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Importance of Aspects of Developmental Psychology and Their Relevance to Offending Behaviour

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Developmental psychology is the study of how and why humans change throughout their life (Hurlock, 2001). This explains criminal behaviour through several ways, mainly that criminal behaviour develops due to developmental problems such as attachment problems or poor social skills. Developmental psychology asks the question is a criminal born or made? By explaining criminal behaviour through developmental psychology, it helps to discover what are the main causes of criminal behaviour, therefore helping to stop and treat criminal behaviour appropriately. This essay will discuss the importance of developmental psychology to the criminal justice system. Criminal behaviour will be explained by using attachment and emotional, moral, and prosocial development. Language will also be included to explain problems that juvenile offenders face throughout the criminal justice system.

Attachment can be defined as an emotional bond that connects people (Ainsworth, 1973). The attachment theory provides a framework for understanding violence as it acknowledges both personal and developmental factors (Ogilvie, et al. 2014). Bowlby (1944) stated that delinquent and criminal behaviour may arise from a child being deprived of a maternal figure, which is called the maternal deprivation theory, as parents are usually the foundation for future relationships. This theory states that deprivation may occur when there is a parental figure present, but the child does not receive adequate care and has not formed a proper attachment with them (Ainsworth, 1962). Children who are not emotionally attached to warm and loving parents tend to become offenders (Bowlby, 1951). A lack of a mother can lead to the child’s hatred of women, causing crimes directed towards females, this can also be the case if the father is not in the picture, some children can blame their mothers. A poor family management in childhood has predicted violence in teenagers (Herrenkohl et al. 2000).

Ainsworth (1978) found that a child’s attachment is dependent on the behaviour their mother shows towards them. A less sensitive mother creates an insecurely attached child.

Poor parental supervision is the strongest predictor of offending (Smith & Stern, 1997). Many studies show that parents who do not know where their child is, or aren’t bothered, tend to have more delinquent children than parents who know where their child is.

Erratic or inconsistent discipline also predicts offending behaviour. Harsh parental discipline, involving physical punishment, predicts offending (Haapasalo & Pokela, 1999). Newson and Newson (1989) found that 40% of offenders in their study had been physically punished at age 11 compared to 14% who did not. McCord (1979) found that cold rejecting parents tend to have delinquent children. Parent warmth acts as a protective factor against physical punishment. During McCord`s study, they found that 51% of boys who had cold, rejecting, physically punishing mothers were convicted compared to 21% of boys with loving mothers.

Smallbone & Dadds (1998) found that sexual offenders reported less secure childhood maternal attachments than non-offenders. Intrafamilial child molesters reported having problematic relationships with their mothers whilst stranger rapists reported having problematic relationships with their fathers.

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Prosocial development refers to behaviour which is meant to benefit others. Modelling by adults increase prosocial behaviour in children.

The role of empathy is to recognise another person’s emotional state of mind. Psychopaths are a group of offenders which are considered to lack empathetic understanding. Clerkley (1941) developed a `mask of sanity` which is a classification of specific psychopathic traits, including lacking moral and empathetic reasoning and an impaired theory of mind. Many offenders can be seen as lacking empathy or compassion for their victims. Therefore most treatment programmes for sexual offenders include some sort of empathetic training.

Theory of mind can be seen as understanding another person’s mental states to explain and predict their behaviour. Children develop this theory of mind when they’re young. However, Keenan and Ward (2000) propose hat sexual offenders have an impaired theory of mind, meaning it may not have been fully developed in childhood.

Kohlberg (1984) developed 3 stages of moral development. The first stage is preconventional morality, where children learn obedience and punishment. The second is conventional morality where good interpersonal relations are developed. The final is post conventional morality where universal principles and individual right are learnt. If there is a disturbance at any point during these developments, it may lead to offending behaviour.

How a criminal communicates is an important part of how the criminal justice system treats the criminal. Beitcham et al (1999) found that communication difficulties are often misinterpreted as non-compliance by the police, this is also backed up by Snow and Powell (2004). They stated that a juvenile offenders language impairments can affect police interviews, interviews with their lawyers and questioning in court as the offender either doesn’t understand or cant portray their answers correctly, this, therefore, can be misinterpreted as a lack of respect for authority which is then likely to lead to a poorer outcome in trial such as tougher sentences. These language difficulties are also usually accompanied with poor body language making the offender seem like they don’t care. These language problems can be causes by a number of things such as not being exposed to language before puberty (Lenneberg, 1967), parents act as models for language so if they have poor communication skills, so may the child (Skinner, 1957), or learning difficulties. Bryan et al (2007) found that young people who commit crimes usually have a history of poor social achievements and learning difficulties.

This essay shows how developmental psychology explains offending behaviour by exploring the attachment theory, prosocial development and how language can have an affect on the criminal justice system. This essay also highlights problems which can occur. Murray et al (2007) found that children of prisoners have twice the risk of antisocial behaviour, showing that the criminal justice system disrupts attachment relationships. However, developmental psychology only explains criminal behaviour in a social aspect and does not allow space for a biological cause of offending behaviour.


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