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Once A Delinquent, Always A Delinquent?

July 22, 2010

Children who come in conflict with the law early on in life do not necessarily become long-term criminals thereafter. This is one of the findings of the Marburg Child Delinquency Study that are described in the current issue of Deutsches Órzteblatt International by Helmut Remschmidt and Reinhard Walter of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany (Dtsch Arztebl Int 2010; 107(27): 477-83).

In this longitudinal, observational study, the authors investigated how often children who were registered by the police as having committed criminal offenses before age 14 (the age of criminal responsibility in Germany) went on to commit further criminal offenses in adulthood. They also evaluated potential predictors for delinquent behavior. A control group for the study consisted of persons who had not had any contact with the police relating to criminal offenses. Remschmidt and Walter obtained data concerning the life history, family circumstances, health, schooling, vocational training, and personality structure of a total of 263 subjects aged 18 or older. Information on the subjects’ further development with respect to the commission of crimes was obtained from their criminal records.

The evaluation of the data revealed that juvenile delinquents fall into two categories: those who become chronic offenders into adulthood (“persisters”) and those who are delinquent only in childhood and/or adolescence, but not in adulthood (“desisters”). Social and familial risk factors were found to be the best predictors of criminal behavior in adulthood, followed by certain personality traits, such as emotional lability and nervousness. In general, the risk factors for criminality were found to be the same as those for mental illness, yet three risk factors seem to be specific for criminality: male sex, early onset of aggressiveness, and the negative influence of delinquent peers.

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