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Are Criminals Born or Made?

Forensic scientists are discovering that DNA and "genetic markers" can predict who will--or will--turn to a life of crime. If this is true, it portends a frightening future where we give infants DNA swabs, then decide whether to watch them (or even incarcerate them) for the rest of their lives. Since more black men are jailed in the US than men of any other race, this is especially troubling for African-Americans.

In the June 20th edition of the New York Times, Patricia Cohen reminds us that 20 years ago the National Institutes of Health withdrew funds for a study of genetics and crime in the wake of allegations that such research was "a blatant form of stereotyping and racism." But now 100 studies have shown that genes DO play a role in crimes. Cohen quotes researcher John H. Laub as saying, "Very good methodological advances have meant that a wide range of genetic work is being done." But researchers don't think that genes alone are responsible--most feel that they are strongly influenced by environment. Cohen quotes behavioral scientist Terrie E. Moffitt as saying, "Throughout the past 30 or 40 years most criminologists couldn't say the word 'genetics' without spitting. Today the most compelling modern theories of crime and violence weave social and biological themes together."

Meanwhile, crime rates are BOTH up and down, depending on where you look. The recent FBI announcement that violent crime in the US reached a 40-year low in 2010 had criminologists scratching their heads, since so many people are jobless, and it's always been assumed that there is a link between unemployment and crime. But statistics don't bear out this theory: In the 1960s, during a period of rising crime, there was the same unemployment rate as the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period when the crime rate fell. And during the Great Depression, when 25% of the workforce was unemployed, the crime rate in many cities went down. And crime is way UP in China, where "officially" it hardly exists and where the economy is booming.

One possible reason for the falling crime rate is that so many of the people who are likely to commit crimes are already in prison. Also, potential victims may have become better at protecting themselves by equipping their homes with burglar alarms and locks and moving into safer buildings and neighborhoods. Policing has become more effective, as cops work to identify and keep an eye on potential criminals before they strike. In most cities, their goal is now to reduce crime, rather than simply to maximize the number of arrests. Another theory has to do with the decrease in heavy cocaine use in many states, meaning that fewer addicts are stealing and mugging people in order to get their "fix."

Lead has been linked to lack of self-control and the amount of lead in Americans' blood fell by four-fifths between 1975 and 1991 due to the banning of lead paint and the cleaning up of power plant emissions in many cities. Some of the theories might make us uneasy. For instance, one explanation for the reduction in black crime could be the legalization of abortion, which resultes in black children never being born into circumstances that would make them likely to become criminals. It could also be due to the fact that the US population is getting older, and people's moral responses to similar situations change as they age--They get BETTER. As the brain matures, it becomes better equipped to make reasoned judgments and integrate an understanding of the mental states of others with the outcome of their actions. Adults are much less likely than children to think someone should be punished for damaging an object, especially if the action was accidental.

But while crime is down in the US, it is up in China, despite the fact that much of it is not acknowledged or reported. In the May 28-29 edition of the Wall Street Journal, James T. Areddy quotes sociologist Steven F. Messner as saying, "In the era of Mao, China was known as a virtually crime-free society." China's national crime statistics show a sharp rise over the past decade, particularly non-violent crimes like bicycle theft and purse snatching. But as in the US, the official numbers also point to steep declines in violent crime, with the murder rate dropping by half between 2000 and 2009. However, just as in countries like Mexico, the newly-rich are worried about kidnapping and often drive bullet-proof Land Rovers and hire kung fu masters as bodyguards.

Here's what we think is a REAL crime: The number of people who come to our website every day and listen to our incredible radio shows but who can't be bothered to support us! Has it never occurred to those of you who do this (is this YOU?) that we're can't be here to tomorrow if we don't get more support? So leave that life of crime and subscribe today--it's a great feeling to be a "good guy" and it doesn't cost much--less than a latte a WEEK!



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