Gary Pugh, the director of forensic sciences for the British police has sparked controversy after he suggested that children as young as five who display ‘future offending traits’ should be placed on a DNA database so they are more likely to be picked up if they commit crime in the future.
Pugh is almost certainly talking about children who have what are known as ‘callous-unemotional’ traits, described somewhat less politically correctly as ‘kiddie psychopathy’.
These have indeed been found to weakly predict future antisocial behaviour, but the picture is more complex than it seems and, as we’ll see, they aren’t a good basis on which to base future crime fighting efforts.
Psychopathy describes a pattern of shallow emotion, low empathy and the lack of conscience for antisocial acts, with the ability to seem charming on the surface. Callous-unemotional traits describe something similar in children.
A recent study on the prevalence of these traits in children used a fairly typical definition:
1. Makes a good impression at first but people tend to see through him/her after they get to know him/her
2. Shallow or fast-changing emotions.
3. Too full of his/her own abilities.
4. Is not genuinely sorry if s/he has hurt someone or acted badly.
5. Can seem cold-blooded or callous.
6. Doesn’t keep promises.
7. Not genuine in his/her expression of emotions.
These studies have also found that in children already displaying aggressive or antisocial behaviour, callous-unemotional traits are associated with more severe aggressive, antisocial behaviour in the future.
So, if you look at the population as a whole, you could say that these childhood traits are genuinely linked to later antisocial acts, but the overall difference between children with and without these characteristics is small.
In other words, if you put every child with these traits on a DNA database, you’re unlikely to see a significant increase in later crime detection as a result and you’ll have the DNA of a lot of children who will never get in trouble with the law.
Link to BBC News story ‘Police spokesman sparks DNA row’.