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  • Writer's pictureSam Wilks

Trauma and Criminality: Connected by Choices


Human behaviour is intricate, woven with threads of environmental factors, personal experiences, and inherent predispositions. Among these influences, trauma stands out as a potent and often insidious thread, particularly in its role in shaping criminal behaviour. I shall attempt to provide some observations of how trauma steers individuals toward paths of criminality.

Trauma, is not merely an event or series of events but is better understood as the individual's response to an overwhelmingly negative or positive experience that shatters their capacity to cope. It is the psychological residue that lingers long after the traumatic event has passed. This residue can distort perceptions of the world, warp one's sense of self, and profoundly disrupt one’s psychological and emotional equilibrium. Unresolved trauma leads to the externalisation of inner turmoil through aggression and defiance of societal norms, which can manifest as criminal behaviour.

Traumatic early experiences, in particular, alter the neural circuitry of the brain in ways that predispose people to addiction, mental health disorders, and, consequently, criminality. The imprint of trauma can lead to an impaired ability to regulate emotions and impulses, a condition that is disproportionately represented among the criminal population.

These factors converge on a critical point: trauma is a significant risk factor for criminal behaviour. This is not to suggest that trauma is a deterministic force that inexorably leads one to a life of crime. Rather, it is one factor among many in a complex causal nexus. It is also essential to consider the varied responses to trauma; while some individuals exhibit resilience, others succumb to the pressures that trauma exerts on their behavioural choices.

Even twins born in the same household can experience different outcomes from their own personal interpretations of a traumatic event. One twin grows up and is found living on the streets, the reason he states is because his dad was an alcoholic, the other twin is a successful business and family man, who never drinks, he cites his success as due to him not drinking or ever taking drugs.... because his dad was an alcoholic.

The examination of trauma's role in criminality must be grounded in an understanding of the multifaceted nature of human life. Humans are not merely products of their environments or their biological makeup; they are also agents capable of making choices within constraints. Thus, while trauma can create a proclivity towards criminal behaviour, it does not absolve individuals of responsibility for their actions.

A society that fully attributes criminal behaviour to trauma risks absolving individuals of this personal responsibility, undermining the very foundation of the rule of law. There are many who seek to promote lawlessness and victimhood.

The policy implications of this understanding are profound. On one hand, recognising the role of trauma in criminality can guide more effective interventions aimed at prevention and rehabilitation. For example, programs that address the psychological needs of at-risk youth or that provide therapeutic services to those who have already offended, can help break the cycle of crime. On the other hand, a realistic approach must also recognise the limits of such interventions. Not all criminal behaviour can be attributed to trauma, nor can all individuals who experience trauma be rehabilitated through therapeutic means.

This recognition is not a call to fatalism but an acknowledgement of the complexity of human behaviour. While trauma may predispose individuals to criminality, the human capacity for change and growth remains. It is this capacity that interventions must aim to foster, providing individuals with the skills and support necessary to overcome the challenges posed by their traumatic experiences.

The intersection of trauma and criminality also raises questions about the role of society in mitigating the effects of trauma. It is here that the social fabric becomes critical, as the strength and quality of community bonds can either exacerbate the impact of trauma or help to alleviate it. A society with a high level of alienation and fragmentation is more likely to experience trauma-related criminal behaviour than one with strong community ties and support networks.

The role of trauma in criminality is complex. My personal insights suggest that while trauma is a significant risk factor for criminal behaviour, it is not its sole determinant. The path from trauma to crime is neither direct nor inevitable. It is shaped by individual choices and societal influences, and it is within this interplay that solutions must be found. Effective policy must strike a balance between understanding and intervention, recognising the role of trauma in criminality without negating the agency of individuals or their responsibility to society.

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