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Criminology entails the study of crime and the reasons why individuals commit crimes. Various theoretical approaches have been suggested by criminologists to explain different criminal behaviors. One of the most recent perspectives on the formation of criminality is the biosocial approaches towards explaining crime. The main proposition of the biosocial theories of crime is that crime is a product of the interaction between environmental deficiencies and biological factors or variables (Tibbetts, 2012). According to Walsh (2012), the main biosocial approaches to criminal behavior are the behavioral genetics theory, evolutionary psychology perspective, neuroscience theory, reward dominance theory, and prefrontal dysfunction theory. This paper explains what the behavioral genetics approach to crime is, the evidence for and against the theory, its general implications for policy and practice, and a program or policy application of the theory.
The Behavioral Genetics Theory
According to Walsh (2012), the main question which the behavioral genetics theory seeks to answer is whether criminality can be inherited. Hence, according to this approach, criminal behavior in some individuals is caused by a correlation between genes, evolutionary processes, developmental processes, and environmental factors (Jones, 2006). Furthermore, the behavioral genetics theory posits that certain genetic traits such as impulsivity, aggression, self-control, and intelligence are risk factors for criminal behavior. For instance, criminologists and geneticists believe that individuals with very low intelligence and self-control have a high propensity to engage in criminal behavior than normal people. According to Walsh (2012), behavioral genetic studies in most cases analyze the influence that genetic factors have on specific traits. The theory also is also based on the common assumption that almost all traits can be inherited and that by examining the degree of heritability, it is possible to determine the association between these characteristics and criminality.
However, it is important to note that proponents of the behavioral genetic theory do not claim that genes cause individuals to commit crimes or become criminals. Instead, such scholars’ proposition or claim is only that it is possible for genes to facilitate dispositions in ways that generate response to environmental stimuli in criminal ways (Walsh, 2012). Additionally, this perspective states that even though no specific gene for criminality exists, certain traits such as low empathy and low self-control may contribute to the increased propensity to engage in criminal behavior, particularly in dysfunctional environments (Jones, 2006). Hence, behavioral genetics theory attempts to explain how gene-environment interaction contributes to individual criminality. To this extent, this criminological perspective is based on the notion that people will often respond in different ways to various environmental conditions and influences.
Evidence For and Against Biosocial Perspectives
According to Tibbetts (2012), the biosocial theories of criminal behavior such as the behavioral genetics theory have been the subject of various studies whose findings have confirmed that the interplay between environmental and physiological variables can be used to predict criminality. An example is the adoption studies involving a comparison between the criminal tendencies of adoptees and those of their adoptive and biological parents. Also, twin studies on the comparison between dizygotic and monozygotic twins have established that genes, when combined with environmental influences such as family, contribute to variances in criminal traits (Walsh, 2012). Their consistent findings according to Tibbetts (2012) has been that adoptive parents have less influence over the criminal behavior of their adopted children than their biological parents, hence proving that there is a positive correlation between genetics and criminality.
Further, family studies investigating the clustering of criminality in particular families have confirmed that criminal behavior is influenced by the biological makeup of individuals coupled with influences from their immediate environment. Cytogenetic studies of crime whereby the genetic makeup of individuals is examined have also revealed that certain abnormalities in the chromosomal makeup of a person may predict criminal behavior. Moreover, there is research evidence showing that people with birth defects such as low birth weight caused by birth complications have a high propensity to commit crimes when raised in families with weak social structures or low-income, hence indicating how environment and biology influence criminal behavior.
However, the evidence against the behavioral genetics theory is that it fails to explain why there are high rates of crime in some regions or states than others. For instance, these theories cannot explain why violent crime is much higher in the United States than any other western democracy. If the interaction between genetics and the environment were to be used as the only variables for predicting criminality, the biosocial perspective would not explain how Americans have different biological makeups or environmental influences. Also, the research on these perspectives often suffers from methodological problems since most of the studies supporting the biosocial approaches to crime usually do not consider the effects of social variables and use unrepresentative samples that cannot be used to make general conclusions about how genetics and environment contribute to antisocial behavior. Furthermore, these theories only tend to focus on socio-economic factors such as race and income levels, hence they cannot be used to predict crime in a general population. The evidence of rich people committing white collar crimes is against the very proposition of this theory since most of these white collar criminals are from well-off families and neighborhoods and there is no proof that their children necessarily inherit such criminal behaviors from them. The theories ignore the fact that criminality is in most cases a choice rather than some biological or environmental construct.
Implications for Policy and Practice
The behavioral genetics theory has various implications for criminal justice and criminology in terms of their potential applications or policy formulation in crime prevention and offender treatment or rehabilitation. Most biosocial theorists prefer offender treatment to punishment and hence advocate for the application of psychological and pharmacological offender treatments to control negative traits associated with criminal behavior, such as drug addiction and alcoholism. To this extent, there is a need for policy makers to come up with appropriate holistic offender treatment programs that target some of the biological traits that could be risk factors for criminal behavior.
Offender treatment and rehabilitation plans that integrate multidimensional components should also be implemented in the criminal justice system to help address violent and aggressive traits that predict criminality (Tibbetts, 2012). Other treatment options such as drug therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy could also be used to reduce aggressive behavior in individuals with a high propensity to commit violent crimes. The upshot of this is that the criminal justice system needs to adopt a therapeutic approach to justice where offenders are held to the legally and scientifically rational accountability levels for their criminal behaviors so as to deter others from committing similar offenses. These neuroscientific individual-level interventions for violent and aggressive behaviors can help in significantly reducing criminal acts associated by such behaviors. Further, the implication of the biosocial perspectives of criminal behavior is that policy makers and criminal justice professionals must ensure that crime prevention strategies and programs are directed at the alleviation of those environmental and biological conditions responsible for increasing individual vulnerability to engage in crime.
Prevention programs that focus on the administration of prescription drugs and stimulants for controlling violent or emotional behaviors among youths should also be developed as a way of implementing the biosocial perspectives of criminal behavior. Further, given the insistence of biosocial criminologists on the role of nurture in predicting criminal behavior, crime prevention strategies such as nutritional programs, paid maternity leave, child monitoring during their early development stages, and postnatal care should be implemented to help reduce negative criminal traits in children and adults. As a policy implication, there is also a need to fund biosocial studies as this will enable criminal justice scholars to identify more biological and environmental risk factors responsible for criminal behavior and develop prevention strategies that take into account these factors.
Policy Application of Biosocial Theory
An example of a program in which the behavioral genetics theory of criminology has been successfully applied in preventing crime or controlling the risk factors for criminal behavior is the home visitation programs. Specifically, the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) program is a notable example of how the behavioral genetics theory of crime can be put into practice and applied in preventing antisocial behaviors. The premise of these programs has been that by visiting health care professionals such as nurses providing expectant mothers with assistance, healthy development can be promoted and hence controlling risk factors for criminal behavior. By targeting parenting behaviors and skills of the expecting mothers the social and biological bond between the parent and the mother will be improved, hence contributing to healthy child development. Moreover, according to Bilukha et al. (2005), the home visitation programs such as the NFP affect criminal behavior by preventing risk factors of antisocial behavior such as school failure, impulsivity, and the cognitive or neuropsychological deficits. For instance, the programs teach mothers on the significance of avoiding the use of narcotic drugs and smoking when pregnant so as to reduce the chances of their infants being neuro-psychologically impaired – and prone to crime.
The home visitation programs are also known to work since they have been shown to be effective in preventing child behavior programs and improving family development and home environment (Bilukha et al., 2005). Furthermore, a study by Chartier, Brownell, and Isaac (2017) found that such programs can help in effectively reducing child maltreatment and enhancing their development. They also help minimize violence against expecting mothers and infants to prevent the probability of children being violent later in life since maltreatment is a risk factor for violent behavior. Also, the fact that more than thirty states in the U.S have rolled out or implemented home visitation programs shows that they work well in preventing the risk of children experiencing behavioral and developmental problems associated with criminal and delinquent behaviors.
To summarize, the behavioral genetics theory of crime posits that criminal behavior results from the interaction between genetic traits such as impulsivity, aggression, or low empathy and environmental factors such as exposure to violence, maltreatment, and drug use. The evidence which supports this theory is mainly that from adoption, family, twin, and cytogenetic studies whose findings have shown that there is a correlation between interplay of environmental and genetic variables and criminal behavior. The major policy implication of the theory is that the criminal justice system needs to adopt an offender treatment approach that targets biological and environmental risk factors for offending rather than insistence on punishment. An example of a specific program which applies the biosocial theories is the nurse-family partnership program, a form of home visitation program. It has been shown to be effective in improving child development, hence helping reduce cognitive deficits and other risk factors for criminality.
- Bilukha, O., Hahn, R.A., Crosby, A., Fullilove, M.T., Liberman, A., Moscicki, E., Synder, S.,… Briss, P.A. (2005). The effectiveness of early childhood home visitation in preventing violence: A systematic review. American Journal of Medicine, 28(2), 11-39
- Chartier, M., Brownell, M.D., & Isaac, M.R. (2017). Is the family first home visiting program effective in reducing child maltreatment and improving child development? Child Maltreatment, 22 (2), 121-131
- Jones, O.D. (2006). Behavioral genetics and crime in context. Law and Contemporary Problems, 68, 81-100
- Tibbets, S.G. (2012). Criminological theory: The Essentials. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.
- Walsh, A. (2012). Criminology: The essentials. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
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