Adding Dennis the Menace to the crime bank


in Law, Politics, Security

Apparently, Scotland Yard wants schools to collect DNA samples from five year old children who “exhibit behaviour indicating they may become criminals in later life.” While there are plenty of reasons for opposing the Orwellian scheme, the more interesting implication is that the police think they can anticipate criminality in adulthood on the basis of the behaviour of five year olds. If so, to what extent can we consider a predisposition towards criminal behaviour to be a manifestation of an individual’s choices? The premise behind our justice system is that people generally commit crimes as an act of will, and it is the wilful disobedience of law that is being punished. If the police believe that crime can largely predicted on the basis of problematic behaviour beginning in childhood, it calls into question the overall validity of our concept of what crime and criminals are.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan March 18, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Bruce Schneier also has a post on this: The Continuing Slide Towards Thoughtcrime

Sarah March 18, 2008 at 9:30 pm

Our ability to predict criminal behaviour at an individual level is essentially non-existent: the record shows that social workers and psychologists working in criminal justice systems are less successful at predicting who will re-offend than just using chance (given overall reoffending figures). Further, these schemes rely on the statistics regarding which groups of people are most likely to be convicted of what offenses at present – NOT figures regarding actual criminal behaviour (because they don’t have that information). This means that existing biases in enforcement eg. focusing on racial minorities or on those living in poor neighbourhoods, are continually reinforced.
All in all, there is no possible justification for this as a measure to reduce crime or to produce a safer, more equitable society. What it would do is to further stigmatise kids in disadvantaged communities and significantly increase the powers of the police to collect data which they have shown themselves incapable of managing and using in an effective, or even a LEGAL, manner.

R.K. March 18, 2008 at 10:20 pm

Given the British government’s atrocious record on information security, the list of ‘criminal children’ is sure to end up online before long.

Emily Horn March 18, 2008 at 10:31 pm

That is an absurd form of discrimination. Also, a lazy and ineffective way of dealing with troubled children and adults. Just ‘giving up’ on them, and then waiting for them to offend is an insane form of ‘prevention.’

It goes without saying that embracing determinism in a legal context also undermines the basic assumptions that concepts like ‘liberty’ operate under.

In fact, a democracy can’t possibly work under the conditions that the state implies its under, namely one with individuals that are driven largely by biological inclinations, unable to make reasonable decisions to better their lives.

I’d say it’s a fairly clear warning sign of an ailing democracy if the state gives up on the reasoning and decision-making capabilities of its citizens.

tristan March 18, 2008 at 11:16 pm

For the purposes of police investigation, it makes no difference whether the predisposition someone has means they are not criminally responsible. Their job is to apprehend the assailant, it is the courts job to determine whether the assailant a) is this guy, b) is culpable.

Milan March 18, 2008 at 11:31 pm


Police in the UK are already way beyond that. If they arrest you for anything, even if you are never charged, they take your DNA and keep it indefinitely.

Mark March 19, 2008 at 11:03 am


While I think this proposal is a terrible idea, I wouldn’t be so quick to state that “democracy can’t possibly work … with individuals that are driven largely by biological inclinations”.
The more we learn about neuroscience, the harder it becomes to defend traditional notions of free will. At some point society is going to have to face up to these issues. It is possible to defend traditional notions of morality even in the absence of free will, and I think we need to start thinking about these issues lest some scientific discovery completely remove the logical basis of our justice system.

Have a look at:

tristan March 19, 2008 at 2:06 pm

If you look at the human being as the kind of thing you can understand by assuming the truth of scientific laws, it will appear causal. This isn’t something new in neuroscience, it’s something Kant knew. It’s obvious. Stop thinking any thing new is going on with the relation of human freedom and science.

Human freedom exists in the fact that assuming the truth of scientific laws, and assuming their universally applicability isn’t something we know, it’s just something that works, that let’s us build better cell phones.

Anyone who believes in determinism is lying. It’s impossible to believe in it – belief requires spontaneous thought. I can’t prove we “are” free. This is a silly question. What philosophers answer is the question “what does it mean to say you are free”. And we have lots of answers to that, none of which people who assume science is eternal universal truth can understand.

Milan March 20, 2008 at 8:54 am
Emily Horn March 20, 2008 at 8:19 pm

re: The more we learn about neuroscience, the harder it becomes to defend traditional notions of free will. At some point society is going to have to face up to these issues.

I can’t disagree that scientific discoveries are proving that we are driven by biology and genetics more than we believed before. It’s not a welcome idea that my perceived decisions are not decisions at all, but just more dominoes in a chain reaction that began before my birth, but it’s something worth serious consideration.

However, accepting determinism in scientific thought, and accepting determinism in politics seem to me to be two largely different steps.
It seems far more dangerous in the latter. It seems wise to continue to operate under the assumption that we do have free will until science can prove readily that we don’t, instead of parceling off our freedoms with every instance of neuroscientific theory (as is the case with the DNA sampling).

Emily Horn March 20, 2008 at 8:20 pm

I should say every ‘new neuroscientific discovery’

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