Offending behaviour

Community surveys show that offending behaviour is extremely common, and that the vast majority of the population has broken the law in some way at some time. Generally speaking, offending behaviour is commoner in males than females, and peaks during the teenage years, gradually becoming less frequent thereafter. Most cases involve minor property offences such as theft and vandalism. Only a proportion is reported, and only a fraction of this results in any conviction. Of people convicted, the proportion going on to become persistent serious offenders is small.

Causes of offending behaviour are predominantly social and environmental, rather than psychiatric. Conduct disorder in children ('juvenile delinquency') often persists into adulthood as criminality and/or antisocial personality. Criminality tends to run in families. Twin and adoption studies indicate some specific genetic component of this inheritance, and up to half of antisocial behaviour may have a genetic basis. However, other factors such as coming from a large impoverished family, poor parenting, a culture of criminal behaviour in the neighbourhood and school, and low intelligence are thought to be of greater influence.

Male offenders outnumber female ones about 10-fold, and male prisoners outnumber female ones about 30-fold. Both cultural and biological factors contribute to this discrepancy. Female prisoners have more mental and physical disease than male ones.

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