ARE criminals born or made?
Regardless of where you stand on that debate, understanding what causes people to engage in deviant behaviours is the first step to preventing violent crime from happening or reoccurring, says forensic psychologist Dr Ayesha Prout.
Along with most of the country, Prout has been closely following the issue of crime that has been plaguing this country for years, in particular, violent and sexually violent crimes.
As a forensic psychologist who works with such offending populations, she has recognised a deficit in our understanding as to what leads people to engage in such behaviours and how best to work with these individuals to reduce the risk of people reoffending in the future and ensure increased public protection.
In this, the first of two articles, the Sunday Express will look into the psychology behind deviant behaviours, including the development of such behaviours and what can be done to reduce the risk of reoffending.
While it is unfair to generalise criminals since there are different variables that influence what they do or do not do, biological and social factors contribute to the making of a criminal offender, said Prout.
A combination of personal traumas, environment and genetics may even lead some to engage in criminal behaviour.
Prout has been trained to conduct risk assessments on violent offenders currently in prison or in the mental health system, and provide recommendations regarding the likelihood of them engaging in certain acts again.
She has been trained to provide intervention for such individuals, focus on problematic behaviours and increase their pro-social attitudes, with the aim of minimising the likelihood of reoffending.
She also provides support for victims of crime.
The impact of childhood trauma
Much of Prout’s work thus far has underscored the impact that traumatic childhood experiences can have on one’s adult life and the choices one makes. It also reveals the crucial role which infancy plays in the development of a human being.
“Everything that we experience from the time we’re in the womb up until adulthood causes us to become the person that we are. There are many factors that come into play which would lead to the development of persons engaging in certain behaviours,” said Prout.
“If a mother experiences trauma while pregnant, that could have an impact on the baby. If mom is experiencing post-partum depression, that would also have an effect on the baby, the baby’s development and how they interact with the world because of how their mother interacted with them.
“Later on in life, one’s general family experiences, including the manner of discipline, the attitudes towards child-rearing, whether the home is stable or broken—all these things come into play when it comes to understanding how a child sees the world, how they view themselves and how they interact with others.”
The age of a first offence is one of the more prominent risk factors for a person going on to commit future offences into adulthood, said Prout.
“We see children from as early as the age of ten engaging in certain violent actions, aggressive and problematic behaviours,” she added.
What Prout has learnt over the years has been invaluable to understanding what causes people to engage in criminal behaviours. Some of her clients were exposed to criminal behaviour in the home or to people with pro-criminal attitudes.
In some cases, there was a history of physical and sexual abuse during childhood, poor educational attainment and negative peer influences in the community that also supported pro-criminal ideas and activities.
“All these things when combined with a lack of protective factors like social support and healthy role models at home and in the community can lead to the development of offenders,” she told the Sunday Express.
In the case of sex offenders, some lack emotional intimacy and don’t know how to develop healthy emotional bonds with others.
Therefore, the only way they could see themselves engaging in an intimate act would be in a dysfunctional way.
Prout added that while most people reflect before engaging in a particular act, criminal offenders skip the stage of self-reflection.
A lot of offenders simply get the impulse and act on it.
For them, that serves a purpose of immediate gratification, and this is correlated to one’s childhood—how one was taught to regulate themselves, problem-solve and control their emotions, said Prout.
Of course, not everyone who has suffered adverse trauma in their childhood has gone on to engage in criminal behaviour.
The main reason for that can be credited to “protective factors” which can help one to build resilience, said Prout.
Protective factors include good social skills, educational attainment, a social support network, non-delinquent peer groups and early intervention.
“If protective factors outweigh a person’s own adverse childhood experiences, then they would not go on to offend,” said Prout.
While the word “monster” is bandied about to describe perpetrators of violent crimes, Prout refrains from using that term.
“I understand that what they did is a horrific thing, but it is not my place to refer to anyone as a monster. I don’t justify their behaviours, it’s about understanding that this person is engaging in a problematic act, this person is causing problems for themselves as well as for others, and we need to fix that for the betterment of society.
“If you fix those problems, it reduces the likelihood that people would reoffend, which would therefore reduce the likelihood that we would have victims,” she said.
The fact that an offender is able to repeat the same crimes over and over is evidence that they are not getting the necessary support and intervention required to desist from engaging in those behaviours, Prout pointed out.
• Next week:
What needs to be done to reduce the risk of people reoffending in the future.