How Violent Offenders Are Different

Case studies suggest that violence is associated with emotional and motivational factors that are different from those of most other forms of criminality. It is hard to imagine that shoplifting, burglaries, or drug use would arise from the same situations or motivations as murder, rape, or aggravated assault. Miethe and McCorkle (1998) list a set of police descriptions of reasons for homicides and aggravated assaults in Las Vegas: fight over drug debt, fight over $20, argument about whereabouts of a firearm, victim and ex-boyfriend arguing about her talking about him to friends, one person flips off another in traffic, argument during pick-up basketball game, $400 phone bill argument. These are not as likely to motivate other forms of crime as they are to motivate violence. Dodge, Price, Bachorowski, and Newman (1990) found that hostile attribution bias, a cognitive style characterized by the tendency to see ambiguous situations and gestures as threatening, was uniquely associated with aggressive and violent acts.

Serious violent offenders differ from other offenders on many dimensions. “Profiles” of violent people characterize them as having myriad problems including mental illnesses, substance abuse, and dropping out of school (e.g., Baglivio, Jackowski, Greenwald, & Howell, 2013; Ellickson, Saner, & McGuigan, 1997). As we shall see in later chapters, studies of serious violent offenders often document severe victimization, including abuse and neglect, and very unusual family circumstances. For example, Howard and Jenson (1999) discuss the story of Mary Bell, an 11-year-old girl who killed two toddlers and was vilified in the press. Later it was revealed that she had been exposed to brutal abuse. Chaiken et al. (1994) suggest that persistently violent individuals often begin a pattern of destructive behavior in early childhood. Pulkkinen (1987) reports that committing violence during the teenage years was significantly associated with five different measures of aggression taken six years earlier; committing theft was only associated with two of them. Miethe and McCorkle (1998) characterize violent offenders as typically male, African American, aged 15-34, city residents with low income, a prior arrest record, a family history of abuse or neglect, who commit crime in a spontaneous “heat of passion” manner. By contrast, the profile for burglary offenders characterizes them as white males under the age of 25 with prior criminal records, sometimes committing the crime for thrill-seeking but mostly for need of money.

Though psychologists do use general diagnostic categories, such as conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder, psychologists who are specifically interested in physical aggression and violence and concomitant emotions and cognitions such as anger, frustration, and hostile attribution bias, are legion.

They attribute most aggression to frustration or aversive stimuli (Felson, 2009). Their work suggests that aversive stimuli lead to negative affective states associated with reactive aggression (Felson, 2009). The fact that aversive stimuli often lead to anger, and anger often leads to lashing out against other people, implies a set of psychological mechanisms handed down through evolutionary history. Lorenz’s (1963) accounts of the value of various types of fighting, such as interspecies fighting, self-defense, and the “critical reaction” (p. 25), have much to do with violent behavior and nothing much to do with stealing or drug use. Similarly, Fromm’s (1973) discussion of “human destructiveness,” predation, territoriality and dominance, and widespread cruelty across many cultures clearly applies to one and not as much to the other. Berkowitz (1993) emphasizes negative affect and cognition-mediated emotional experience which are more obviously associated with violent behavior than with stealing.

Those who work with or know offenders often note differences between the seriously violent and other offenders. Blackburn and colleagues observe, “Perhaps more so than other institutionalized delinquents, incarcerated delinquents with violent tendencies often enter state institutions with multiple problems ranging from substance abuse, to mental illness, to stress brought on by traumatic life events” (Blackburn, Mullings, Marquart, and Trulson, 2007, p. 36). Although behavioral outcomes are contingent on situational factors, Chaiken et al. (1994) reason that “certain biological, psychological, and social characteristics of individuals dramatically increase or decrease the probability that they will engage in specific forms of behavior” (p. 218) such as violence. They acknowledge that practitioners are not as likely to identify dangerously violent persons as accurately as the persons who know them, such as their family, peers, or teachers. If you have ever been close to a violent person, you are not likely to agree that any offender is similarly likely to commit a violent offense.

A variety of specialized research areas within the topic of violent crime have emerged, and the narratives that we hear from these subfields convey a distinct set of circumstances and causes. For example, Kathleen Heide specializes in parricide. She suggests that children who murder their own parents are often living in isolated families, subject to severe abuse and neglect, and their parents are frequently alcoholic (Heide, 1992). Their profoundly pathological circumstances push them beyond their limits to cope, so much so that they often experience a dissociative state when they commit the murder. Although we would expect these children to commit other types of crime, these distinct circumstances are probably better predictors of severe violence than the laundry list of risk factors discussed above.

La Taillade and Jacobson (1997) review research on men who batter their wives. Risk factors for battering include witnessing violence as a child, abusing alcohol, low income, low educational attainment, and having problems communicating. Batterers who are violent outside the family have been found to have been more severely abused as children and to have witnessed more parental violence; these individuals are likely to commit violence in response to numerous, nonrelationship-specific events and have high substance abuse. Family-only assaultive partners have been found to have concerns about abandonment related to their partner’s independence (La Taillade & Jacobson, 1997). Research on batterers, emphasizing cognitions leading to violent thoughts, jealousy and paranoia, has little in common with hypotheses in the general field of juvenile delinquency where more ordinary factors such as broken families and large family size have been emphasized.

Schechter (2003) characterizes serial killers as mostly single, white males who are intelligent. But he notes they are from “deeply troubled” (p. 22) families, typically abandoned at an early age by their fathers, and suffering significant, often brutal psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse. These circumstances, he proposes, have led to profound resentment, humiliation, and helplessness which manifest in early psychiatric problems and lead to an obsession with deviant sexuality. Mothers who commit neonaticide are sometimes women who have concealed a pregnancy, often out of fear of the reactions of family members; women who kill older children are often perceived as severely mentally ill by those around them (Meyer & Oberman, 2001). Again, these narratives are very specific to violence and simply would not apply to property crime.

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