Some studies have suggested that traumatic brain injury may play a role in criminal activity. In a new study, a researcher from the University of Nebraska at Omaha investigated the impact of head injuries on criminal persistence — that is, the likelihood that offenders will continue to break the law — in adolescents and young adults.
The findings, published in the journal Justice Quarterly, show that changes in young people with head injuries were tied to an increase in self-reported criminal activity, particularly violent crimes. In fact, head injury was found to be five to eight times more common among individuals involved with the criminal-justice system than in the general population.
“These results provide preliminary evidence that acquired neuropsychological deficits, and head injuries more directly, result in prolonged periods of criminal persistence,” said Joseph A. Schwartz, Ph.D., professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who authored the study.
Schwartz looked at data from the Pathways to Desistance study of 1,336 previously adjudicated youth from Philadelphia and Phoenix who were 14 to 19 years at the start. The youth, who were mostly male and from a range of races and ethnicities, were interviewed over seven years about criminal behavior and contact with the criminal justice system.
Nearly a fifth sustained one or more head injuries during the study and almost a third had sustained a head injury before the first interview.
Schwartz looked at the effect of changes in individuals with head injuries on trajectories of arrest and monthly reports of overall, violent, and nonviolent offending. He also considered factors such as impulse control, intelligence, pre-existing dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex, family support and socioeconomic status.
He found that head injury is five to eight times more common among individuals involved with the criminal-justice system than in the general population. He also discovered that participation in higher levels of overall and violent offending often followed a head injury.
While Schwartz notes that it is not possible to describe the link between head injury and violent offending as causal, he points to strong evidence of significant changes in trends in offending following a head injury.
A less consistent pattern was found in the association between head injury and nonviolent offending, suggesting that head injury may affect specific forms of criminal persistence. For example, youth who had a head injury were more likely to be arrested (or commit more nonviolent offenses) than those who didn’t have such an injury, but the likelihood of arrest did not increase following an injury.
Schwartz says that the findings should be interpreted with caution because he was unable to directly examine the reasons for the link between head injury and criminal persistence. In addition, the head injuries were self-reported and the study did not address the severity of these injuries.
“The impact of head injury on offending behavior is likely the result of neuropsychological deficits that compromise normative brain development,” Schwartz said. “We need more research into this critical issue, which would help us understand what sorts of treatment and intervention would work with people affected by head injuries and could contribute to reductions in overall crime.”