The Causes of Crime

Review of: Who are the Guilty?: A Study of Education and Crime. By David Abrahamsen, M.D. (Pp. 340.- 13s. 6d.) London: Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1954; and of The Roots of Crime. Edited by the late Sir Norwood East, M.D., F.R.C.P. With a foreword by the Rt. Hon. Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, G.C.V.O., Q.C., M.P. (PEp. 181+ix. 30s.) London: Butterworth and Co. Ltd. 1954.

British Medical Journal, 19 February 1955, p. 463


   "Masturbation in a boy," writes Dr. Abrahamsen, "is like playing for sexual excitement.. . . When a man starts gambling, that also begins as a sort of play. Another similarity is that in many forms of gambling as well as in masturbation the person uses his hands." The question Dr. Abrahamsen asks in his title is a pertinent one; and the implied answer - that, in so far as we do not make efforts to guard children against the effects of unsatisfactory home life and other defects of the society in which we live, we are all among the guilty-Will awaken sympathy. But he does not advance his argument by a consistent looseness of thinking, of which an example has been given above.

   The British symposium edited by Sir Norwood East has the advantage over the American cri de coeur that the authors have tried to come to grips with the problem at a realistic level. To offset the exaggerated claims, both for treatment and for prophylaxis, which are made by some psychotherapists Dr. Curran quotes the results of an American experiment. The names of 650 boys between 6 and 10 who were notified as likely to become delinquent were matched in 325 pairs by a number of characteristics,

including age, intelligence, and educational, ethnic, and social background. By a toss of a coin one member of each pair was sent for psychotherapy -anything from "big brother" guidance to formal psychoanalysis - while the other was watched as a control. The boys were followed up for an 'average of 50 months. Out of the treatment group 96 appeared in court for 264 offences; out of the control group 92 for 218 offences. When faced with these results the therapists insisted that the relationships established had their value in themselves, irrespective of their possible effect on the boys' behaviour.

   Mr. F. J. Powell, in his chapter on "The Magistrate and the Psychiatrist," estimates that mental abnormality entered into the causation of only 11 % of all cases tried at the Clerkenwell Court during a complete year (1951). This may well be an underestimate, as if psychiatric abnormality is unsuspected it will not be looked for. Nevertheless the figures lend support to the view that in most cases of the commoner crimes, such as larceny, psychological explanations will be found in ordinary rather than psychopathic mental-processes. We can be sure that the contribution which psychiatry can make to the elucidation of the causes of crime is important, but is most unlikely to be decisive.

   In his introductory chapter Sir Norwood East points out that the peak age for crime in both sexes is 13-14; the risk of criminality rapidly diminishes with age. With " finger-printable" offences, 81% of those without and 59% of those with proved previous offences had not returned to prison 14 years later. Sir Norwood concludes that "prison treatment can justly claim a considerable degree of success"; but this is a non sequitur. It can safely be claimed for "prison treatment" that while it is going on it substantially reduces the risk of crime; but, curiously enough, there appears to be no evidence at all, in a scientific sense, that imprisonment is any more successful than psychotherapy.