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Cesagen · Research

Criminal Genes and Public Policy

Mairi Levitt

Start date


Affiliated staff

Elisa Pieri


The current interest in genetic factors in criminal behaviour has focused primarily on violent crime and recurrent antisocial behaviour, including research into MAOA deficiency and its interaction with environmental factors (Brunner et al, 1993; Caspi et al, 2002). Public engagement work has included consultation on behavioural genetics in general and on gene testing (Nuffield Council, 2002, Campbell and Ross, 2004). This study looked specifically at ‘criminal’ genes and examined possible implications of genetic factors in criminal behaviour for the criminal justice system. This project focussed upon ideas of responsibility, blame and mitigating factors in the treatment of offenders through an examination and comparison of philosophical argumentation, media coverage (in press and scientific journals) and the views of key stakeholder groups e.g. probation officers, social workers and the legal profession.

Research on the role of genes and environment in anti-social behaviour has highlighted the possibility of specific and personalised environmental interventions in childhood, targeting those individuals most ‘at risk’. Apart from the ethical and social issues raised by collection and storage of genetic information of this type, there are also issues of justice and equality in the use of genetic information and allocation of services.


The project explores the policy and practice implications of behavioural genetics research into aggressiveness and violence within the UK context. While research is ruling out simple deterministic ‘gene to behaviour’ models it is possible to foresee potential applications of the findings; for example, the introduction of genetic testing as an additional piece of information collected from those considered ‘at risk’ of offending, and those already charged with a crime. An offer of genetic testing could be promoted as an extension of the trend towards personalised medicine,targeting information and treatment to the individual, and the information itself would mesh with the emerging systems of surveillance and control of ‘risky’ individuals. Professionals who could be using this information with clients have their own understandings of the causes of violent and antisocial behaviour developed in their training, experience and personal biographies. We were interested in accessing professionals’ knowledge and views on the causes of problem behaviours, the role of nature and nurture and the possible impacts of behavioural genetics on their work. While public engagement work has included consultation on behavioural genetics in general and on gene testing, this qualitative study seems to be the first to look specifically at the policy and practice implications of susceptibility genes that may be associated with criminal or violent behaviour as seen by professional stakeholders.


Qualitative methods of data collection allowed an in-depth exploration of the issues and arguments with professionals in groups with their peers. The study was intended to provide insights into the variety of issues and concerns around the topic of aggressive and antisocial behaviour as seen by participants who deal with offenders, those charged with an offence and families with problems. Scoping interviews were undertaken with key policy experts/advisors and researchers working in the field. Focus groups were then held with solicitors, barristers, law students, probation officers and social workers and supplemented by interviews with other professionals including judges.

The topics covered included their understandings of definitions and causes of criminal and of anti-social behaviour, their response to the idea of a genetic predisposition to aggressive behaviour and the implications (if any) this might have for their own work, for policing and the justice system and for planning interventions and policy priorities. This led, inter alia, to examining the possibility of pharmacological or environmental solutions for antisocial behaviour and of ‘pre-crime’ interventions. The refined interview schedule was used as the basis for the focus group protocol, with the addition of short warm up word association exercises and three cards with stimulus material introduced in the second half of the discussion. The first one aimed to explore the debate around free will, and it was a quote from one of our interviews with a behavioural geneticist,which read 'There is nothing about genetic influences that removes free will, so I don’t think it has any implications for how the courts sentence offenders’ and which was presented after participant had already had a chance to discuss at length the way they thought behavioural genetics research may impact criminal law and the justice system. The second prompt was a short description of the Stephen Mobley case (an attempt to use genetic research in mitigation). The third card was a brief description of the research by Caspi et al (2002) looking at gene/environment interaction. For each case participants were asked for their reactions and thoughts.


  • Professionals did not see genetic research as impacting on their work. Some believed that the science had not progressed enough; some thought that genetics could never be a reliable predictor of behaviour, being only one factor among many; others saw the idea of a genetic susceptibility as incompatible with the legal system (e.g. undermining the presumption of innocence). Despite its perceived lack of impact, practitioners did not object to funding genetic research into behaviour, but insisted research into other causes of aggressiveness and violence should be prioritised.
  • The professionals’ view was that violence and aggression are generated by a complex combination of factors - social, cultural, environmental,psychological and biological.
  • Intervention ought to target social factors that contribute to aggressiveness and violence even if these behaviours were shown to have a genetic component.
    li>There was wide support for early intervention through schools to help all young people to manage their emotions more effectively (e.g. anger management classes). Including all children, rather than targeting specific ‘at risk’ groups, would prevent stigmatisation and labelling.
  • Addressing inequalities and lack of opportunities was thought to be vital to tackle criminality, for example, through skills training and partnerships with employers, and by creating community facilities for young people. Participants recognised that the government has made moves in that direction but further funding is needed.
  • Funding ought to be moved to early intervention, to prevent problems developing, and away from managing offenders.
  • The emphasis on aggressive and antisocial behaviour exacerbates the shift towards further control and surveillance of citizens, particularly of those deemed ‘risky’ who are already over-patrolled. Genetic information relating to behaviour could be slotted into existing systems of profiling and collating information on individuals, including children.


Levitt, M. (accepted April 2010) Criminal Genes, Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics. Elsevier.

Levitt, M. (2009) ‘Antisocial and violent behaviour’, Science and People, Dec. 2009, p.12 http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/NR/rdonlyres/5B87430C-4EC0-4ED4-B3C5-EE2BB5FC4ECD/0/Opinion.pdf

Levitt, M. and Pieri, E. (2009) '‘It could just be an additional test couldn’t it?’: Genetic testing for susceptibility to aggression and violence’, New Genetics and Society, 28: 2, pp 189– 200

Pieri, E. and Levitt, M.(2008) 'Risky individuals and the politics of genetic research into aggressiveness and violence', Bioethics, 22: 9 pp 509–518

Pieri E. and Levitt M. (2007) 'Criminality in our genes?', The Gen, Newsletter of the ESRC Genomics Network. Issue 5. March 2007. pp4-5

Levitt, M. and Pieri, E. (2006) 'Commentary: Behavioural genetics and risk of ‘criminality’', Bionews, 378: 2/10/06 http://www.bionews.org.uk/commentary.lasso?storyid=3202

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