IS IT POSSIBLE TO BE ADDICTED TO COMMITTING CRIME?
Detective-turned-addiction counsellor (and the model for Helen Mirren’s detective chief inspector character in Prime Suspect) Jacqueline Malton studied the phenomenon while at London South Bank University, and lists 11 possible addictive elements in criminal offending.
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Crime and addiction are often correlated by way of the relationship between criminal offending and substance addiction. But little research exists around the subject of the possibility of offenders being addicted to committing crime.
While studying for an MSC in Addiction Psychology and Counselling at London South Bank University, and while working as a counsellor in a male addiction unit in a prison, I became aware that some clients were able to recognise that they felt ‘addicted’ to committing crime and identified addiction to crime as being their first real addiction.
Through indepth qualitative interviews, my dissertation studied the experiences of 10 prisoners with regard to their background, substance misuse and criminal offending, and especially examined the subjective experiences of how the participants related to their crime and the role it played in their lives, in the context of a hedonic management model prescribed by Iain Brown (1997). These serving prisoners had been previously assessed as having substance dependency and were receiving treatment under the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust programme.
In his hedonic model, Brown posits that people manipulate their behaviour to receive subjective feelings of pleasure and an overall sense of wellbeing. He adapted his theoretical model of behavioural addictions to include addictive offending. His model proscribes 11 possible addictive elements in criminal offending adapted from his theoretical model of behaviour addictions. In this model, shown at the end of this article, Brown (1997) acknowledges the central role of the subjective experience of how the addict interprets the development, dominance and decline of the addiction.
He also suggests that a theoretical understanding might help society to further understand criminal offending and suggests this knowledge would assist in making suitable interventions in treatment if there is an addictive element in their offending.
PARTICIPANTS IN THE STUDY
The mean age of the 10 participants is 33.5 years. The youngest participant was aged 20 years and the oldest 43 years. Eight of the participants were white and two were of mixed-race heritage.
The study revealed a range of crimes were committed to fund lifestyle and the users’ drug and alcohol habits. These included drug-related crimes such as possession and supplying, as well as acquisitive crimes including, burglary, robbery and theft. Three of the participants are serving Indeterminate Public Protection sentences. These are life sentences imposed with a minimum tariff of imprisonment to be served before release. The offences for which these participants have been sentenced to an IPP relate to: two offences of robbery and one offence of Section 18 Wounding under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. The offences for the remaining participants include: kidnap, conspiracy to supply Class A Drugs, armed robbery, burglary (2) and violence (2).
Eight out of the 10 participants did not receive full-time education. Six participants were excluded from mainstream schooling and sent to pupil-referral units. Two of the participants were put into the care of the local authority due to their disruptive behaviours. Only two of the participants completed their education and only one left school with educational qualifications in the form of GCSEs.
All of the 10 participants were victims of physical, emotional or sexual abuse while growing up in their family environment or in the care system. This might point towards emotional deprivation and/or insufficient emotional support which results in individual vulnerabilities.
Addictive features which have been identified as significant from the interviews were: powerful emotion reaction (9), positive feedback loops (7) increased salience (7) and cycles of criminal activity (6).
In Brown’s 1997 model, the factors identified above feature in the dominant stage of the addiction.
The development stage of individual vulnerabilities also scored highly (6).
Specialisation in a single offence (3) was a difficult factor to measure as some of the participants spoke of their crimes escalating, which corresponded with their growing dependency on drugs. Their criminal behaviour patterns changed from petty crime to more serious crimes. However, three of the participants were specific about their specialisation in particular crimes which included ‘over the counter’ robbery, bank frauds and football violence – although the latter rarely watched the football match.
The most common and recurring addictive factor which emerged is a ‘powerful emotional reaction’. Nine out of the 10 participants reported experiencing these feelings which ranged from nervousness and fear to buzz. Verbs used included: super-human feelings, intense, control, adrenalin, buzz, scared, nervous, all of which indicate a tension and/or mood.
Conversely, one spoke of how the buzz had diminished and that further criminal offending cannot provide the same stimuli he once felt – he now saw committing crime as a job. He revealed an intention to commit crime again on his release; this was seen as relevant to occasional reinstatement phenomena. Three of the participants spoke of their preoccupation with committing crime, despite the risks involved.
Disconnection from the normal flow of mental life was an interesting feature. Three of the contributors vividly described their feelings which included feeling “surreal”, “not actually doing it” and “almost as though I was watching TV”.
Six of the participants stated that their motivation for committing crime was to support their drug use and to support lifestyle. Six of the participants stated that the majority of the offences had been committed under the influence of drink or drugs.
Nine out of the 10 participants spoke of needing a sense of belonging, to be part of, a liking to be liked, or to fit in with others. This need to belong affected a number of behaviours: the need for friendship, belonging to a gang, or committing crime. One participant began to formulate an identity with gangs whom he initially saw as his family and his own emergence as a gang leader.
FROM THEORY TO REAL LIFE
Brown’s 1997 thinking was theoretical. Although limited, this study leans towards acknowledging the central role of the subjective experience of how the addict interprets the development, dominance and decline of the addiction. As suggested by Brown, this understanding might help society to further understand criminal offending. He argues this knowledge could be applied to help offenders confront their behaviours such as motivational interviewing techniques (Miller and Rollnick 1991) and relapse prevention work (Martlatt and Gordon 1985).
Indeed, three of the participants specifically spoke during their interviews of the relevance of attending the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners trust programme which has helped them look at and, more importantly, change their destructive behaviours.
A THEORETICAL MODEL O BEHAVIOURAL ADDICTIONS FOR ADDICTIVE OFFENDERS
adapted by Brown (1997)
Specialisation in a single offence or a narrow range of similar offences. It is unlikely that anyone can be addicted to crime as a whole or to a range of criminal activities which might be expected to provide widely differencing subjective emotional experiences.
Individual vulnerabilities of the person involved similar to those identified for addictions – for example, poor relationships and a restricted range of easily-accessible rewarding activities.
Powerful emotional reaction experienced by the individual in association with the criminal act which is mood-changing – colloquially, a strong ‘buzz’ for the individual.
Increasing salience of the criminal activity so that, even when it is not being committed, it is being planned or fantasised about and all of life, thinking, feeling and behaviour is dominated by and organised around the next opportunity to offend.
Positive feedback loops promoting increasing and repeated offending, like conflict narrowing the range of easily-accessible alternative rewarding activities, tolerance escalating the risks to be taken to achieve the same escape, withdrawals leading to restlessness and irritability when offending is not possible, and relief offending arising out of the need to block despair and guilt from the last offence by beginning preoccupation with the next.
Cycles of criminal activity – corresponding to cycles of need to use the criminal activity to manage hedonic tone in the offender.
Low self-esteem – subjective feelings of loss of control, unable to cut down offending or be abstinent.
Rituals before or after offending – a series of routines or chains of stimuli, responses, actions which seem to build up or break down arousal.
Disconnection from normal flow of mental life – offence feels it is being committed in a ‘time capsule’ apart from ordinary life.
Patterns of reoffending which look like relapse in the addictions – ie, involves fantasies stimulated by relapse-provoking situations which become progressively more extreme and dominant as the offence is approached.
Occasional reinstatement phenomena – even after many years of remission, a rapid reversion to the frequency and intensity of offending which was characteristic of offending at its height, perhaps many years before.
Jacqueline Malton MA MSC is an ex detective in the Metropolitan Police and is an addiction counsellor.