Lancaster University

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Criminality In The Genes ?

09/28/2007 12:40:39

Dr Mairi Levitt
Deputy Director of CESAGen Dr Mairi Levitt

The first study into how genetic factors relating to aggression may affect the criminal justice system is being released this month at a workshop in London.

The study entitled ‘Criminal’ Genes and Public Policy was conducted by Dr Mairi Levitt and Elisa Pieri at the Centre for Social and Economic Aspects of Genomics (CESAGen), Lancaster University and funded by the ESRC.

The researchers asked members of the legal profession, social workers and probation officers for their views on the potential impact of genetic research on the criminal justice system.

The professionals felt that the emphasis on aggressive and antisocial behaviour exacerbates the move towards further control and surveillance of citizens, particularly of those deemed ‘risky’ who are already over-patrolled. They were concerned about the increasing use of ASBOS which served to stigmatise behaviour.

Genetic information relating to behaviour could be slotted into existing systems of profiling and collating information on individuals, including children.

One of the solicitors said: “Isn’t there a tendency to criminalise behaviour that in the past would have been laughed off?”

A probation officer said: “People have been put on youth inclusion databases as being problem children for completely you know the most bizarre reason.”

The professionals questioned also felt that:

Intervention ought to target social factors that contribute to aggressiveness and violence even if these behaviours were shown to have a genetic component

Professionals did not see genetic research as impacting on their work. Some believed that the science had not progressed enough; some thought that genetics could never be a reliable predictor of behaviour, being only one factor among many; others saw the idea of a genetic predisposition as incompatible with the legal system (e.g. undermining the presumption of innocence)

There was wide support for early intervention through schools to help all young people to manage their emotions more effectively

Addressing inequalities and lack of opportunities was thought to be vital to tackle criminality, for example, through skills training and partnerships with employers, and by creating community facilities for young people.

Further information on the project is available at
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