Heading off criminal behaviour

  • Living
  • Tuesday, 15 Apr 2014

Positive effects on a mother's well-being and mental health translates into a more supportive environment for children.

Intervention programmes make a difference in crime prevention. 

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that simple intervention programmes make a world of difference in crime prevention.

Take the one mentioned in the final chapters of Raine’s book, which targeted pregnant women in semi-rural New York in the United States, offering them home visits during pregnancy and follow-up visits for the first two years of the child’s life.

The study, conducted by professor of pediatrics and psychiatry David Olds, was simple. All it did was offer the mothers advice on reduced smoking and alcohol use, improvements in nutrition, and meeting the social and emotional needs of the infants.

The results were astonishing. Researchers kept track of the children, as well as a control group which received the standard amount of pre- and post-natal care, for 15 years.

And for the offspring of the mothers who received interventions, there was a whopping a 52.8% reduction in arrests, 63% reduction in convictions and a 91.3% reduction in the number of truancy and destruction of property cases, compared to the control group.

What’s more, the positive effects on the mothers’ own wellbeing and mental health – which translated into a better and more supportive environment for the children – also cost the government less money in medical and financial aid, as well as food stamps, in the long run.

There are other solutions. Treatments like antipsychotic medication work pretty well for aggression, and studies have shown that dietary supplements such as Omega-3, and maybe the micronutrients such as iron and zinc, can go a long way too.

Then there are cognitive behavioural therapies, and mindfulness training – a concept with origins in Buddhist philosophy that teaches one to be more self-aware, and therefore better able to regulate thoughts before they boil over. This is already practised in some US prisons and seems to be particularly helpful for low-level criminals, with some studies even showing that it may enhance the regions of the brain involved in processing emotional stimuli.

Multiple factors

Raine believes that the best action society can take to reduce crime and violence is to invest in the early years of the growing child – which is easily said but hard to put into effect.

“Society wants quick solutions, but it takes decades to reap the benefits of early interventions. The reality we need to face up to is that long-term investments will cost a lot today, but they will save us all far more in the future,” he says.

It is important to recognise that biological and social factors very early on in life predispose some individuals to a life of crime.

“It can, I feel, help destigmatise crime, and result in a more humane approach. To recognise that we can all, to varying degrees, have an antisocial tendency can lead to a more empathic understanding not just towards the victim, but also the offender,” Raine says.

The big barrier, he continues, is society’s need for simplified messages – like “bad homes cause violence”.

In truth, things are more complicated. And despite our intellect, most have difficulty understanding this.

A two-way interaction of factors, for example, would be that bad homes cause violence, but only in combination with birth complications.

A three-way interaction might be that bad homes combine with birth complications to shape future adult violence, but only when the mother smokes during pregnancy.

“The problem is that even (such) a three-way interaction is way too simple,” Raine offers.

Even today, scientists are struggling to work out how many factors come together in complex ways to shape behaviour in a criminal direction.

“It’s not black and white. If it was, we would have solved the problem long ago,” Raine points out.

At the same time, an approach should not be disregarded just because it looks complicated.

“That is a mindset we absolutely need to change if we want genuine scientific progress.”

Related stories:

A history of violence

Wired for violence?

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