A professor in California thinks we can cut violent crime by identifyin g potential offenders when they are babies. Glenda Cooper reports
Imagine discovering a procedure that could wipe out one in five crimes within a generation: a programme to identify future offenders while they are still children and give them treatment to curb their criminal instincts. A University of California professor who believes that biology could be as significant as upbringing in forming the criminal mind thinks such a programme is possible.

Professor Adrian Raine claims he can identify future violent offenders by the age of one. Babies who have distinctive chemical imbalances in the brain and who also suffer rejection by their mothers are more likely to go on to a career of crime, he says.

This sounds like good news for governments that have spent millions on boot camps, prisons and treatment for offenders. They could save money and reduce crime by investing in antenatal health care and medication for children. But Professor Raine's ideas are treated with suspicion by politicians: the right thinks they let offenders off the hook; the left says they neglect the social causes of crime. Professor Steven Rose, director of the brain and behaviour research group at the Open University, describes Professor Raine's theories as "nonsense ... completely disastrous and monstrous".

Professor Raine knows his studies are controversial: he moved to California after a degree at Oxford, a PhD at York and four years working in prisons because no one would fund his research. But as he explains in A Mind to Crime, a two-part documentary on Channel 4, the reason the violent crime rate continues to rise is because people do not consider biological factors along with the social factors.

"Crime is a disorder of the brain in the same way that depression or schizophrenia is a disorder," he says. "People are worried that biology is destiny and we can do nothing to change it - but we can."

Professor Raine believes mild brain damage - low brain arousal in the frontal part of the brain, which controls emotions and regulates behaviour - can determine future criminals. Such damage, caused by birth complications, accidents, hyperactivity or genes, impairs concentration and commonly manifests itself as a lack of fear about the consequences of violent acts.

Professor Raine has carried out three studies on schoolboys in York, babies in Denmark and murderers on California's death row. In Denmark, he studied 4,269 men born between 1959 and 1961, looking at whether there were any birth complications (breech birth, forceps delivery or bleeding) and whether there was maternal rejection in the first year of life (the mother trying to abort the foetus or putting the child into an institution for at least four months). Around 4 per cent had suffered birth complications and rejection. They accounted for nearly 20 per cent of the crimes.

"With these two factors coming together, there was a big increase," says Professor Raine. "So if we could knock out birth complications with better antenatal and perinatal health care, we could knock out violence in the next generation by 18 per cent."

His impulse is to concentrate help in the inner cities where health care is at its most deprived. Alternatively, parenting classes could be introduced into schools to solve the "maternal rejection" problem, though he admits "it's more difficult to make a bad mother a good mother".

Health care may seem innocuous enough, but Channel 4 also lets Professor Raine explain, unchallenged, his more controversial studies. His study of 101 15-year-old schoolboys in York measured the boys' arousal levels - looking at brainwave patterns, heartbeats and skin sweatiness. Nine years later, he analysed their criminal history.

"Those with slow heart rates and slow brainwave activity produced criminal behaviour by the age of 24," he says. "And those who had showed anti-social behaviour at the age of 15 but had high arousal levels did not go on to commit crime. Maybe it's because they did better at school and got a job; maybe because they had a higher level of anxiety than those with low arousal whose lack of anxiety meant there was lack of fear about the consequences of their deeds."

But when does lack of fear turn into a predilection for crime? Channel 4 shows Cody, an angelic-looking six-year-old who has killed several animals without remorse and hits his baby sisters, and eight-year-old Lauren, who never smiled as a baby and whose mother was afraid to go to sleep in case Lauren killed her. Both children - examples of "the dangerous few" - have been identified as suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

The disorder is treated with scepticism in Britain as a fashionable way of describing badly disciplined children. In the United States, sufferers are usually prescribed Ritalin, an amphetamine, or Prozac. Ritalin provides a substitute for deficient supplies of the brain chemical dopamine, which facilitates communication between brain cells. About a million children in the US are said to be on this drug.

Steven Rose is firmly opposed to Britain following America's example: "It's labelling all of them, putting children on dangerous medication - amphetamines. You're drugging a lot of normal children."

Professor Raine admits there is an ethical dilemma: "Do you say I'm not putting my child into the programme because of the potential for stigmatisation? Remember, he hasn't as yet committed any offence. Or do you not put him in the programme although you have to admit there's an 80 per cent chance of him growing up to become a violent criminal offender and in the process destroying your life, his own life and the lives of his victims? As a scientist, I would put my kids on medication just because benefits versus cost are so much greater.

"I think parents need to be told. I don't think it's an issue for politicians or scientists. But as a parent wouldn't you like to be given the full scientific information on what is likely to happen to your child?"

Professor Rose remains unconvinced. "It seems to me Adrian Raine is looking in the wrong place. What we need to know is why violence in America is greater than in Britain. I think if the US wants to do something about violence it should do something about the 280 million handguns in society."

Professor Raine shrugs. He admits ADD can produce successes, and that putting children on medication may mean society would miss out on future Winston Churchills and Albert Einsteins, both of whom may have suffered from ADD. "But I'd rather miss out on a few Winston Churchills than chance another mass murderer," he says.

Part Two of 'A Mind To Crime' will be shown on Channel 4 tomorrow at 9pm. An accompanying book by Anne Moir and David Jessel is published by Michael Joseph at pounds 15.99.