Tony Blair's "tough on the causes of crime" and David Cameron's "hug a hoodie" speeches reflect the dominant sociological model of crime. But research into the "criminal personality" suggests some people from troubled backgrounds are far more likely to offend than others. Policymakers are taking an interestby David Rose / August 27, 2006 / Leave a comment
For most of the past century, analysis of the origins of crime has been dominated by sociological models. When Tony Blair declared in 1992 that his party would be “tough on the causes of crime,” his audience presumed that he meant that Labour would try to eliminate crime-generating social ills such as poor housing, unemployment and inadequate schools. Discussion of the possible roots of offending and antisocial behaviour within individuals rarely formed part of elite public discourse. Punishment, the courts held, should be regulated by the severity of the crime, not the criminal’s propensity to commit further offences.
One of the few challenges to this orthodoxy was made in the 1960s by Hans J Eysenck, for many years a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry. Eysenck believed that criminals’ personalities could be rigidly categorised and that most of their behaviour was inherited. But his work on crime was attacked by mainstream sociological criminologists and had little influence on policy. Indeed, for most criminologists the concept of a personality more likely to commit crime was abhorrent.
The resistance to Eysenck was especially fierce because he was writing during the vogue for “radical criminology,” when crime was seen as a social construct and the “labelling” of deviants an aspect of social control. Thirty years later, intellectual fashion has shifted beyond recognition, with, for example, a heavy new emphasis on the experiences of victims of crime. Nevertheless, investigation of the factors that put an individual at high risk of engaging in criminal and antisocial behaviour remains controversial, and most criminologists continue to steer well clear of it.
Some consideration of the risk profile of individuals has, in fact, long been part of penal policy, especially in assessing prisoners for parole. But its scope is increasing. The 2003 Criminal Justice Act introduced “indefinite public protection” sentences for convicts judged at high risk of reoffending, and its provisions have been widely used: by the end of June 2006, a year after the relevant provisions of the act came into force, more than 1,000 people had received the indefinite sentence.
The act, and the new emphasis on risk assessment in general, entail a big shift from the principle that has governed sentencing in the past—that of punishment tailored to fit the crime, of proportionate “just deserts.” Although it has been subjected to little public debate, this new approach requires…