Seeds of violence sown in the cradle

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Violent crime could be cut by up to 18 per cent if the care of children under a year old were improved, a conference heard yesterday. A study has found that babies that had problem births and were taken into care in their first 12 months or had mothers who wanted to abort them were far more likely to become violent adult criminals.

A study of 4,269 males from their birth to the age of 34 showed a strong biological basis to crime, violence and aggression, said Adrian Raine, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern California, and a former prison psychiatrist in Britain.

Prof Raine, speaking in York at the conference of the British Psychological Society's criminological and legal division, said after his address that his findings may help predict likely offenders and significantly reduce crime.

In the study of 4,269 children from Denmark, he found 4 per cent had complications during birth, had been in institutionalised care for at least four months during their first year of life and had mothers who had wanted them aborted. The group was found at the ages of 18 and 34 to be responsible for 18 per cent of violent crime for the total sample. The offences included, murder, rape, arson, manslaughter, and robbery.

"The implication is that if you could knock out the birth complications, we may be able to knock out the violent group and reduce the crime rates for the next generations. This could reduce violent crime by as much as 18 per cent."

Prof Raine now wants to take a sample group of 500 poor mothers and give them a lot of antenatal care and compare the level of crime with a "control" sample to test whether there is a causal link. He said environmental factors such as poverty and abuse were also likely to play an important role. He also disclosed research which suggests a strong association between young people with low heart rates and anti-social behaviour. The finding was observed in a study of 101 fifteen-year-old boys from the north of England and 1,795 boys and girls from Mauritius.