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What is Criminal Profiling?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Criminology studies the causes and nature of crime. There is a widespread tendency to equate crime and sin, but there are many offences against the law that are not regarded as sins by the accepted moral codes of the day and many sins which are not criminal since they are not forbidden by law. In electing to prohibit certain actions, the state cannot ignore the ethical standards of the day, but the determining factors are primarily concerned with the harm the community may suffer through a particular action, rather than with moral issues, taking into account also whether the offence can be detected in a sufficient number of cases for the law to be workable.

Criminology may be regarded as having its genesis in the work of lombroso, the founder of the Anthropological School of Criminology, who published his L 'Vomo Delinquents in 1876. Lombroso regarded criminality as an inborn characteristic, associated with certain physical signs of degeneracy: e.g. a receding forehead, small cranium, and projecting ears. In later editions he did admit the possible influence of environment, but his work is still associated with his original conception of the criminal born.

There were many critics of his work, notably Dr Goring of the English prison medical service, who showed that Lombroso's so-called stigmata of degeneracy were found with equal frequency amongst non-criminal persons. It is now recognised that no convincing study of criminals is possible without a study of non-criminals as control groups.

Although Lombroso's views are no longer accepted, his influence was very great, as he was the first person to break away from a purely moral attitude to crime and to attempt to discover its causes by scientific investigation. His idea that there is a connection between physique and criminality has been supported by certain aspects of modern research, though in very different forms. S. and E. Glueck, the leading US criminologists, have shown that a certain stocky physical type is more common amongst delinquents than amongst non-criminal youth. Later researchers have found supporting evidence. Other modern investigators who are interested in the physical makeup of criminals have stressed the influence of the endocrine glands. Others have applied the electro-encephalograph (the EEG) which measures the electrical activity of the brain. Applied first to epileptics, it was found that their EEGs showed abnormal rhythms with much greater frequency than was the case in the normal control group. This is also true of the aggressive psychopath and to a lesser degree of the passive psychopath. A study of a group of delinquent boys admitted to an approved school showed a high proportion with an abnormally slow rhythm of a type which has been found to be connected with the immature personality. This work has been developed, and increasing knowledge of human chemistry has led to discussion of endocrine abnormalities, chromosomal abnormalities, and other ways in which biology can be linked to crime. However, these studies are at an early stage; in any event, it must be stressed that only one factor among many is being discussed, and the concept of 'the born criminal' is not being revived.

At the other end of the scale are the criminologists who ignore personal characteristics and hold that all crime is a reaction to economic circumstances. Some people have seen in the statistics a close connection between crime and poverty; e.g. crime increasing in times of unemployment and falling standards of living, as during the depression of the 1930s. However, since the Second World War it has been seen that the converse does not apply. Whatever the imperfections of criminal statistics, few can doubt that full employment and rising standards of living have been accompanied by rising crime rates. One school of criminologists concentrating on ecological studies has found that crime is most common in the central industrial districts of a town where housing conditions are poor, but it is now seen that the areas of most heavily concentrated criminal activity may be the new housing estates, not the central slums. Clearly sociological and personal factors must be as relevant as material conditions.

The extreme Marxist view that thinks in terms only of economic conditions makes no attempt to explain why, given a certain environment, some persons become delinquent and others do not. It also assumes that because crime and poverty frequently go together the latter must be the cause of the former. But the connection need not be a causal one. Both criminality and poverty may be due to the same personality factor in the individual.

Nowadays when environmental conditions are stressed as a cause of crime, it is likely to be the sociological rather than the purely economic factors that are given most weight. The study of subcultures is now seen to be significant to the criminologist. Moral standards and accepted codes of behaviour may vary greatly between different sections of the community, and conformity to the norms of his own world, that is to say a strong social sense, may lead an individual to be regarded as anti-social by the community as a whole as represented by its courts and criminal laws.

Psychological factors have also to be taken into account, and the reactions of the individual to his family and to his educational and social background. It was inevitable that the teaching of Freud, Jung, and Adler should profoundly affect the study of criminal behaviour. The stress placed by the modern psychologist on the child's earliest years and his relationship to his family as determining his later attitudes to society has a deep significance for the criminologist, since the development of a social conscience is built up in the first instance by the child's desire to please the mother, whilst his later attitude to authority may be a reflection of his attitude to his father. Modern psychological research has also shown that the power to feel affection cannot develop normally unless in the early years affection is received from the mother (or some substitute for her). The result may be the affectionless criminal, whom it is almost impossible to influence since there is no emotional line of approach.

The US criminologists Healey and Bronner, who compared the history of a large number of delinquent children with the history of a non-delinquent brother or sister, found that nearly all the delinquents were very unhappy in their life circumstances owing to a lack of affection, jealousy, or disharmony in the home, or to a sense of inadequacy and failure, or to other emotional and deep-seated trouble. There were at most only 13 per cent of the non-delinquents who had had the same experiences, and in every instance they had been able to find counterbalancing satisfactions, whereas the delinquents had no legitimate alternatives.

The sense of failure referred to in the last paragraph is of significance in relation to the question of the intelligence of criminals. It used to be generally accepted that the average intelligence of the criminal was below that of the general population. Most modern criminologists would probably accept that lower intelligence can be one of the factors disposing a child towards crime, but on the whole they would prefer to think in terms of the interaction between all the relevant circumstances, with a poor home background reinforcing the effects of a poor school. The failure may be in attainment rather than innate ability. Indeed criminality is generally a combined result of environmental influences reacting on the individual, and his various characteristics and emotional experiences reacting on each other. The picture is, in fact, much more complicated than earlier criminologists had realised.

The modern emphasis on the emotional and mental factors in the causation of crime has produced a school of thought which, like the Marxist, tends to regard the criminal as made by circumstances, though it stresses a wholly different set of circumstances. In this view the criminal is someone in need of psychiatric treatment rather than punishment. That such treatment has a role to play is now widely realised, but the more responsible psychiatric thought recognises its limitations. Nevertheless modern psychological work has made it clear that persons do exist who, without being certifiably insane or sane in the sense laid down by the m'naughten rules, are none the less not fully responsible for their actions.

The most modern school of criminologists would seek to reject that title for their study, for they decline to regard the criminal as anything other than one of the many types of deviant from society's norms. It is society that has chosen to treat in a special way certain forms of deviance and call them crimes. This school of thought puts emphasis on the 'labelling' process, whereby the fact that a particular act is labelled as a crime and its author as a criminal, and still more a juvenile delinquent, leads to certain attitudes by both society and individual which confirm the latter in his deviancy. (This has indeed long been a familiar idea in relation to juvenile offenders, and the modern juvenile bureau is aimed at not branding someone as a delinquent for a minor transgression).

Writers of the social deviance school, as it is called, have been able to show that much earlier work on suicides, for example, ignored the fact that the suicide rate is merely a reflection of views about how a suicide is distinguishable from an accidental death; if coroners take account of recent family troubles when assessing borderline cases, then people with recent family troubles may seem to figure disproportionately amongst those committing suicide. The social deviance school has also shown that society's reaction to such phenomena as the outbreaks of violence between Mods and Rockers in the mid-1960s in Britain acted to reinforce what it criticised. The writers of this school have, of course, no complete solution to all the problems of criminology, but they have brought a valuable new perspective to a subject which remains full of uncertainties.


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