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Book Forum: FORENSICS AND ETHICS   |    
Creating Born Criminals
RUSSELL EISENMAN, Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:1623a-1624.
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by Nicole Hahn Rafter. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1997, 284 pp., $36.95; $17.95 (paperback published in 1998)

It is amazing how many mistakes are made by mental health professionals: psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, etc. We learn this mainly by looking to the past and seeing the errors previously made. This book does an excellent job of showing how the concept of the "born criminal" was created and used, mostly on little more evidence than the prejudices and inaccurate assumptions of the times. Those prejudices and misunderstandings led to what Rafter calls "eugenic criminology," whereby criminals were often seen as inherently defective, both intellectually and morally. The solution arrived at was to have institutions for such people where they might be confined for the rest of their lives and to practice sterilization to prevent them from creating offspring who would be, themselves, "defective delinquents."

These outlooks and solutions gave incredible, often unchecked, power to the administrators and professionals involved with these alleged born criminals. Often a person could be committed to an institution for "hereditary defectives" without anything resembling due process. The person may have been convicted of no crime but seen as a "defective delinquent" and sent to an institution, possibly for life. Alternatively, a prison might house a person who, deemed a "defective delinquent," was then sent to an institution designed for "hopeless incurables." The prisoner’s sentence, in effect, was changed to a possible life sentence. In the United States, sterilization was practiced on such people into the 1960s. In fact, in the 1960s I worked at a state mental hospital where I gave an IQ test to a 14-year-old African American youth. He scored at or near the normal range of intelligence when I tested him. His records, however, showed that, years earlier, he had scored in the mentally retarded range and consequently had been sterilized.

The misuse of eugenics (as with the youth I tested), Adolph Hitler’s misuse during the Nazi regime, and the faulty thinking pointed out by Rafter all combine to give eugenics a bad name. In contrast, Miller R3815511CBBDDBBE defined eugenics as "efforts to improve the gene pool…" (p. 391) and provided an argument for such efforts. Ellis R3815511CBBCAEDB pointed out the irrational resistance of many to evidence that humans differ in innate abilities and to ways of dealing with these differences. What the Rafter book reminds us of is the danger of misguided efforts based on inaccurate concepts. When dealing with people’s lives, it is vitally important not to make decisions based on faulty knowledge, even if that knowledge has the stamp of professional or scientific approval. On the other hand, there are dangerous people in the world, people do demonstrate differences in ability, and biology, evolution, and genetics may have a lot to say about these things. Rafter’s book sounds a warning about what not to do, but if it leads to rejection of all comparisons between people it will not help situations where decisions need to be made.

Much of what Rafter is writing about could be understood by means of the concept of deviance. Deviance is often socially created, but once the stigmatizing label of some kind of deviance is applied to an individual, the label tends to stick, whether valid or not. The "deviant" then has various unpleasant sanctions imposed. Unfortunately, sociologists have been about the only professional group to write about deviance. My book on deviance R3815511CBBBCJGF is one of the few that is not by a sociologist.

Rafter shows how inaccurate conceptions of the born criminal were shared by many professionals and had horrible consequences. This does not mean that there are no biological bases of crime, but it means that the ones once believed in were faulty. As intelligence tests were refined, people were able to see that crime could not be explained by feeblemindedness, as many of the eugenic criminologists believed. Thus, a new view was demanded, and the concept of the born criminal or defective delinquent grew weaker. Thus, scientific and professional advances can help us avoid misapplying our knowledge. It would be healthy to reflect on this: if so many professionals were once so inaccurate in their conceptions of crime, what misconceptions might we harbor today about crime, mental illness, and other topics?

Miller EM: Eugenics: economics for the long run, in Research in Biopolitics, vol 5. Edited by Peterson SA, Somit A. Greenwich, Conn, JAI Press, 1997, pp 391–416
 
Ellis L: The evolution of attitudes about social stratification: why many people (including social scientists) are morally outraged by The Bell Curve. Personality and Individual Differences  1998; 24:207–216
[CrossRef]
 
Eisenman R: From Crime to Creativity: Psychological and Social Factors in Deviance. Dubuque, Iowa, Kendall/Hunt, 1991
 
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References

Miller EM: Eugenics: economics for the long run, in Research in Biopolitics, vol 5. Edited by Peterson SA, Somit A. Greenwich, Conn, JAI Press, 1997, pp 391–416
 
Ellis L: The evolution of attitudes about social stratification: why many people (including social scientists) are morally outraged by The Bell Curve. Personality and Individual Differences  1998; 24:207–216
[CrossRef]
 
Eisenman R: From Crime to Creativity: Psychological and Social Factors in Deviance. Dubuque, Iowa, Kendall/Hunt, 1991
 
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