Criminology and Psychopathology Research Paper

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1. Introduction

A study on the relationship between criminology and psychopathology would have to start from questioning its existence, its terms, and whether it is one of causality or of association. A causal relationship could be based on nosographic parallelism because psychopathology and criminology share mutual grounds so that symptoms are equal to crimes and vice versa, or on epidemiological decisions that some mental states cause criminality. However, a relationship of association would have to specify the factors through which the association holds. Aristotle (1941) already ex-pressed an interest in the relationship between psychopathology and criminology, but the large number of mental patients in prisons and the publicity generated by major crimes in which a mental patient has been involved have increased the interest in later years. In addition, depictions of criminals with twisted minds in movies and television spread the opinion that crime and mental illness are related. Unfortunately, very infrequently does the media provide realistic portrayals of the abuse, homelessness, social disenfranchisement, or social neglect that are common reasons why some mental patients are arrested. In this research paper, therefore, the author has two purposes: first to disentangle the existence and parameters of a relationship between psychopathology and criminology and second, to review risk factors that could determine the relationship.

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2. General Statement On Psychopathology

2.1 Definitions

Criminology is the scientific study of crime and criminals and their motivations for criminal behavior. Psychopathology is the study of personality factors that are somewhat out of regular conscious awareness and that lead to behavior outside the norm in a particular social group. It studies abnormal emotional or personality phenomena that underline symptoms or behavior. Psychopathology provides criminology with methods to analyze elements of a criminal act within the personality structure and aims to find out the motivations for the crime. The interest is centered on the individual, or criminal, as somebody who is different from the rest because of personal or social deficiencies that have led him or her to commit a criminal act. Act and actor are the focus of study and intervention. In this type of criminology of difference the crime is a fact, and the criminal is singled out as an object of study.

From a wider perspective, any criminological study would ideally include the context in which the criminal behavior has taken place. This interpretation involves the criminal as wrongdoer, sometimes even as victim, the identified victim, the determinant elements of the social circumstances in which the crime has been committed, and the deciding role of the law. In this criminology of process, the crime is the result of a conflict and the criminal is the subject, or actor, caught in a web of social circumstances and legal definitions that are required to identify the act as criminal. No act could be defined as a crime without the social and legal identification that places the actor within a conflict with the group that, eventually, qualifies the act as infraction deserving of sanctions (Debuyst 1997).

2.2 Psychopathological Methods

It would be tempting to study every crime and its actor from the point of view of a criminology of process, but this approach has countless ramifications about the meaning of the act; and teleological implications about criminal responsibility. Although this perspective has high heuristic value, it would contribute little if the aim of the study is to gain a deep knowledge of the criminal. From a practical standpoint, singling out a person for study and dissecting the motivations underlying the act makes a statement that the criminal is different and in need of being separated from the rest of the group. Separateness is an objectifier that demands knowledge of psychopathological methodologies to do the separating and the dissecting.

There are crimes where the motivations could be placed entirely outside the range of personal psychopathology, but these are rare. For example, highly politically organized crimes take the victim as the representative of an order considered oppressive by a majority. In these crimes the immediate actor may not have personal motivations, but acts as an instrument of the group. Although such pure, politically motivated crime on behalf of the group could be studied from a historical, political, and social perspective, it would still have to be examined against a possible backdrop of social pathology, and the motive of the immediate actor would have to be examined to determine personal pathology. Regicides and magnicides committed by a lone criminal without social backing usually relate to personal psychopathology. Other forms of political crime, such as a leader’s need to eliminate his or her opponents, although couched on political terms, would have to be examined as to whether the leader’s thrust for power at all costs, including the need to preserve power that allows for satisfaction of plain personal greed, is rooted on psychopathological demands. In Mafia executions, for example, when somebody is ‘rubbed out?’ strictly ‘for business,’ the leader’s need to preserve personal power may collude with the executioner’s own psychopath-ology and callous disregard for life. Similarly, a leader’s psychopathology could be linked to social pathology as in cases of genocide, when atavistic fears or deep resentments and anger against a group are brought to the surface in a cauldron of hatred fed by the leader’s own hatred and psychopathological features. Ordinarily the leader uses charismatic power to manipulate the masses which allows for the emergence of primitive impulses of revenge, violence, and destruction. In turn, this frenzy proves the leader right and consolidates power. Political gain and revenge are the usual motivations of terrorism that depend on the ability of the terrorist to objectify the victim, in itself a psychopathological construct.

Any other type of crime involves usual motivations such as greed, envy, lust, power, anger, overposses-siveness, and sometimes, even love. In any crime, however, the criminal, the victim, and society are inextricably tied in a web of emotional and social interactions mediated by the criminal act. Social sciences such as history, criminology, sociology, law, anthropology, psychology, and psychiatry converge on an act to label it criminal, and on the criminal to study the motivations.

The sciences diverge from that point on. For history, sociology, anthropology, and criminology look for answers in wider systems of social, political, and legal domains whereas psychiatry, law, psychology, and applied criminology are pragmatic sciences that explicitly objectify the criminal in order to justify interventions to change criminal behavior. In the elaboration of a psychopathological historiography, psychopathology seeks to understand the criminal act as a chain of personal events that have preceded the act and that will repeat in the future, if no intervention is undertaken. Sometimes a chain of similar acts has already been committed. In this ‘package concept’ of the criminal and crime, the instant event is only one expression, or symptom, of subjacent maladaptive processes that permeate all aspects of the personality. Maladaptive processes such as impulsivity, or callous-ness, are ‘transnosographic’ constructions (Widlocher 1997) that span the spectrum of the personality. Constructs of this nature are rooted in character structure and may gain expression through criminal behavior or through symptoms of more obvious pathology such as depression or schizophrenia.

There are two types of psychopathological populations. First, the patients whose psychopathology is easily diagnosable as a mental condition such as anxiety, affective disorders, schizophrenia, or dementia. Patients are usually cared for in psychiatric units or in mental hospitals by general psychiatry. Second, criminals whose psychopathology may not be so obvious. They constitute the subject matter of penitentiary psychiatry in charge of studying the behavior, no matter how aberrant. Criminals are usually affected by deep personality disturbances that lead them repeatedly to crime such as thieving, assaultiveness, extreme forms of violence, substance dependencies, or deviated sexual practices. These two psychopathological populations are not usually so neatly separated because many persons suffer from co-morbid or dual conditions, or because there is an overlap whereby mental patients, like anybody else, could commit crimes and criminals, like anybody else, could become mentally ill.

Psychopathological explanations of crime have to be placed together with the sociological explanations that give meaning to the circumstances, historical and social, that surround the actor, or to the immediate triggers of the criminal act. Not to take these factors into account would do no justice to the criminal and it would deny an essential foundation to diagnostic interpretations and to treatment recommendations that might follow. A crime does not exist without a context and no criminal can be excised from the environment in which the crime took place.

2.3 Applications

A psychopathological evaluation of the criminal and the meaning of crime is an essential component, if not the raison d’etre of forensic psychiatry. Forensic psychiatrists evaluate the mental condition of an accused for purposes of determining competence as required for legal purposes. To the contrary, treatment is not a regular concern of forensic psychiatrists. In correctional and penitentiary psychiatry evaluations do not dwell extensively on diagnostic issues, but rather, on the motivations for the crime to determine best treatment alternatives. Correctional treatment has two prongs: clinical treatment for symptoms of obvious psychopathology such as anxiety or depression, and correctional treatment to prevent or decrease recidivism usually through psychological or criminological methods. Unfortunately, sometimes clinicians in prisons are driven by a belief on re-habilitation and provide treatment without properly evaluating outcomes post-release over time.

3. Parameters Of The Relationship

Psychopathological expressions could be subtle and difficult to elucidate, or other persons could be enrolled to demonstrate the pathology as in follie a deux, or in families where one member becomes the identified patient expressing the pathology of the other members. Psychopathology among criminals range from serious personality disorders to outright symptoms of mental illness. In between, there is a gamut of symptoms and crimes where the boundaries between criminology and psychiatry become blurred. Five levels of interactions could be described.

3.1 Crime As Symptom

These are cases in which a one-to-one relationship exists in the sense that the expression of the symptom constitutes the crime. For example, diagnosing some sexual pathologies such as pedophilia or exhibitionism is to acknowledge that a crime has been committed. A frotteur, for example, will not get sexual satisfaction by masturbating or by rubbing himself against an inanimate object; the compulsion is to do it against another person, yet anonymously, hence the crime happens in crowded places such as public transports. The symptom is a crime against public morals and an assault for undue touching. A person who presents with fantasies about children, or about compulsively exhibiting in public, has not yet expressed the symptom and has committed no crime. To enter a diagnosis of pedophilia or exhibitionism at this stage would not be correct and could cause the person innumerable social and legal complications if the diagnosis is found out. In many crimes of this group the motivation is expressed as a desire, even compulsion, to indulge on the symptom and clearly precedes and determines the crime; thus, when psychopathology is present, the symptom is the crime.

3.2 Crime As Possible Symptom

One-to-one interactions could be observed in some other crimes. For example, firesetting is indicative of psychopathology, usually of an obsessive nature, and is found with some frequency associated with mental retardation, sexual pathology, or psychotic conditions. A diagnosis of firesetting could not be entered without immediately thinking that a crime, arson, has been committed. However, arson could also be a political or economical crime. Some shoplifters suffer from depression and anxiety, but shoplifting could simply be the result of a survival need, or even a business.

3.3 Crime As Correlate To Symptom

The third level of interaction presupposes a more distant relationship and takes place when a crime could be committed in order to indulge the symptom. An addict, for example, cannot do without the drug, but for as long as the drug is obtained legally because funds are readily available or because goods such as sexual favors could be bartered, the addict is free of crime. An addict commits a crime, either against property or sometimes against the person, when the drug cannot be purchased due to lack of funds or if there is nothing to barter. Sometimes, a child is sold or bartered as sexual pawn, or the addict agrees to a major violent crime in order to secure the drug. In these situations, the relationship between psychopath-ology and criminality is established not by the symptom itself, craving the drug, but by the drug-obtaining behavior at any cost. A similar situation could be envisaged among persons with developmental disabilities who display impulsive violent or destructive behavior. Usually the intervening factor is low frustration tolerance to irritating or annoying situations, or a poor grasp of heterosocial interactions leading to a sexual crime when willing partners, usually with similar disabilities, cannot be found.

3.4 Crime As Result Of Symptom

This level involves a relationship where the crime is not the symptom nor is the crime related to the symptom through a criminal need in order to indulge the symptom, but it is the end result of several paths found in the course of some mental conditions. These include the following.

3.4.1 Crimes That Follow The Dictates Of A Symptom. Symptoms that could lead to crimes are only part of a multitude of other symptoms that accompany a particular mental condition such as paranoid states, schizophrenia, or major affective disorders. The majority of these patients may never be involved in any of-fences so crimes are not part of the definition of the condition. Furthermore, if the symptom is present, the patient could learn to control it by recognizing it as part of the illness, or through other forms of treatment such as medications. However, patients in this group could commit a crime when they follow the dictates of a symptom as happens in cases in which psychotic symptoms lead a person to believe in a certain state of affairs and, eventually, dictate that the person take action so as to modify a perceived negative course of the events.

3.4.2 Unexpected, Unmotivated Crimes. Sometimes a crime results from impulsive acts that are committed unpredictably and without time to foresee the consequences. This could be observed in persons suffering from intermittent explosive disorders, in the unreason-able, and unpredictable crimes of some patients suffering from schizophrenia, or in homicides, sometimes followed by suicide, of seriously depressed persons.

3.4.3 Crimes Of Interaction With Social Conditions. Finally, crimes could be part of the general social expression of a mental illness when social factors such as homelessness, deprivation, or poverty lead chronic mental patients to commit minor violations, usually motivated by survival needs punishable by a few days in a prison, or when a patient reacts violently to abuse or victimization. In this latter case, the crime may be caused not by the mental condition, but by a completely normal motivation of personal protection, or the mental condition may have affected the modulation of affect and aggravated the extent of the response.

3.4.4 Crime As An Expression Of Being. Although characterizing crime as fate may seem pessimistic, criminal tendencies are so intimately linked to personality structures in some individuals that nothing else could be expected, but a life career of crime. Being-in-the-world for these persons constitutes an extravagant display of predatory behavior in order to satisfy needs and sometimes perversions that are ego-syntonic and whose satisfaction, which in the extremes could involve the humiliation, mutilation, and death of another, produces no guilt or remorse, but an urge to further predations. Many of these individuals present a range of behaviors, from the mildly antisocial to the extremely psychopathic and sadistic. Serial and sadistic murderers are usually found in this category.

4. Epidemiological Evidence

While a relationship between mental illness and criminality could be ascertained through the use of epidemiological methodologies, a relationship between psychopathology and crime can only be ascertained through the painstaking study of the individual criminal. Epidemiological studies cannot answer questions about fine personality traits or about motivation, which are usually buried in the very abyss of the human soul.

Epidemiological studies, however, can give a picture of the limit of psychopathology, as measured by the prevalence of criminality among psychiatric patients, or of mental illness among criminals, whether in or out of institutions (Arboleda-Florez 1998). Analytical epidemiological methods have been used to determine causal factors between mental illness and violence, but much more refinements have to be introduced in the methodology of these studies before a statement of causality could be made (Arboleda-Florez et al. 1998).

5. Biological Determinants Of Criminality

Criminal behavior can be explained on sociological or anthropological terms or as responding to biological determinants. Criminal behaviors with a psycho-pathological substratum require a biological layer of explanation through biological mechanisms that involve personality aspects, genetic and hereditary factors, physiological alterations, cerebral damage caused by perinatal insults or head trauma, or acute intoxication.

5.1 Personality

Some physiological correlates of personality are also related to criminality, especially by individuals with antisocial and psychopathic personalities. Higher thresholds for excitability and higher impulsivity accompanied by lower levels of skin conductance, pulse, and electroencephalographic markers for excitability than found among normal individuals are found among psychopaths which could explain their thrill-seeking behaviors (Hare 1982). Similarly, low pulse has been found to be related to regulatory patterns of inhibitory conduct among adolescents, juvenile delinquents, and those diagnosed with con-duct disorders.

5.2 Cerebral Damage

Neuropsychological tests could demonstrate cerebral damage, but this is best done with imaging. MRI, PET scans, and SPECT examinations have demonstrated frontal lobe damage among extremely violent individuals, serial murderers, and non-psychotic personality disordered persons (Goyer and Semple 1996). Cerebral pathology is related to intermittent explosive dis-orders, and frontal lobe insults have been associated with levels of impulsivity (Barratt 1987) which in turn have been related to levels of serotonin (Brown et al. 1989).

5.3 Genetics And Heredity

A familiar component has been described relating antisocial behavior, criminality, and violence, which in turn are related to paternal violence, poverty, single parent families, and rough neighborhoods. These interfamily variation factors, as known in genetic epidemiology, change from family to family but remain constant as a load in one single family. It is not possible, yet, to differentiate within members of a family the quantities that could be attributed to the genetic load (genotype) from that attributed to the environment and that result on a particular form of behavior (phenotype). Link and association studies demonstrate that some genetic disorders such as alcoholism, Gilles de la Tourette syndrome, and the fragile-X syndrome could be related to antisocial behavior and violence (Carey 1994). Furthermore, adoption studies of twins indicate that there exists a genetic relation between antisocial personality and alcoholism (Cadoret et al. 1986).

5.4 Intoxicating Substances

Toxic substances are common correlates of criminal behavior either ingested voluntarily or through exposure in the environment. The impact of alcohol on infants in utero resulting in fetal alcohol syndrome or intellectual damage suffered by normally born babies exposed to high levels of lead in the environment are well documented. Developmental delays and injuries to the developing brain are risk factors for criminality. Alcohol has a well-known impact on the frontal lobes (Baron and Richardson 1994) which are in charge of inhibitory functions, and on the limbic structures in charge of vegetative and instinctive functions. The effects of alcohol and drugs are well known in forensic psychiatry because of violent crimes including sexual attacks committed while intoxicated and the emergence of dissociative and automatic states of mind (Arboleda-Florez 1999). Figures bear this relation-ship, 42 percent of arrested individuals are inebriated and 29 percent are under the effects of drugs at the time of arrest. Furthermore, 57 percent had used drugs within one month prior to their arrest, and 83 percent of inmates in state prisons and 73 percent of those in federal prisons had utilized drugs at some time in their lifetimes (Mumola 1998).

5.5 Biological Reductionism

Some authors have expressed a concern that biological explanations could lead to a fruitless search for easy solutions to the complexities of crime. They point out that such way of thinking could distort the truth because of the weight paid to biological facts, could raise false hopes for easy solutions, and could engender fears, prejudice, and apprehensions in the population worse than the actual dangers represented by crime (Brain 1984). Myths surrounding biological investigations of crime have retarded the development of this profitable area of research (Stoff and Cairns 1996).

6. Social Determinants Of Criminality

Social explanatory models of criminality demonstrate that there is a relationship between social situations and crime. Anthropological and social definitions of crime at a larger scale indicate that some forms of behavior are acceptable in some cultures or localities, but not in others. For example, corporal punishment of children and spousal abuse may be considered appropriate in some subcultures or countries, but frowned upon and punishable as serious crimes in others. Cultures of crime exist in rough neighborhoods and social definitions of acceptable behavior follow local definitions of morality. These broad determinants are independent of other generally acceptable correlates of criminality such as labeling, poverty, deprivation, exposure to violence at home or in society in general, breakdown of social lines, or the social fabric at times of political, economical, or wartime unrest, and availability of guns. Unfortunately, none of these models have wholesome parsimonious value although most can explain crime under some circumstances.

7. Conclusions

Criminality responds to multi-determinant and multi-dimensional processes that demand a broad under-standing and knowledgeable approach to its study, away from reductionistic beliefs, be they biological or social, and away from solipsistic solutions that would deny possibilities for study and conflict resolution. Learning about the psychopathological, biological, and social correlates of crime opens the door to instituting remediation strategies aimed at rehabilitation and successful reintegration of the criminal into society.


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