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Grant M. Scheiner - Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer

Is there a biological basis to crime?

Recent advances in science may change the way we look at criminals and the underlying reasons for their behavior. Specifically, advances in neurology and brain scanning have revealed that because of brain function and chemistry, some people are far more likely to engage in criminal behavior. While researchers agree that there is still a strong social and environmental cause for criminal behavior, they argue that biology cannot be overlooked.

Recently on NPR, a researcher named Adrinane Raine discussed his work conducting brain imaging scans of convicted murderers (listen to the program here). Raine found that in many murderers – particularly those that killed impulsively – there was far less activity in the brain’s frontal lobe. Raine says this is important because the frontal lobe is involved in planning, organizing and impulse control.

Raine also discussed other factors that can impact brain functioning and make a person more prone to crime. For example, he attributed the rise in violent crime in the 70s, 80s and 90s to lead in the environment when the criminals were young:

“In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, violence went up in America. What was causing that? Well, one hypothesis: It was the increase in environmental lead in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. You know, lead in gas, for example. So, in the 1950s, little toddlers were playing outside, putting their fingers in dirt, putting their fingers in their mouths and absorbing the lead. Twenty years later, they became the next generation of violent criminal offenders because violence peaks at about 19 or 20. Then what happens is in the 1990s violence begins to come down, as it’s been doing. What’s partly explaining that? The reduction in lead in the environment. In fact, if you map environmental lead levels over time like that and map it onto the change in violence over time, lead can explain 91 percent of those changes. And to me, it’s the only single cause that can both explain the precipitous rise in violence from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and also the drop that we’ve been experiencing.”

This field’s implications on the criminal justice system are still unknown. David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine has convincingly argued for “customized” sentencing and treatment based on a person’s brain chemistry and function (Eagleman’s fascinating article in the Atlantic Monthly can be found here).