Are criminals responsible for their actions

Crime and Criminal Law

Heribert Ostendorf

Prof. Dr. Heribert Ostendorf, born in 1945, worked as a judge for four and a half years after completing his studies, primarily as a juvenile judge. He then taught for eight years as a professor of criminal law at the University of Hamburg. From 1989 to 1997 he was Attorney General in Schleswig-Holstein. From October 1997 to February 2013 he headed the research center for juvenile criminal law and crime prevention at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel.
In addition to textbooks and legal commentaries, Professor Ostendorf has published numerous scientific treatises, especially on juvenile criminal law. His textbook "Juvenile Criminal Law" and his commentary "Juvenile Courts Act" have been published in the 9th and 10th edition and are considered standard works.

The picture of crime is very complex, as it ranges from driving without a license to murder. There are several theories that investigate the causes of crime.

There is no single theory to explain crime. The picture of crime is too complex for that. Crime includes driving without a license, drunkenness in traffic, escaping traffic accidents, property damage, theft in various forms and tax evasion, as well as robbery, rape or murder up to and including mass murder in the millions in the "Third Reich". Crimes are committed by both 14-year-olds and 80-year-olds - so different approaches to the subject are required. Today we follow a multi-factor approach to explain crime. Often there are several causes / justifications to be used for the individual crime. In the following, various theories about the causes of crime are presented in a simplified manner.

With the help of twin research, the "theory of the born criminal!" Should also be substantiated. Photo report in the Berliner Illustrirten Zeitung of July 27, 1930 (& copy bpk)

Doctrine of the "born criminal"

The beginning of criminology, the study of the causes of crime, is connected with the Italian doctor Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), who put forward the theory of the "born criminal". This was based on the inheritance laws of the Austrian natural scientist and Augustinian father Gregor Johann Mendel (1822–1884). Lombroso believed that he could identify the typical criminal from birth on the basis of external appearances. This was how the length of the nose, the distance between the eyebrows and the size of the ears were measured. In the 1930s, this biological-anthropological approach to explaining crime was based on twin and clan research.
Even today there are isolated voices who use chromosomal deviations in the genetic makeup as the cause of crime; but these doctrines are overwhelmingly rejected in science. However, such views are still widespread among the population: the belief that the murderer's son will become violent again still exists. The saying "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" expresses this view.
Criminals are often portrayed in comics and some children's books with receding foreheads, hooked noses and pinched eyebrows to illustrate their alleged evil nature. If the hereditary biological approach is unanimously rejected in criminology today, this in no way denies different hereditary predispositions in children. Only, according to the prevailing opinion, develop differently, depending on the individual career and social context. Research on the sometimes very different life courses of identical twins and thus of the same genetic make-up have confirmed this.
Mental and psychological illnesses do not automatically lead to crime either. Certainly there are also mentally handicapped and mentally ill offenders - especially in homicides - which is why their culpability must be checked with the help of a psychiatric or psychologically trained expert. Most crimes are committed by so-called normal people. Homicides in the family, in particular, often "grow" out of everyday conflicts that escalate over time.

Source text

Why does someone commit serious crimes

[…] [T] the potential to restrict others, to harm them, to hurt, that is […] in every human being.
The only question is when exactly dark ideas, feelings and desires become an act that others consider wrong, evil or reprehensible. [...]
Most people, including those with bad childhood experiences, keep aggressive impulses in check. Through the ability to control oneself, the ability to compassion, and through the acceptance of moral principles. But if one or even all three of these skills fail, the risk of repeatedly using violence for one's own benefit increases.

Experts distinguish three types of intensive care offenders for whom these barriers do not function reliably. Instrumental perpetrators, who make up around 30 percent, see violence as a strategy for resolving conflicts. They grew up in an environment that taught them that violence is vital, effective and rewarded. This is often the case in war zones, for example.

The second group consists of impulsive, chronic violent offenders. They suffer from an antisocial personality disorder and attract attention as children for stealing, disregarding social rules or destroying other people's property.
They know that their violent outbursts do them more harm than good in the long term, but do not change their behavior despite the harsh consequences. Around 60 percent of all intensive offenders fall into this category. They quickly feel threatened, freak out quickly, strike quickly. Their compassion for others is limited, their self-worth is easily vulnerable.
[The forensic psychiatrist] Reinhard Haller believes that this vulnerability can trigger strong aggression in impulsive perpetrators. Almost all crimes, he believes, are deeply mortified. [...]

In addition to a problematic childhood, these people often have other abnormalities - in the brain. Neuroscientists were able to show that impulsive violent criminals show changes in the anatomy and function of the prefrontal cortex, an area behind the forehead.
In contrast to other people, the area does not inhibit aggressive impulses in them. In addition, these offenders' ability to deal with stress is disturbed: the almond kernel, responsible for the emotional evaluation of stimuli, is hyperactive. As a result, the feeling of being threatened occurs much more quickly than with other people.

And finally, learning from experience is limited, as Niels Birbaumer from the Tübingen University Hospital found out. The researcher showed the felons human faces and at the same time pinched one of their fingers.
A combination that should make the faces unappealing quickly - but not with these perpetrators. They didn't learn from their painful experience, he says.

No learning after punishment or reward, an insensitivity to social sanctions or reinforcements, that is also typical for the third group of perpetrators: the psychopaths. At ten percent, they are the smallest but most dangerous group.
They also have abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex, as is the case with impulsive offenders. But one thing is different with them: their almond kernel, the fear center, is not hyperactive, but completely silent.

Psychopaths have next to no fear. Although they are very willing to take risks, they usually proceed much more planning than the second group. They are also noticed at an early age, in elementary school age. They are manipulative, emotionally cold, lie a lot, and feel neither remorse nor shame. [...]
But a genetic predisposition alone is not enough to turn a person into a serious criminal, as the psychologist Avshalom Caspi from Duke University has shown. Because children with the MAOA-L variant [offender type 2] are only more aggressive than others if they are neglected, mistreated or abused in childhood. Otherwise they remain completely inconspicuous.

Experts are now convinced that this applies to all neurobiological findings: genetic predispositions and altered brain functions alone do not make anyone a murderer, rapist or runner. A secure attachment and a warm, supportive environment in childhood can therefore effectively counteract this, for all types of offenders. [...]

Fanny Jiménez, "Why some people get murderously angry", in: Die Welt, February 16, 2015