Characteristics of Youth Who Commit Serious Offenses


Characteristics of youth who commit serious offenses

It is not uncommon for older children and adolescents to come into conflict with the law. But for most children, the involvement in criminal activity tends to be status-related and reflective of normal experimentation during development. Those who commit serious and repeat offenses are identifiable by their history of adversity and violations of their fundamental rights. Many will have experienced multiple forms of adversity in their families and communities. These adversities -- fetal exposure to toxins, child maltreatment, psychiatric and behavior disorders, family dysfunction, and exposure to community violence --are the key risk factors for impaired brain development, and compromised social and emotional development, and describe the common experiences of youth who commit serious offenses.


Fetal exposure to toxins.

Although genetics play a role in the development of the fetus, it is a role that is limited by the environment in which the fetal brain is developing. Prenatal exposure to toxins has neurodevelopmental outcomes that impair mental health, and that are linked with behavior disorders and criminal offending. Three groups of toxins have been linked with neurodevelopmental impairment, substance misuse, prescribed drugs, and environmental toxins (Williams & Ross, 2007). The misuse of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana through pregnancy has been associated with neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by difficulty with attention and control of impulsivity; antidepressants and anti-epileptics prescribed to pregnant women have been associated with Autistic Spectrum Disorder; and prenatal exposure to lead and PCBs (industrial pollutants that persistent in the environment and accrue in the food chain) is associated with deficits in attention and memory and with behavior problems.


The neurodevelopmental impairments associated with fetal exposure to toxins are characteristic of the childhood behavior and mental health disorders that are commonly seen among serious and persistent juvenile offenders (Eme, 2009; Gao et al, 2013; Lindberg et al, 2012). For example, there are high prevalence rates of adolescents in the juvenile justice system who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There is international consensus that ADHD is associated with dysfunctional neural networks in the brain that affect the child`s control of impulsivity, capacity to delay gratification, ability to pay attention, and social competence (Eme, 2009). The result is children who have difficulty controlling their emotions and their behavior, and who are intolerant of stress. Youth with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) are also over-represented in juvenile detention and correctional settings (Paley & Auerbach, 2010). Prenatal exposure to alcohol is associated with neural deficits that cause behavioral, social, and emotion difficulties. The resultant difficulties the child has with information processing and learning place the child at very high risk of juvenile offending and repeat offending.


Maltreatment in childhood

Child maltreatment is among the most prominent risk factors for the criminal involvement of youth (King et al, 2011; Verrecchia et al, 2011). Early and chronic maltreatment is strongly associated with alterations in the neurobiological systems that affect learning, memory, emotion regulation, social information processing, and behavior (Covell & Howe, 2009). As a result, children who are abused and neglected are at elevated risk for seriously impaired psychological, social, and behavioral development (Zielinski & Bradshaw 2006). Abuse and neglect include patterns of hostile or rejecting parenting, lack of parental involvement, and the excess use of control and punitiveness, including the use of corporal punishment.


Corporal punishment in childhood is a form of maltreatment that has been associated with increased aggression across time and culture (Covell & Howe, 2009). In fact, studies in which the etiology of criminal antisocial and violent behaviors has been examined have identified parental use of corporal punishment as a key childhood predictor of subsequent offending (Eamon & Mulder, 2005; Gershoff, 2002; Herrenkohl et al, 1997).


Antisocial and aggressive behavior, criminal behavior, and dating and partner violence are among the outcomes of childhood maltreatment (Huefner et al 2007; Kingree Phan &Thompson 2003; Wolfe et al 2004; Zielinski & Bradshaw 2006). The severity and chronicity of the maltreatment predicts the persistence of youth offending regardless of other environmental risk factors (Verrecchia et al, 2011). It is reflected also in the nature and severity of the offense. Children who kill typically have a long history of severe and multiple forms of abuse. Parricide (killing of a parent), for example, is associated with very high levels of abuse (Boots & Heide, 2006; Walsh et al, 2008). Maltreatment in childhood tends also to co-occur with psychiatric or behavior disorders that are associated with juvenile offending (King et al, 2011).


Psychiatric and behavior disorders

A consistent finding across time and culture is that youth who are labeled delinquent have high rates of psychiatric disorders (Steiner et al, 2011). The consistency of findings provides further support for the underlying neurological deficits summarized above.


Analyses show that youth in detention and correctional facilities are up to ten times more likely to suffer some form of psychosis than the general adolescent population (Fazel et al, 2008; Ikäheimo et al, 2013). And most often, youth who have committed serious offenses suffer from more than one disorder. For example, youth in juvenile detention centers in China show disruptive behavior disorders, substance abuse disorders, attention deficits, and suicidal ideation (Zhou et al, 2012a, b). A similar pattern of mental health challenges is seen in Australian youth in custody – substance abuse, depression and anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation, and impulsivity (Stathis et al, 2012). Detained male adolescents show substantial rates of disorders, most notably conduct disorder, substance abuse disorder, ADHD, anxiety, and depression regardless of race or ethnicity (Colins et al, 2010). Females in custody in particular show clinical levels of depression and suicidal ideation (Barrett et al, 2006).


Youth who are detained for serious violent crimes typically have a history of psychiatric conditions. For example, a history of psychiatric medication and hospitalization was found to be a distinguishing characteristic of youth who were convicted of an act of violence to a parent (Kennedy et al, 2010). And a study of school shooters in Finland, like those elsewhere, showed them to be categorizable as psychotic or psychopathic, or as having a history of mental health problems (Langman, 2009; Lindberg et al, 2012).


Dysfunctional family

Intimate partner violence, parental substance abuse, and parental criminality are each related to the likelihood that a child will become involved in serious criminal offending (Kearney, 2010).


Exposure to intimate partner violence is one of the strongest and most consistent correlates of a child becoming violent (Graves, 2007).What they see at home, children generalize to all their relationships – theirpeers, parents, and pets (Currie 2006; Duncan Thomas &Miller 2005; Ehrensaft et al 2003). Adolescents and adults who experienced childhood exposure to intimate partner violence show increased likelihood of perpetrating dating and marital violence and criminal offending (Ehrensaft et al 2003; Fergusson & Horwood 1998; Magdol et al 1998; O’Keefe 1998). The more severe the violence witnessed, the more severe the violence engaged in (Kennedy et al, 2010).


Many parents who are victims or perpetrators of intimate partner violence are also substance abusers. Parental substance abuse is associated with child behavior disorders most notably aggressive antisocial behaviors and substance abuse disorder (Covell & Howe, 2009). Children of substance abusing parents show high levels of fighting, teasing, irritability, and anger, and of interpersonal difficulties at school. By adolescence, children of substance abusing parents show increased aggressive, antisocial, and delinquent behaviors (Cooke et al 2004; Dunn et al 2002; VanDemark et al 2005). Many are also abusing substances themselves.


Parental criminality is a strong predictor of childhood aggression and antisocial behavior, and elevates the risk of the child coming into conflict with the law during adolescence. It is not clear whether what affects children is the poor parenting and child abuse that tend to accompany parental criminality, or the situational factors that are an inevitable concomitant of parental incarceration. Nonetheless, parental criminality has been found to be a very strong predictor children’s antisocial behaviors, mental health difficulties, and serious delinquencies (Kjellstrand & Eddy, 2011; Murray & Farrington, 2005; 2008; Murray, Loeber & Pardini, 2011).


Exposure to community violence

High levels of witnessed or directly experienced community violence are associated with youth criminality (Hucalak et al, 2010). In areas where community violence tends to be pervasive, for example South Africa and Brazil, youth are highly susceptible both to victimization and to offending (Leoshut, 2008; McLennan, 2008). Exposure to community violence erodes the young person’s sense of trust and safety; it arouses anxiety, fear, and depression, and impairs the development of healthy social relationships (Leoshut, 2008).


The situation is particularly difficult for children who live or work on the streets, and for those living in areas or conflict or war. For example, children in Brazil who are homeless and engaged in drug trafficking have experienced high rates of community violence and many have criminal records (Hucalak et al, 2010; McLennan et al, 2008). Exposure to political violence in childhood and adolescence, such as in the West Bank of Palestine, is strongly associated with psychological distress, depression, difficulty with impulse control and domestic, and school violence (Al-Krenawi et al, 2007). Each of these, in turn, is associated with youth crime.


Exposure to multiple adversities.

Adversity rarely occurs in isolation. The likelihood of a child becoming a serious juvenile offender is predictable by the number of adversities or risk factors or in the child’s early development (Whitaker Orzol &Kahn 2006). Children who are exposed to both neuropsychological and socialization risk factors are the most vulnerable to subsequent involvement in juvenile offending (Covell & Howe, 2009; Gelfand & Drew 2003; Harris Rice & Lalumiere 2001; Shonkoff & Phillips 2000). For example, analyses of juveniles aged 12 to 17 years who were convicted of crimes such as murder, assault, and armed robbery, had the decision-making and emotion regulation difficulties that are associated with neuropsychological risk factors, and the history of physical and sexual abuse that is associated with socialization risk factors (Beyer, 2006).


Since difficulties in families and communities tend to cluster, the reality is that most children who experience the risk factors for serious juvenile offending tend to be exposed to more than one or two. For example, studies of Brazilian youth with criminal records, show they not only had witnessed or experienced community violence, but also had difficulties with education (likely reflective of attention deficits), depressive symptomatology, and had a family member involved in crime (Huculak et al, 2010; McLennan et al, 2008 ). Similarly, in the United States a study of first time offending females showed them to suffer from depression, academic failure, and a history of sexual abuse (Barrett et al, 2006). And serious juvenile offenders in Finland were found to have a history of family dysfunction, academic failure, emotional and behavior disorders, and impaired neural functioning (Ikäheimo et al, 2013; Lindberg et al, 2012).


In essence, youth in detention and correctional facilities are youth who have been victimized in several ways. They are challenged by adverse rearing environments, impaired brain development, a history of maltreatment, and exposure to multiple social and environmental adversities. They are in dire need of therapeutic and rehabilitation services.






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