Genes Allegedly Linked to Criminal Behavior

According to new research recently published in the journal Criminology, genes may be a strong predictor of whether a person becomes a career criminal.

The research was conducted by University of Texas at Dallas criminologist J.C. Barnes and set out to analyze the genetic and environmental influences on criminal traits of some 4,000 people. The scientists based their research on the 1993 theory of Duke professor Dr. Terrie Moffitt that says people fall into one of three categories: 1) life-course persistent offenders; 2) adolescent-limited offenders, who grow out of their bad behavior; and 3) law-abiding abstainers.

Moffitt believed that genetics could be an influencing factor for criminal conduct, which served as the motivation for the paper. “No one had actually considered the possibility that genetic factors could be a strong predictor of which path you end up on,” says Dr. Barnes.

“In [Moffitt’s] theory, she seems to highlight and suggest that genetic factors will play a larger role for the life-course persistent offender pathway as compared to the adolescence-limited pathway.” The researchers ultimately discovered a strong link between genes and criminality.

Barnes and his team examined data from 4,000 people drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They then compared the information using twin methodology, to establish to what extent genetic and environmental factors influenced a trait.

According to the paper, for life-course persistent offenders, genes influenced criminal behavior more than the environment. For abstainers, it was roughly an equal split: genetic factors played a large role and so too did the environment. For adolescent-limited offenders, the environment was the most important factor.

The analysis doesn’t identify the specific genes that underlie the different pathways, so you shouldn’t worry that police will start locking people up based on their DNA just yet. Researchers say there are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands of genes that all work to affect your likelihood of being involved in crime. And even then, the impact may be negligible.

Predicting criminality is a notoriously sensitive subject. Privacy groups recently hammered the Department of Homeland Security for testing a pre-crime detection program that monitored physiological measurements and used them to diagnose ‘malintent.’ Using a person’s genes to do the same thing would surely be even more controversial. Barnes said his hope is only that people read the study and take issue with it, sparking debate and raising criticisms.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.