as these anything can and will happen, which may not be the total responsibility of the child. According to Holmes, Slaughter and Kashani (2001 cited in Jones 2005) as the child with a social disease becomes an adult the behaviour more often than not intensifies and other more deviant characteristics such as stealing, vandalism and substance abuse are added to an already unstable and unbalanced personality. To this end therefore no one childhood factor or illness is responsible for adult criminality (English, Widom and Brandford 2002).

Other studies such as adoption and twin studies were carried out to determine the role of genetics in the adult criminality (Simonoff et al. 2004, Jones 2005). From these studies it was realized that genetics did play an important role in adult criminality, the paternal twin tests showed some distinct differences which could have been attributed to environmental pressures or associations at the time. Adoption studies were able to substantiate the fact that genetics played an important role as children whose parents were seasoned hardened criminals had a higher rate of deviant and criminal behaviour. Studies among African-Americans, Caucasians and Native American have also shown that abused and neglected African-American males were five times more likely to be arrested as a juvenile (32% versus 6%), and almost two times more likely to be arrested as an adult (59.5% versus 31.6%), respectively (English, Widom and Stanford 2002).

In most of these cases the study brought out other factors which could be responsible for adult criminality, these are environmental factors, such things as victimization, parental structure, parental control, poverty and society. Children unlike adults are unable to make certain decisions because they are under the legal age to speak for themselves and so they have to try to survive in the neighbourhood and in the schools where they are assigned by parents or guardians. In some cases children learn violence from the social groups around their homes and by having to defend themselves from peer pressures. Studies have shown that anti-social children who have reached adulthood are further complicated with problems such as divorce, low numbers of friends, poor housing and unstable jobs (Bor, McGee, Hayatbakhsh and Najman 2004). In most cases children (0 years - 12 years) look to the adult for guidance and advice, if the adult in the situation is not giving structured guidance and timely, legal advice then the children will do only according to what has been instructed to them.

Children also develop attitudes and customs (mannerisms) by watching and then replicating the actions of their parents, siblings and peers. Continuous exposure and replication of these attitudes, customs and actions by the child will lead to reinforcement, where the child's reaction to certain circumstances becomes natural through being a learned response. This is the basis of the social learning theory by Albert Bandura, who developed upon work begun by Miller and Dollard (Isom 1998). This is one of the most common methods of learning as children learn almost everything they say, do and manner in which they think by keen observation of persons and consideration of experiences in their environment (Jones 2005). It is then expected that children who live in high crime environment or who have parents who abuse each other or other persons known to the children or even violent siblings will exhibit these same violent traits. If the child is living in a violent, gang infested area but they have a structured home with parents who do not exhibit violent tendencies and are not criminals themselves, the child most likely will not show signs of criminal or violent tendency, as they have a positive role model/ reinforcement at home, that is continuous and unyielding (Bartollas, 1990 pp.145 cited in Isom 1998). This is especially so with boys who look to their father's as their role model and imitate their ways and unfortunately if the father is a criminal then the chances are high that the son will become a criminal as well (Panko 2005).

Another manner in which children can be predisposed to factors which can lead them to adult criminality is through media. This was also proposed by Bandura (Isom 1998), this is even more true in the present era than before as television shows and movies have become even more violent in order to keep them "interesting and action packed", there is also a wealth of simulated reality games which can be played that are based solely on violence. These facts coupled with the high availability of television, computers and now smart phones that can store games and videos, children are always bombarded with some type of violence almost all day. In some cases the lines between reality and fiction become blurred especially where there is no guidance for children, from older persons, or for those children who are anti-social or social misfits because they are predisposed to certain diseases and they act out the roles of the persons in these violent games and movies who they relate to the most.

Children who are bullied or victimized tend to become angry and learn violence initially to protect themselves from the bully or the persons who victimize them. However some children become angry at being bullied and victimized and internalize this anger or are unable to differentiate social nagging and teasing from victimization and bullying and will meet almost every situation with violence and anger, this can continue into adulthood and manifest itself through violent crime.

It is my view that both genetics (nature) and the social environment (nurture) play an important part in shaping the lives of children in their early years which they then carry into adulthood. At any point either of the two characteristics can be more dominant than the other.

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Are these amenable to change?

I believe that most of the social characteristics are amenable to change, as these are the ones we have greatest control over. We can move from the area, observe good social manners and etiquette, and improve yourself as often as possible with education.