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The Classification Of Criminals

By David Abrahamsen

A method for classifying offenders has to be based upon personal psychiatric-psychological factors, situational environmental factors, and a combination of both psychological and situational elements. Besides the personality-involvement in every criminal act and the presence of a certain situation or set of circumstances, one thing that must be taken into consideration when classifying any offender is the history of his criminal behavior. A person who commits only a single crime differs in personality make-up from one who repeats a criminal act several times or commits various crimes. The classification must reflect this, and the history of the offender's antisocial and criminal behavior will indicate whether he should be labeled an acute (momentary) or a chronic (habitual) offender.

Any classification, be it of plants, animals, or human beings, is to some extent artificial because there will always be individual characteristics or a set of characteristics which can properly be placed in more than one group. In our own attempt at classification, dealing as we often do with emotionally and mentally abnormal offenders, it is frequently difficult to distinguish between a criminal who is neurotic and one who suffers from a character disorder. Yet in spite of the shortcomings inherent in classification, we must attempt to categorize offenders if we are going to be successful in dealing with them. If we can classify them in a rational way, we can diagnose their characteristics, treat them, and predict their future behavior. However, such classification means that we will have to examine carefully each criminal to be able to find the characteristic and predominant traits that will tell us in which particular category he belongs.

One way of classifying offenders is to divide them according to those who commit crimes which are primarily directed against society (manifest criminals, such as gangsters), and those who commit crimes which primarily express their inner conflicts (symptomatic or reactive criminals, such as the kleptomaniac, pyromaniac, sex offender, and a certain type of murderer on the whole, individuals suffering from a neurotic or psychotic condition or from a character disturbance). However, the drawback to such a classification is that the overwhelming majority of all offenders manifest inner conflicts.

In trying to arrive at a system of classification in the field of criminology, we are faced with two problems classifying the crimes and classifying the criminals. The first classification is a legal one, having its origin in criminal law. The law differentiates between crimes committed against the person (that is, crimes of violence, such as assault, murder, or sexual attacks), those committed against property (burglary or robbery), and crimes against the State. The law thus attempts to classify the criminal according to his act. This legally and sociologically colored method of classification is imperfect and unrealistic in the great majority of cases because an offender may very easily fit into two or all three of the categories. For example, he may kill and commit a burglary, thus committing crimes against person and property.

Theories of classification have been many. Lombroso expounded a type of classification based upon different criminal types. He divided criminals into: 1) the born criminal; 2) the epileptic criminal; 3) the criminal of irresistible passion; 4) the insane and the feeble-minded criminal, including those of border-line mentality; and 5) the occasional criminal. The last group was subdivided into the pseudocriminal, the criminaloid, and the persistent offender of nonabnormal type.

Enrico Ferri divided criminals into occasional offenders and habitual offenders. To the first group belonged those whose criminal acts were due to external circumstances and who were driven to commit crimes because of a special passion. To the second group belonged those who were obviously insane or mentally defective, those mental deviates with inborn criminal tendencies (the so-called psychopaths), and persistent early offenders whose criminal behavior was caused by environmental elements.

Franz von Liszt criticized the classification based upon the motivation of the criminal and instead followed a penological and sociological viewpoint, distinguishing between momentary offenders and corrigible and incorrigible permanent offenders. Although this classification is clear-cut, it neglects to include offenders who are legally insane and is therefore incomplete and inaccurate. In order to avoid such a pitfall, Charles Goring classified criminals into physical, mental, and moral types.

An interesting method of classification was proposed by Ernst Kretschmer, who was the first to try to correlate the physical appearance of a person with his mental condition. Kretschmer's constitutional classification is based upon the study of people as psychobiological, or mental-physiological, entities. He established three types: the athletic, the asthenic-schizothymic-leptosomic, and the pyknic. He stated that there exists a clear biological connection between mental disposition toward schizophrenia and the asthenic-schizothymic-leptosomic and the athletic body builds and also between mental disposition toward a manic-depressive condition and the pyknic body type. His theory was applied to the classification of criminals, noting in particular that offenders who committed serious crimes were of the asthenic-schizothymic-leptosomic body build, while those offenders who committed less serious crimes had a pyknic body build.

While Kretschmer's idea of constitution is limited to a person's hereditary qualities, Olof Kinberg includes a person's reactions if they are the result of his predisposition or of his environment. Kinberg, in collaboration with Sjobring, gives a psychological classification wherein psychobiological correlation is not so predominant as in Kretschmer's hypothesis. This classification, which has advantages over that of Kretschmer, is, nevertheless, in the words of Hurwitz "open to substantial critical objections particularly as to the too vague definition of the marks differentiating the types and because no attempts have been made to control exactly the alleged correspondence with the actual facts."

Classification of criminals can only be valid on an etiological basis. To classify according to the crime committed is untenable because the cause or causes of the crime are interrelated with the perpetrator and his environmental situation. Therefore, we can classify an offender only if we see the seriousness of his crime in relation to his personality make-up. This is as true for the momentary offender as for the habitual one, even though the frequency of the commission of the crime must also be considered, since it reflects the degree of inclination toward crime and of abnormality present in the offender. Such classification, however, presupposes that criminals be carefully examined, particularly to determine how much of the ego participated in the criminal act.

Recalling my discussion earlier of the formation of antisocial character, it is worth while mentioning here a classification of juvenile delinquents set up by Kate Friedlander, who divided them according to their antisocial character formation, organic disturbances, and psychotic ego disturbances.

Burt, Healy, and Alexander and Staub have tried to classify offenders according to etiological factors, but the difficulty here lies in determining exactly what the causes are. Generally speaking, there is no single cause or set of causes that cannot be considered as reasons both for criminal behavior and for disturbed mental conditions, or, to put it positively, the same cause or set of causes can lead either to criminality or to a disturbed mental condition. A valid classification of criminals can only be established when we consider the causative factors together with the personality make-up of the offender. These two elements are frequently so intimately tied to each other that we cannot consider them separately.

In each case we examine, therefore, we must ask: How far do mentally abnormal conditions present indicate the presence of criminological elements responsible for the criminal act? But we must remember that nothing is ever clear-cut. A person who is slightly neurotic may very well carry out a crime without being considered mentally abnormal. The borderline between normal and abnormal is at times so fine that nobody really can say where it is.

To ascertain the causative factors responsible for criminal activities in the offender, we must examine each person individually and give each case individual consideration. Sometimes an offender manifests signs of a character disturbance and yet still may have anxieties and feelings of guilt. Or, on the surface he may show signs indicating a neurosis, while deep within he may have a character deformation, which will put him into another group altogether. Another criminal may appear to be suffering from an anxiety hysteria, which may very well cover up a schizophrenic condition. The latter condition will place him in the psychotic classification, and not the neurotic one.

Another important point to consider is whether or not a criminal's aggressive drive, which has become antisocial, is the product of his distorted emotional and mental condition. Only a careful examination of, the criminal, including his psychobiological development and his own personality reaction, will determine the causative factors responsible for his crime and his place in the classification system.

A system of classification which is methodologically sound has to be limited in scope. The purpose of the formation of categories in criminology is to determine how to deal with the offender in a rational way, be it by the court, the district attorney, the prison official, the probation officer, or the psychiatrist. An operational approach is therefore necessary, which must take into consideration the offender's environmental background, immediate situation, and personality make-up. The classification will therefore have to be based on both sociological and psychological elements.

One factor reflecting both of these elements is the frequency and time factor, that is, whether the offender has committed only one crime or is a recidivist and the span of time over which he has committed his criminal acts. This factor is also applicable to medicine. For example, a cough which is the result of a cold and which does not recur too often or last for more than a short time is an acute condition and one which does not require great concern. However, a cough that recurs often or lasts for a long time may in reality be a chronic condition, such as tuberculosis.

The division of physical and mental diseases into acute and chronic ones gives us an excellent picture of the degree of severity of the illness. This division can also be used to great advantage in classifying offenders because it connotes at once the degree of criminal involvement of the personality of the perpetrator. Therefore, offenders can be divided into two groups acute, or momentary, offenders and chronic, or habitual, offenders.

However, in designating a criminal as acute or chronic, we must take into consideration the seriousness of the crime or crimes committed, as well as the frequency and time factor. Otherwise, an individual who commits one premeditated murder would be considered simply an acute criminal, while another individual who repeatedly commits harmless or nuisance thefts would be considered a chronic offender. Obviously, this is wrong because the first individual is more dangerous than the second, even though the latter in all probability has a personality defect. Of course, this might very well be true of the murderer, too, and although a man who commits murder may not necessarily be psychotic, he might display emotional or mental symptoms. His personality make-up is involved too much with his act to put him into the category of an acute offender.

 


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