Genetic studies may predict criminal tendencies

ASU’s Child Study Laboratory, which includes a playground and classrooms, prepares children for success by using previous research to work with children on social skills and self-regulation. An ASU law professor supports the idea of testing children for genes that may predispose them to criminal activity, but some members of ASU’s psychology department disagree. (Photo by Danielle Gregory)

A law professor believes genetic profiling should be used to identify children who are predisposed to violent criminal behaviors.

Law professor Gary Marchant cited several studies in an October Slate Magazine article identifying gene mutations that can be linked with behavioral control problems early in human development.

“In grade one or two, you start to see the kids that have problems,” Marchant said.  “Maybe we should be looking at their brains and genes as part of their treatment.”

His interest in law and technology led Marchant to study many court cases in which criminals have successfully reduced their sentencing, often from capital punishment to life in prison, by proving a genetic predisposition to violent behavior.

“If this is the case, maybe we could find these people ahead of time and try to stem off these crimes from occurring,” he said. “It could substantially reduce crime.”

Psychology professor Nancy Eisenberg, an editor of academic journal Child Development Perspectives, said identifying such genes early in child development could lead to a decrease in violent behavior, but only if the environmental factors that affect the genes can also be identified.

“It shouldn’t just be used to say these are problem kids,” she said. “The environment needs to be taken into account. Eventually these studies could be used for interventions with the families and schools of these children.”

Eisenberg said science can’t yet fully understand how environment factors into genes.

She said studies prove children with the affected behavioral genes often do better in good environments than those without these genes.

Psychology senior and new father Ian Smith said he would need a lot of convincing to agree to have his child screened because it is unfair to impose assumptions on children who have yet to act out.

“It really invalidates their choice and their humanity,” he said.  “And there is a potential for a self-fulfilling prophecy as well.”

ASU psychology professor Keith Crnic said mandating intervention for children with these tendencies is problematic because science cannot yet accurately predict whom the genes will affect.

“I don’t know that we are at the point that we want to start mandating genetic therapy for people with gene propensities,” he said. “The ethics of that are very problematic.”

He said Marchant might be looking at the issue from more of a legal standpoint and is perhaps missing the ethics of exploring this matter from a bio-behavioral standpoint.

Marchant agreed the idea is not ready for wide-scale implementation, but he said validating this evidence would help the affected children and their potential victims.

Marchant said studies show that pharmaceutical and dietary interventions, along with lifestyle changes, could reduce negative behaviors by up to 50 percent.

“Allocating more resources to these preventative measures would benefit the children at risk, their parents and the rest of society,” he said.

ASU alumna Leslie Ringler, a mother of two, said she can see both sides of the issue, but would not want to expose her children to knowing they are susceptible to violent behaviors.

“Anything that assumes or predisposes a child to be a certain way is just not in my philosophy of children and parenting,” she said.

Ringler, who graduated with a degree in education, said she would be open to the idea of genetic screening if the child’s rights could be protected.

“I’m just not sure we are able to balance that kind of consciousness in society yet,” she said.

Marchant said a careful approach is necessary to avoid stigmatizing at-risk children or their parents, but most parents should want to know if their children could benefit from intervention or therapy.

“Those parents may not like it now, but they will hate it a lot more when their kid is on the news because they just went and shot somebody, or a lot of people,” he said.

 

Reach the reporter at npmendo@asu.edu