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In investigation of aberrant violent crimes, investigators turn to psychological profiling. Psychological profiling predicts the characteristics of criminals or offenders based upon their behavior. This is a way of classifying and predicting criminality of the offenders based on the assumption that the physical characteristics or aspects of a person are an expression of his personality (Kocsis).

The view that the physical characteristics are related to the personality and even to criminality of a person has been there for a long time. Homer, for example, described Thersites in his “Iliad” as an ugly man whose appearance is suggestive of criminality. In 1940s to 1950s, psychiatrist James Brussel had been consulted by investigators regarding bombings in New York City. Brussell was able to predict features about the bomber – that he is unmarried, of European descent, and about 50 years of age. Brussel was also able to predict that the offender had a penchant for wearing suits with neatly-fastened buttons. This foresight in predicting the offender’s characteristics became apparent when the bomber was apprehended in 1957. The offender, George Metesky, was an unmarried man, of European descent, and is in his 50s. He was also wearing a blue suit with neatly-fastened buttons (Kocsis).

Despite the success of Brussell’s profiling of the criminal mind, however, there are very few scientifically supported pieces of evidence showing that profiling is indeed reliable. There are still others who are questioning the reliability of profiling.

Having an understanding of the criminal mind or the criminal behavior is very important in the criminal justice field (Verdeyen). If profiling of the criminal mind is indeed reliable or that the physical, social, political, economic, and environmental background of a person affects his criminality, the understanding of criminal mind may help the police investigators in the arrest of the offender by looking into the characteristics, attributes and the thoughts of the offender. Likewise, if it is true that the offender’s background is the cause of his criminality, the punishment that must be inflicted upon him is reformative or rehabilitative than punitive. Critical, therefore, is the correct understanding on the effect of background to the person’s tendency to make a crime in the resolution of a criminal case as well as in the assignment of correct penalty.

In this regard, this paper will be divided into four parts. The first part would be devoted to the discussion of the arguments supporting the idea that the environment or background of a person affects his criminality. The second part discusses the counter-arguments to those discusses in the first part. It will be devoted to the claim that the individual choice is the more important factor that determines the criminality of an individual. The third part discusses some relevant experiments regarding the criminal mind. And finally, the fourth part discusses penalty inflicted upon an erring person – whether it should be retributive or punitive.   

Arguments Supporting the Claim that the Background Affects Criminality

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The criminal have a complex belief system which supports anti-social behaviors like lying and violation of laws. They have been acting in accordance with this belief system, believing that this system is correct. Some articulate criminals do rationalize their actions on the basis of their belief system. Just like how people act in accordance with the belief system he upholds, criminals do act in accordance with their belief system, albeit this belief system deviates from the norms of the society. Understanding the criminal behavior implies understanding patterns of thinking that enable the criminals to operate. These patterns of thinking are: rationalization or mollification; cutting off of feelings such as fears and anxieties that would deter criminal action; sense of entitlement; sense of power over others; belief that he could get away with his criminal acts; failure to examine himself and take responsibility; and failure to follow through on commitments (Verdeyen).

When a child is being assaulted or humiliated by the person who is supposed to take good care of him and be a role model to him, the negative conduct is being imprinted in the child's consciousness as acceptable, and even necessary especially when the reason for the conduct is unknown. The negative conduct or behavior may soon become a basis for addiction, or an irresistible inner compulsion towards masochism, sexual perversion, and violence against the weak. Examples of this are the poor child abused by drunken parents, and the emotionally starved rich kid of career-oriented parents who became a subject to bullying in school (Hattersley). What happened to a person on his past, how he was raised, and the things that surrounded him while he was growing, have an effect to how he thinks. If what is implanted on his mind is hatred, and if he sees violence as a normal thing, it is most likely that he has criminal tendencies.

It is said that the act of war is an act of discontentment, anger, and rage, which could be personal or spiritual. It may be a revenge or a crusade for one's religion. Killing with the use of bombs has rage as its basis. Suicide bombers are drawn to kill themselves either for religious or national motivations. There are cases when they are brainwashed by certain people who would rather have the former do the job so that the latter would not die in achieving their purpose (Criminal Minds.info).

Suicide bombers often lack social skills and are usually from poor families. In most cases, they are also mentally weak. Suicide bombers are brainwashed by their leaders or preachers to a point that they are unable to think about anything around them, even their own family. The leaders would tell them that they were “born to kill others.” The leaders would teach them that self sacrifice is noble. After instilling certain doctrines in the mind of these poor people, the latter would find it extremely hard to psychologically leave the group and back out of suicide bombing plan. In this case, the suicide bomber might only be hiding his anger behind the justification of his act. The aggression living within the individual is projected through fighting for religion or nation. Expression of personal and explosive rage is honored when connected to fight for religion or nation. We have a need to feel superior, and if we are left vulnerable, we will seek revenge. Killing in times of war and suicide bombings are effects of hatred towards the world and the want to make a revenge. Even if killing in war and suicide bombings have connections to protecting the nation or religion, the individual performing any of these two are acting alone. He is merely expressing his own anger and hatred (Criminal Minds.info). Social, political, economic, and environmental problems bring the discontentment of people. And it is through this discontentment that there are people who are drawn into joining groups that will teach them to inflict acts of hate towards certain institutions and social classes.

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Arguments Against the Claim that the Background Affects Criminality

The criminal minds are characterized by patterns of thought that are pervasively and intractably deceptive, self-serving, dishonest and devoid of true sympathy. Stanton Samenow made an argument debunking the theories made by criminologists, sociologists, mental health professionals and the public. He rejects the medical and neurological explanations of criminality because for him, these explanations fail to consider the importance of “individual choice.” He rejects outright theories that are based on correlational data explaining causes of criminality. Take for example the case of non-criminal youths who are also exposed to the same background or disadvantages that criminal youths are. Even though they have the same background and disadvantages, not all of them are criminals. If the background is indeed a determining factor in the criminality of a person, then everyone who is at a disadvantaged position would become a criminal (Stuart).

Samenow argued that the approach towards criminals must be able to change their pervasive thinking , and hold then accountable for every infraction of moral thought even small breach of integrity. This corrective program is possible only when we clearly understand that it is the individual that chooses crime. He is the one who chooses to reject society even before the society rejects him. The offender values people only when the latter will be useful in bringing about the former’s selfish desires (Stuart).

Let us take this case as an example. An old man deceives his young niece and took the latter to a secluded place where he raped and murdered her. The public is of course revolted by the gruesomeness and immorality of the crime committed. But we really do not have an understanding of what was going on in the old man’s mind when he committed the rape and murder. Though we may say that the act was not normal, we could not say that he is irrational. When a person committed a crime he is rational, calculating and is very much aware of his actions, no matter how revolting the crime might be. Offenders are not criminally ill when they perform repugnant actions.

Criminals have knowledge of right and wrong. They know the actions that are illegal and immoral. For centuries, it has been a prevalent view that the society should be blamed for the existence of crimes. However, criminality is not restricted only to a particular societal group (Stuart). When there are series of bombings committed by a particular group, investigators and experts would say that these actions were brought about by poverty and other societal problems. When a man beats his wife, people would say that this is due to his unhappy childhood. It is often argued that the poor is often driven to commit theft or robbery, and that the unhappy and emotionally weak person is most likely to commit an act of hate towards others.

It is quite racist, discriminatory,  and unwarranted to that the black or poor person has criminal tendencies and is having difficulty in coping responsibly with his environment. We have been blaming social institutions for contributing to crimes. In times of economic hard times, we say that criminals are out in the streets and looking for prospective victims whose properties they would want to steal. But crimes are also common in times economic good times, when there are those who would like to take advantage of the situation that a lot are spending money and buying things. A person’s poverty is sometimes made the basis for the theft that a person committed. But a person’s indulgence may also be a made a basis for the crime as when the person does not know when to stop spending and hence would turn to illegal activities just to satisfy his wants. It is important to note that everything would just boil down to the person’s ability to choose for himself and dealing with the circumstances that he is facing.

The sociological explanations for crime are plausible but are too simplistic. If they are correct in explaining the criminality of individuals, then there are more criminals. Not everyone who is poor or maltreated is resorting to criminal acts. More important than the environment is the choice that the individual is making in response to different circumstances. There are criminals who claim that their society should be blamed for their criminal tendencies. They claim that they were rejected by their families, schools, neighbors, employers and by the entire community. Rarely, however, do they say why they were rejected. It might be because even when they were still young, they were already defiant and sneaky. As they grow older, they are becoming more and more rebellious. They might have experienced problems, but they did nothing to fix these problems, and instead used these problems as justifications of their scornful behavior. Before they were rejected by the society, they had rejected first rejected their families, friends and entire community. They defied the norms and rules established by the society thinking that their problems and unhappiness would justify their actions. Offenders are not forced into committing felonies by people around them. They are the ones who chose their path. They chose their companions and the activities that they would enjoy. It is absurd to say that people are forced into becoming criminals because they do not have opportunities in the job market. Not every unemployed person is a criminal (enotalone.com).

Relevant Experiments Conducted

Criminal psychologist Adrian Raine made a strong case on biological predisposition to violence. He described a study of 4,660 boys that were born in Copenhagen hospital from 1959 to 1961. He and his colleagues discovered that the children who had complications at birth as well as parental neglect are more likely to become violent offenders than those who had not. In another study, Dr. Raine studied those whose lives are about to end – prisoners who are convicted of murder and are seeking evidence of mental incapacity to get away with death penalty. He measured their brain activity and discovered that many of these prisoners had abnormally low activity in pre-frontal region of their cortex. This is associated with poor social skills, which could lead to unemployment and deprivation, which could then lead to violence. In Dr. Raine’s another study, he looked at those who “might have been criminals but were not.” He found low levels of physiological arousal in young teenage boys who later on committed violent crimes. These boys were seen as antisocial by their teachers, but other children were also seen as anti-social. Likewise, Dr. Raine discovered a group of those who matched the group of boys who became criminals in age, but this group did not turn to crime. This group had significantly higher arousal levels than “protofelons.” With this, Dr. Raine concluded that arousal levels are biological, but this does not mean that biology is destiny. People can still learn to raise their arousal level (Black and White Photograph, Reports on discussions at the February 18-23, 1994).

Rehabilitative vs. Punitive Punishment

According to Verdeyen, the challenge for corrections professionals is to bring about positive change in the offenders while they the latter are being incarcerated. What this means is that there should be a program that would change the offender’s anti-social belief system and turn the same into a pro-social belief system. There are interventions like individual and group therapy that would help the criminals understand the nature of his self-defeating thoughts. Since there are offenders who commit violations and crimes while incarcerated, it means that the containment of offenders alone would not be enough to change the criminal behavior of a person. Hence, Verdeyen argues, there has to be an effective strategy that would offer programs during the incarceration. These correctional treatment programs may work to reduce recidivism.

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Each year, about 600,000 criminals are released. Of these criminals, about 70% are re-arrested within three years of release from prison. This might be suggestive of the idea that the rehabilitation programs that we are hearing are not really successful despite the apparent shift from considering imprisonment as punishment (punitive) to considering the same as rehabilitation (rehabilitative). Punishment would mean inflicting a penalty to an erring person; rehabilitation would mean correcting the error that there is in the person who performed a crime. The rehabilitative or therapeutic approach to crime is based on the assumptions that criminal mindset is a result of a dysfunctional family, and that rehabilitation programs could create behavioral changes. In order to have a successful rehabilitation program, there must be a knifing off from previous lifestyle, closer parole monitoring, social support, and identity shift. For example, a felon may enlist himself in the military, or marry a person. When the offender falls in love and gets married, he would no longer be going out with his old peers who are bad influence to him. When he becomes a father, he would change his old lifestyle so that he could assume the role of a good husband and a good father. Of course, it could not be demanded that the offenders released from prison be enlisted in the military or enter into marriage. But considering that the shift in perspective (from taking imprisonment as punitive to taking the same as rehabilitative) has happened many years back, the citizens could demand that there be positive results from the rehabilitation programs conducted. After all, it is through the taxpayers’ money that these programs are operating (Evans). Hence, whether or not the penalty inflicted upon an offender should be considered punitive or rehabilitative, the citizens could and should expect that the offenders are undergoing rehabilitation programs because they are paying for their rehabilitation programs.

The strongest argument in favor of rehabilitative form of penalty is the idea that criminals look at the world through a different lens because they have become victims of gross unfairness in the world. Judge Dennis Challeen of Winona District Court came to realize that punishment for the sake of punishment only did little in deterring offenders from committing crimes. For him, this sort of punishment reinforces the skewed thinking of the offenders. Because of this, Challeen started to institute in his courtroom punishments that include restitution, which would force the offenders to make things right with the community (cuttingedgelaw.com).

On another note, it could be argued that one approach towards an offender is not necessarily applicable to other offenders. It is not true that "one size fits all." Criminal behavior is multifaceted. Hence, assessment and classifications of offenders also have to be multifaceted, which would require multiplicity of techiques and tools. Areas such as criminal thinking, substance abuse, mental health, and other important areas should be considered in determining the treatment approach that should be applied to the offender. Because offenders do change, and so as the needs of institutions, the practices that are being applied should be re-evaluated to ensure that the programs are indeed helping the offenders to change (Latessa).

It would seem from the foregoing that both the environment or background and the individual choice have effects to the personality of an individual. Thus, both may be considered as factors that affect his criminality. Being a criminal is not a destiny. An individual may change his destiny even if he is in a totally unfair situation if he would desire so. The unfair situation that he is in, the maltreatment by his parents, economic problems, discrimination the community, and other societal problems shape the individual’s ways of looking at life. However, the individual still has the freedom to choose to be victimized by his unfair situation and resort to violence or leap beyond the problems that he is facing and avoid violence.

Given the fact that the individual is affected by the problems in the society, the penalty that should be inflicted upon him in case he errs should not be merely to make punish him for what he had done. Surely, the State punishes individuals in order to suppress the danger to the State, which arises from the criminality of the offender. Penalty may also be seen as an example to deter other from committing similar crimes. But we should also be more humane in punishing the offender especially because we, as a society, might have contributed to his wrongdoings. The penalty must also be seen as a form of correction or reformation of the offender.

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