Early Neuropsychological Impairments Increase Risk of Antisocial and Criminal Behavior
Masters Demonstration Project
School of Criminal Justice
University of Cincinnati
Originally Written: 15 October 2014
Research conducted over the past couple of decades has repeatedly illustrated the link between the brain and behavioral disorders, between genetic variation and antisocial behavioral patterns, and the interplay between biological characteristics and environmental influences in understanding and explaining human behavior (Beaver, 2009). Interestingly, criminological literature incorporating or examining such discoveries from other scientific fields, such as psychology, psychiatry, genetics, and biology, has been largely nonexistent until recent years, with biosocial examinations of antisocial and criminal behavior only beginning to emerge (Beaver, 2009).
The primary reason further research analyzing the biological and genetic basis of behavior and differences among individuals has been stagnant lies in the ethical concerns surrounding the possible abuse of such information, much like the utilization of selective phrenology and other supposedly scientific methods that were used to establish moral hierarchies between races and sexes in the past (Hatemi & McDermott, 2011). Biosocial criminologists are quick to point out that such concerns are an overreaction. The advocating of unethical eugenic measures is not the focus of biosocial criminology, and instead experts in the field focus on the improvement of the environment in an effort to increase the likelihood of healthy biological development throughout the early stages of the life course (Rocque, Welsh, & Raine, 2012). In effect, biosocial criminology provides for the study and use of crime prevention strategies instead of reactionary criminal justice strategies (Rocque et al., 2012).
Beginning with an examination of what the field of biosocial criminology encompasses, the primary focus for this paper will be the healthy development of the brain from conception through childhood. The final section will explore policies and practices that have already been shown to reduce antisocial and criminal behaviors as a result of influences from the biological sciences before delving into recommendations on future biosocial policies and programs derived from this emerging field.
Wright and Cullen (2012) describe biosocial criminology as a paradigm instead of as a theoretical perspective; the conceptualization of such a thought requires an understanding of the notion that biosocial criminology includes theoretical perspectives that are informed by biological research. In essence, biosocial criminology can be thought of as a field of study that includes that of traditional criminological thinking, but also includes open-mindedness about, and acceptance of, the ways in which genetic factors affect individual behaviors and the subsequent expression of those factors within social settings. For example, an individual’s genetic makeup affects their body’s ability to produce or break down neurotransmitters within the brain (i.e. serotonin, dopamine, etc.), and studies of aggressive behavior have linked manifestations of aggression to abnormal levels of dopamine and serotonin (Beaver, 2009). From such an example, biosocial criminologists acknowledge that the environment alone does not create the expression of aggression within individuals, but instead the development of aggressive behavior is partially driven by biological factors in conjunction with environmental influences.
Theoretically, three generalizable elements can be identified as the foci of biosocial criminology: biological variation, ontogeny, and interaction (Wright & Cullen, 2012). Biological variation refers, simply, to the processes of evolution and the subsequent differences in genetic traits and characteristics that result between the sexes, individuals, and groups of individuals; biosocial criminologists naturally are most interested in biological variations that are found to be related to antisocial and criminal behaviors (Wright & Cullen, 2012). Ontogeny, as defined by Wright and Cullen (2012), refers to the “origins and life-course development” of individual organisms (p. 246). Finally, interaction recognizes that humans do not exist apart from the social world, and therefore operations on and interactions with the environment must also be studied.
It is important to be very specific with the definition of biological and genetic factors as opposed to environmental influences when discussing biosocial criminology: biological factors are used to delineate genetic and physiological processes that occur within the individual, whereas environmental influences are those factors that affect individuals from outside the body (Beaver, 2009). This distinction becomes blurred when external influences are also biological in nature, such as the effects of alcohol or tobacco use by a pregnant mother on her developing child (Beaver, 2009).
Also of extreme importance is the role of gene-environment interplay, which is the concept of how variance in phenotypes, or the observable characteristics of an individual that result from the interaction of one’s genotype (i.e. genetic composition) and one’s environment, is created; there are three primary ways in which gene-environment interactions may be classified, which are gene X environment interactions (GxE), gene X environment correlations (rGE), and epigenetics (Beaver, 2009). At its simplest, gene X environment interactions refer to the presence and/or absence of a genetic risk and an environmental risk, with exposure to both greatly increasing the risk of a specified behavioral outcome (Beaver, 2009). Gene X environment correlations, on the other hand, refer to the processes in which the genotype affects the environment, albeit indirectly; this phenomenon is most easily understood with an example, such as a child being born with conduct disorder (CD) who evokes harsh forms of discipline from his/her parents and rejection by their peers (Beaver, 2009). Such an interaction of genetic differences evoking social reactions would be an example of one type of gene X environment correlation. Finally, epigenetics refers to the ways in which the epigenome, or chemical markers situated along strands of DNA, affect biological processes through the expression or non-expression of genes and how such expression is affected by environmental influences; put another way, epigenetic alterations occur when genes are turned “on” or “off” by environmental factors (Beaver, 2009).
Although the information covered above is brief, it sets the stage for understanding that many factors affect behavior through biological processes and environmental influences. Such recognition is the basis for biosocial criminology, and provides an illustrative foundation from which to delve further into how variation in a single component of the human body, the brain, greatly influences and affects behavioral outcomes.
Much of the biosocial criminology literature is derived from studies incorporating methods used by behavioral geneticists, such as twin-based research studies, adoption studies, and family studies (Beaver, 2009). In addition, technological advancements have made it possible to study the brain in ways never before thought possible. For example, Raine (2013) was the first criminologist to utilize brain-imaging technology to study the structural and functional differences in the brain, analyzing a sample of forty-one murderers in California in 1994 in his groundbreaking study. Using positron-emission tomography (PET) scans, Raine was able to measure metabolic activity in various regions of the brain simultaneously, with higher rates of metabolic processes occurring in those regions of the brain that were most active during the cognitive tasks assigned (Raine, 2013). Using a matched sample of controls, Raine (2013) discovered that murderers showed similar levels of metabolic activity to the controls in the occipital cortex (i.e., their vision was working perfectly) and significantly lower levels of metabolic activity in the prefrontal cortex after performing the cognitive tasks; in other words, the murderers’ prefrontal cortices were functioning poorly.
Other neuroimaging techniques have also been utilized to study the brain functions and structural composition of psychopaths and non-psychopaths, yielding interesting results. For instance, examining the limbic system in psychopaths and comparing to non-psychopathic controls, functional magnetic-resonance imaging scans (fMRIs) detected both structural and functional differences between the experimental and control groups; specifically, activity within the amygdala and hippocampus was reduced in the psychopath group, as was the volume of the amygdala reduced by seventeen to nineteen percent (Beaver, 2009).
Generally speaking, neuroimaging techniques provide most of the basis for recognizing the relationship between structural and functional differences in the brains of individuals who exhibit antisocial or criminal behaviors and the manifestation of such behaviors. Twin-based research and adoption and family studies have provided a wealth of information surrounding the identification of a heritable component to behaviors, as well as identifying the interplay between genetic predispositions and environmental influences (Beaver, 2009). In fact, behavioral genetics research, which is generally comprised of statistically comparing the relative effects of both genetic and environmental influences in twin-based research designs, is one of the primary areas of research from which much of the known information surrounding biological and environmental interactions and their correlates with human behavior has emerged (Tibbetts, 2014). It is important to note that no single research methodology exists when considering an examination of antisocial behavior through the lens of biosocial criminology, with research from multiple disciplines being incorporated into the field.
Brain Structure and Functioning: Theoretical Background
In order to understand how variations in brain structure and functioning affect behavior, it is first important to examine the structures and known functions of regions of the brain, the neurotransmitters involved in normal brain functioning, and the effect of certain neurotransmitters on behavior. Before proceeding, however, a word of caution is in order: some of the conclusions currently accepted are still preliminary, and subsequently are not well established (Wright, Tibbetts, & Daigle, 2008).
The limbic system of the brain, which is comprised of the amygdala, an almond-shaped emotion and partial memory center, and hippocampus, the primary memory center, is the section of the brain believed to be the most relevant in the formation of emotional responses and feelings related to survival (i.e. the fight or flight response) and social responses (such as jealousy and anger) (Wright, Tibbetts, & Daigle, 2008). Also of note, the hippocampus plays a key role in an individual’s ability to comprehend cause and effect relationships, and criminals have been found to lack proper functioning in the hippocampus, especially in violent offenders (Wright et al., 2008).
The pituitary is primarily responsible for releasing growth hormone during sleep states as well as important sex hormones during puberty; in conjunction with the hypothalamus, the pituitary regulates hormones that control emotional responses such as aggression (Wright, Tibbetts, & Daigle, 2008). The cingulate gyrus is the region of the brain that affects an individual’s ability to adapt and shift attention, with improper functioning resulting in an inability to handle negative emotions like anxiety or stress; the ventral tegmental region is the primary region for dopamine production, a neurotransmitter where abnormal levels of the chemical have been linked to antisocial and criminal behaviors (Wright et al., 2008).
The cerebral cortex is the largest and most evolved structure in the human brain, with the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex being the region of the brain that has been most implicated in the development of antisocial and criminal behaviors (Wright, Tibbetts, & Daigle, 2008). A healthy frontal cortex is constantly communicating with other regions of the brain, is always receiving signals about such things as emotional impulses, and is responsible for the control of emotional impulses through rational decision-making processes (Wright et al., 2008). Notably, the frontal region of the cerebral cortex stays underdeveloped throughout the teenage years, and likely explains the tendency of adolescents to engage in impulsive behavior; also important to note, individuals who experience damage to the frontal lobe display a loss of ability to properly interact with others through social norms, loss of flexibility and adaptability in thinking, much greater likelihood of the expression of violent behaviors, lowered control of emotional impulses, feelings of indifference to the consequences of their behaviors, and severe mood changes (Wright et al., 2008).
Although multiple brain structures and their associated functions affect behavior in a complex fashion, it should be clear already that abnormal functioning in any one region could significantly impact multiple aspects of behavior. Similarly, differences in brain structure between individuals can also have a significant impact. Through the use of brain-imaging techniques, samples of psychopaths in studies conducted by Raine and colleagues showed reductions in the amount of grey matter volume in the prefrontal cortex, increases in the volume of white matter in the corpus callosum, increases in length and decreases in width of the corpus callosum, and reduced volume of the amygdala (Beaver, 2009). As another example of how structural differences can be indicative of antisocial behaviors, it is interesting to note that pathological liars have increased volumes of white matter in the prefrontal cortex (Beaver, 2009).
Clearly there is a strong link between brain functioning and structural development and the subsequent association with antisocial and criminal behaviors; empirically supported findings have shown that criminals have increased activity in the limbic system of the brain, resulting in strong emotional impulses, and reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, resulting in lowered rationalization and cognitive capabilities that serve to control emotional impulses (Beaver, 2009). In short, the ability for those who exhibit antisocial and criminal behaviors to control their impulses appears to be significantly reduced compared to those who do not exhibit such tendencies.
Brain Structure and Functioning: Deficits and Abnormalities
The human brain begins to form almost immediately after conception, continuing to grow, develop, and mature throughout the pregnancy, early childhood, on into adolescence, and into early adulthood; prenatal exposure to testosterone, exposure to toxins, malnutrition, and exposure to stress have all been found to alter early brain development in utero, and have subsequently been linked to antisocial behavioral outcomes (Beaver, 2009). Rocque, Welsh, and Raine (2012) emphasize that neuropsychological or cognitive deficits in childhood are the strongest correlates of antisocial and criminal behavior, with such deficits most often manifested as difficulty with planning and long-term goal attainment, lack of organizational skills, selective attention, difficulties inhibiting emotional responses, trouble conforming to social expectations and responsibilities, an inability to delay gratification, and difficulties adjusting to societal demands. Many of the aforementioned characteristics are similar to those identified by Raine (2013) in his research on the region of the brain most widely implicated in the development of antisocial phenotypes, and especially in studies of aggression and violence: the prefrontal cortex. In fact, Raine’s (2013) examination of how impairments to the prefrontal cortex affect behavior indicates a number of characteristics that, arguably, sound exactly like the behaviors Rocque et al. (2012) illustrate as correlates of later criminal behaviors, such as loss of control over emotional responses, engagement in risk-taking and rule-breaking behaviors, impulsivity and an inability to modify and inhibit behaviors properly, immaturity, poor social judgment, lacking problem-solving skills, and the loss of intellectual flexibility.
The link between neuropsychological and cognitive impairments and the development of antisocial or criminal behaviors cannot be ignored. Impairments to physical brain structures are not the only neuropsychological deficits to be strongly implicated in antisocial or criminal behaviors, however. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, have also been repeatedly linked to a variety of antisocial behaviors. In fact, serotonin has been the most consistently implicated neurotransmitter to affect a wide range of antisocial behavioral outcomes (Wright, Tibbetts, & Daigle, 2008). Similarly, monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that assists in the regulation of levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, has also been strongly implicated in the development of antisocial phenotypes (Wright et al., 2008).
Although all causes of variances in brain structure and functioning are not known to researchers as of yet, a number of risk factors have been identified through the use of the previously mentioned research methods. Prenatal exposure to a range of toxins, an overabundance of testosterone in the womb, malnutrition, complications at birth such as anoxia (oxygen starvation), abuse and neglect during early childhood, exposure to environmental toxins during early childhood, and delays in the acquisition of language are just some of the issues identified in studies that may lead to developmental impairments or damage to brain structure and functioning (Beaver, 2009). Before addressing existing polices and practices that have been shown to positively affect behavioral outcomes, it is important to emphasize the ways in which such risk factors affect brain development.
Perhaps no other setting lends itself to identifying and studying the biological underpinnings of behavioral development than the womb. The womb and amniotic sac may be thought of as a filtration system within the female body that surrounds and protects a developing child from the hazards of the mother’s environment as well as some hazards a mother may introduce, knowingly or unknowingly, into her body (Wright, 2014). Wright (2014) emphasizes that this concept of a highly effective, highly efficient filtration system must be kept in mind when considering the potential effects of the introduction of toxins into the developing embryo’s environment (i.e. the womb); research has shown that the placenta and blood-brain barrier are remarkably effective, which aids in explaining why the behavioral outcomes associated with prenatal exposure to a number of risk factors are highly variable.
Prenatal exposure to nicotine, typically through a mother’s use of tobacco products while pregnant, has been shown to affect the growth, structure, and functioning of the brain in animal studies; these studies have found deficits in the cerebral cortex and dysfunction in the production and regulation of dopamine and serotonin to be correlated with in utero exposure to nicotine (Wright, 2014). Further, magnetic resource imaging (MRI) studies of children whose mothers smoked while pregnant discovered reductions in the volume of cortical gray matter, which is highly associated with intelligence and overall brain health (Wright, 2014). Much like prenatal exposure to nicotine, prenatal exposure to alcohol has also been linked to developmental problems in offspring. Research has consistently linked such developmental issues as hyperactivity, learning deficits, conduct disorders, delinquency, and later criminal behavior to in utero exposure to alcohol (Wright, 2014).
Other toxins may become introduced into the womb unbeknownst to the mother. Perhaps the most intensively studied example to date is the introduction of lead into the bloodstream through a pregnant mother’s contact with lead-based paints, consuming water contaminated by lead pipes, or simply living in an environment where high concentrations of lead have developed as a result of commercial and/or residential applications (e.g. prior to changes in Federal Law, lead was an additive in gasoline and became widely distributed as a pollutant). Lead mimics an ion of calcium, resulting in the inability for the body to distinguish between particles of lead and calcium and, therefore, leading to the storage of lead in bones (Wright, 2014); the storage of lead in a pregnant woman’s bones becomes especially problematic as a result of the calcium needs of a fetus during the first trimester to form the skeletal system and for other neurological functioning, as some of the calcium is supplied from the soft areas of the mother’s bones and, if present, lead will also be passed to the fetus (Wright, 2014). Studies have shown that prenatal and postnatal exposure to lead is associated with a range of developmental problems, including lowered IQ, hearing and vision problems, difficulties with self-regulation, and deficits in fine and gross motor skills (Wright, 2014).
It is clearly apparent that prenatal and perinatal exposure to an array of biological risk factors is associated with a host of maladaptive behavioral outcomes, but it should also be emphasized that birth complications, the introduction of toxins during early childhood development, malnutrition, and especially childhood exposure to abuse and neglect are also highly correlated with the development of later antisocial behaviors and, in many instances, criminal outcomes (Beaver, 2009). Due to the relative infancy of contemporary biosocial criminology, however, much research must still be conducted to determine to what extent exposure to the aforementioned risk factors, as well as the multitude of potential additional risk factors yet unidentified that may be introduced through legal and illicit drugs, commercial chemicals, industrial pollutants, and other developments of modern society, impact brain development and functioning either directly (i.e. absorption into the bloodstream) or indirectly (i.e. affecting the expression of genes).
Applying Methods of Crime Prevention From the Biosocial Perspective
Rocque, Welsh, and Raine (2012) identify developmental prevention, which refers to the use of protective factors and the targeting of risk factors shown to affect human development through strategic intervention, as the newest and most relevant form of crime prevention when utilizing a biosocial approach. Family-centered, preschool and school-based, and nutritional programs have all been shown to help reduce antisocial and criminal behaviors in studies, though it is important to note that the earlier in the life course the intervention occurs the greater the likelihood of a positive outcome (Rocque et al.,2012).
As an example, the Nursing Family Partnership Program combines education with prenatal and perinatal care for impoverished, unmarried mothers, and has repeatedly shown positive results with regard to lower instances of abuse or neglect of the children born to the participants, as well as lowered incidents of risk-seeking or impulsive behaviors among said children (Wright & Boisvert, 2009). Expanding the scope of such a program to provide consistent, quality prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal care for mothers, healthcare for children until they enter the school system, and continuing to educate parents about those risk factors within the realm of their control while simultaneously educating the public about the dangers of environmental pollutants, toxins, and other substances that affect humans at the biological level, and especially during the early stages of embryonic development and early childhood, can substantially affect the prevalence of antisocial and criminal behaviors in future generations. In essence, the focus of a healthy society must start with a focus on ensuring the members of said society are also healthy.
Beaver (2009) summarized the concept succinctly: behavioral problems tend to emerge during childhood, prevention programs targeting youth reduce the likelihood of antisocial and criminal behaviors developing in youth, and prevention programs show greater effectiveness in reducing incidents of antisocial and criminal behaviors in chronic offenders compared to intervention or rehabilitation programs. Barnes (2014) also emphasizes the need for biosocial perspectives in crime prevention, noting that biosocial criminology provides a more thorough, in-depth look at how the mind, body, and environment interact to produce behavioral outcomes, and that it is far easier to manipulate and change environmental factors to influence outcomes than to attempt to manipulate genetic variables. Three primary foci are subsequently described as implications for policies and practices informed by biosocial perspectives: the elimination of toxins from the environment, improving pre-, peri-, and postnatal care, and the use of targeted interventions for high-risk individuals (Barnes, 2014).
A Note on Existing Policies and Practices
The usefulness of crime prevention strategies are underscored by the premise that crime response strategies, or the identification of and response to at-risk individuals after criminal behaviors have developed, represent missed opportunities that should be viewed through the lens of public health instead of criminal justice (Rocque, Welsh, & Raine, 2012). The classification of crime prevention strategies, therefore, fall into four general categories: developmental prevention, or targeting risk and protective factors discovered to affect human development; community prevention, or targeting social conditions and institutions that influence the development of offending behaviors; situational prevention, or targeting factors that influence opportunities to engage in criminal behaviors; and criminal justice prevention, which includes traditional incapacitative and rehabilitative strategies operated by criminal justice agencies (Rocque et al., 2012).
Among existing programs, the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) provides an example of the most well-known and studied health and nutrition program targeting pregnant women currently in operation. The program specifically targets those women who are in disadvantaged socioeconomic positions who are pregnant, and primarily relies on educating expectant mothers on topics ranging from proper prenatal and postnatal childcare, proper nutrition, and advice on avoiding toxins such as alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy (Rocque, Welsh, & Raine, 2012). Results of early trials showed significant improvements in decreasing instances of physical abuse and neglect of children by mothers participating in the program (29% of those participating were identified as perpetrators of such abuse or neglect, compared to 54% of the control group); also, in follow-ups at the age of fifteen with the children of those mothers who participated, incidents of violent or other major criminal acts were significantly lower than the children of those mothers in the control group (mean of 3.02 compared to 3.57) (Rocque et al., 2012). In another follow-up at age 19, girls born to participating mothers also had significantly fewer children of their own and less use of public welfare services, though limited effects of the program were observed in the boys born to participating mothers (Rocque et al., 2012).
Preschool and school-based programs, such as the Perry Preschool project in Michigan, targeted children in impoverished households and aimed to provide intellectual stimulation, increase analytical abilities, and increase later scholastic achievement (Rocque, Welsh, & Raine, 2012). In follow-up studies the program was shown to produce positive long-term benefits by the age of 19, with the experimental group participants being more likely to be employed, to have graduated from high school, to have attended collegiate or vocational training, and to be less likely to have been arrested (Rocque et al., 2012). Also of note, the latest follow-up of the participants, at age 40, showed that the experimental group had significantly fewer lifetime arrests for all crime types, significantly higher levels of educational achievement, better records of employment, and higher annual incomes than those in the control group (Rocque et al., 2012).
Nutritional effects on cognitive development have been studied for decades, and an ever-increasing body of research has demonstrated links between nutrition and cognitive deficits, brain functioning, and crime (Rocque, Welsh, & Raine, 2012). In fact, a study by Schoenthaler in 1983 (in Rocque et al., 2012) found that removing unhealthy foods from the diets of incarcerated youth significantly decreased incidents of antisocial behavior. Recently, the link between nutritional deficits and antisocial behaviors has been reexamined, with researchers discovering that Omega-3 fish oil, and more specifically Docosahexaenoc Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), can improve neurite outgrowth in the brain which, subsequently, results in larger dendritic branching and neuron development; in sum, these effects have demonstrated improved behavior and decreased aggression in experimental studies of the general population, with diets including seafood in pregnant mothers also being associated with higher cognitive functioning and reductions in antisocial behaviors in their offspring (Rocque et al., 2012).
Taken together, the above examples provide a basic framework for recommending new policies and practices aimed at addressing crime prevention from the perspective of public health instead of solely through the reactionary lens of the criminal justice system. It is important to note, however, that crime prevention alone is not a viable strategy, and the recommendations should be viewed as an augment to existing policies and practices in an effort to curb antisocial and delinquent behaviors from manifesting, with existing criminal justice policies and practices taking over in instances where prevention strategies fall short.
Recommendations for Policies and Practices
Societal health begins with the healthiness, or unhealthiness, of the individual members of that society. When examining crime and antisocial or delinquent behaviors, traditional criminological perspectives focus primarily on social programs and institutions due, primarily, to the social perception and definition of such behaviors. In reality, however, biosocial perspectives help illuminate the link between biological influences and social and environmental influences, which in turn drives the realization that viewing crime as a response to a multitude of risk factors, much like a doctor examining the conditions and risk factors promoting the spread of disease in a region, is more appropriate than viewing crime itself as the variable to be controlled or manipulated. A multi-faceted approach, therefore, is recommended when examining the potential for new policies and practices designed to address crime, especially when taking into account the summarized findings presented herein.
The SHIELD Program
For the purposes of discussion, the following recommendations for policies and practices to be implemented can be thought of as the four key components of a single program designed to strategically target crime and the development of delinquent or antisocial behaviors through an informed, biosocial and neuropsychological developmental prevention strategy. For simplicity, these recommendations will be referred to as the foundations of a new Societal Health and Involved Educational and Locational Development (SHIELD) Program.
Building on the research summarized previously, and the success of educational initiatives like the Nurse-Family Partnership, the first component of the SHIELD Program focuses on educating individuals on the genetic and environmental influences, along with risk and protective factors, that have been shown to impact behavior and human development. Although broad in scope, the educational component should be implemented through a combination of existing institutions and services, with material targeted at the individuals seeking said services. Expectant mothers, which would include couples attempting to conceive as well as individuals and/or couples in the early stages of pregnancy, should be educated about the effects of tobacco and alcohol use, environmental exposure to pesticides and other commonly used commercial chemicals, potential exposure to lead based on their environmental conditions, and other such toxins that have been shown to affect the developing fetus. Similarly, public marketing campaigns that encourage all individuals to seek out additional information about the impact of such toxins on neuropsychological development by speaking with healthcare professionals should be implemented, highlighting the need for understanding how such toxins may affect children from birth through adolescence. In addition to attempting to educate the entire population through mass marketing materials and programs, the institution of additional educational material in high school level biology classes that expose youth to the concepts of behavioral genetics will raise awareness of and receptivity to the educational component of the SHIELD Program as they age and mature.
At the elementary and middle school levels, however, the implementation of more intellectually stimulating assignments and projects throughout the peak developmental years can help provide long-term benefits to those youth who may have already been exposed to biological risk factors, as evidenced by the success of the Perry Preschool Project. In essence, removing the emphasis on standardized testing and supplementing core educational material with creative, analytical, and challenging projects and assignments increases the likelihood of encouraging greater growth and repair of potential neuropsychological deficits that may exist as a result of developmental impairments.
Coupled with educational guidance for society as a whole, targeted guidance for expectant mothers and couples attempting to conceive, general educational understanding and awareness for youth becoming adults, and targeted intellectual stimulation for children and adolescents, nutritional education and assistance becomes the second core component of the SHIELD Program. Although the educational component would be included in the aforementioned general educational component of the program, the inclusion of an expanded nutritional assistance program is semi-new territory. Modeled after the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Food and Nutrition Service, the nutritional assistance component of the SHIELD Program should target the distribution of nutritional supplements, such as Omega-3 fish oils, and vitamins to specific subsets of the population. Expectant mothers and couples attempting to conceive should receive prenatal vitamins and any recommended dietary supplements, at no cost, through healthcare professionals. Infants and children should receive multivitamins and recommended supplements until they begin to go through puberty, at which point the healthcare system should provide individualized nutritional counseling and recommendations for each adolescent to understand and follow, or not follow, at their own discretion.
Similar to the nutritional component outlined above, providing no-cost pre-, peri-, and postnatal care to all mothers, regardless of socioeconomic status or demographic variables, becomes the third core component of the SHIELD Program. Modeled after the success of the Nurse-Family Partnership, the expansion of the core ideas to all mothers allows this component to be the primary method of educational and nutritional component delivery of the SHIELD Program while simultaneously providing needed healthcare services during, and immediately following, pregnancy. Of all of the outlined recommendations, the enhanced pre-, peri-, and postnatal care component provides the most significant, and potentially the most effective, step in lowering the risks of neuropsychological deficits or abnormalities from forming in the developing child.
The final, and perhaps most difficult component of the SHIELD Program is the identification and neutralization of environmental toxins, and the restoration of contaminated environments. Recognizing that numerous substances, such as lead and commercially used chemicals, affect human development, the need for detecting and neutralizing the effects of such substances is paramount in creating a well-rounded crime prevention strategy based on reducing the risks associated with developmental impairments in humans. Restoration efforts should begin condemning locations identified as contaminated, barring new individuals from establishing a presence in such zones and offering relocation assistance to existing residents. Subsequently, once a location becomes vacant, the Environmental Protection Agency should oversee efforts to restore the location, while working with local contractors to reestablish housing and other communal buildings and properties in the newly decontaminated areas.
In essence, the SHIELD Program is designed to educate the entire population on the dangers posed to humans from environmental and genetic influences from conception through early childhood, target pregnant mothers and conceiving couples to provide educational and nutritional assistance, target pregnant mothers and children from birth through adolescence in the provision of needed nutritional assistance and healthcare, target children from preschool through primary and secondary school in providing intellectually stimulating and enriching content to attempt to combat neuropsychological deficits and genetic risk factors affecting brain functioning or structure, expose high school students to biosocial risk and protective factors through education, and work to ameliorate the effects of environmental contamination.
Costs, Benefits, and Assessment
Due to the heavy emphasis on education and awareness, most of the costs incurred by the SHIELD Program would arise from the nutritional assistance, provision of needed healthcare, and environmental remediation components of the program. Estimates of the cost of criminal offenses in the United States in 2007 were placed at $15 billion in economic losses to victims and $179 billion in government expenditures (McCollister, French, & Fang, 2010). Although the number for government expenditures includes the costs of operating the criminal justice system, reductions in crime would result in the redirection of funds from programs and institutions that would be no longer necessary into the SHIELD Program.
The benefits of lowering crime and increasing the healthiness of society cannot be overstated. Reducing incidents of aggressive behavior and reliance on federally run social welfare programs, and subsequently redirecting available funds to the SHIELD Program as needed, should significantly reduce the overall expense to society while simultaneously creating a healthier, safer environment for future generations. Economically, the bulk of the cost would arise from environmental restoration efforts, though the benefits of providing healthy, safe environments for continued generations of families to reside should not be taken lightly. It is recommended that a full cost-benefit analysis be undertaken prior to implementing the SHIELD Program, with open discourse on the provisions herein providing guidance in the development of an implementation strategy for each individual component over the span of five years.
In order to gauge the success or failure of the SHIELD Program, multiple measures must be utilized. Prior to implementing any component, required participation and categorization of detected criminal offenses with Unified Crime Reports must be unanimous across all law enforcement agencies. In addition, all healthcare systems must implement basic behavioral and risk assessments for all patients, with follow-up assessments performed every five years. Ethical concerns should dictate that all identifying information of these assessments be destroyed once coded into a unified reporting system, with compiled data providing snapshots of the presence or absence of risk factors in the population over time.
Unfortunately, no direct measures of success or failure are easily provided, though the use of self-reported crime and victimization surveys should continue to provide reasonable estimates of whether the SHIELD Program is effective over a five to ten year span.
Utilizing a multifaceted approach to target protective factors in neuropsychological and developmental health, in addition to increasing public awareness of biosocial influences on behavior, are the core components of the policy recommendations outlined herein as the basis for the proposed SHIELD Program. Building such a strategic, focused program draws heavily on concepts shown to be successful through existing programs, like the Nurse-Family Partnership and Perry Preschool project, while simultaneously taking into account findings from studies in behavioral genetics, psychology, education, and criminology. In addition, the recommendations outlined in the proposed SHIELD Program align with the three primary ways in which biosocial risk factors are able to be targeted by preventive strategies according to Beaver (2009): the education of parents, and especially pregnant mothers, about the importance of a healthy pregnancy, the provision of adequate prenatal healthcare for parents, and the provision of postnatal education and support of new parents in understanding the risk and protective factors identified as influential during early childhood development. Similarly, the components of the SHIELD Program align with the policy implications suggested by Barnes (2014): the elimination of environmental toxins, such as lead, the improvement of pre-, peri-, and postnatal care for children, and targeted interventions for high-risk individuals through school-based educational programs.
The first step in preventing crime is to address the underlying biological and environmental influences that cause deficits or abnormalities in brain structure and function. Given that the earlier in the life course the intervention occurs the more likely the success of the intervention, the SHIELD Program is designed to begin with the very first stages of human development. Although the initial costs of the program may be high, the long-term health of society as a whole relies on the successful implementation of efforts to reduce the development of antisocial and delinquent behaviors that lead to criminality. In short, societal health must begin with ensuring the healthy development of the members of society.
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