Neurocriminology For Offender Rehabilitation

Neurocriminology for Offender Rehabilitation

“Neurocriminology” is a new model for the treatment and prevention of antisocial behavior developed though collaboration between researchers in Canada and Estonia.. It is based on an integration of research that has been published between 1985 and 2007 in the following areas:

• research on the relationship between antisocial behavior and cognition
• research on the relation between cognition and emotion
• research on the role of emotion in prosocial competence
• research on “emotional values”
• research on empathy
• research on desistance from a criminal lifestyle
• research on the development of prosocial competence
• research on “automatic thinking and feeling”
• research on social cognitive neuroscience.

The basic assumption of this model is that developing prosocial thinking, feeling and behaving skills and prosocial values can both motivate and enable otherwise personally, academically, vocationally, environmentally and/or economically disadvantaged individuals to avoid or desist from anti social or illegal behavior; develop a prosocial identity; and choose a prosocial life-style.

Development of an “Antisocial Brain”

Throughout our lives, our brains register our experiences, our observations, our thoughts and our feelings by forming new connections among neurons in our brain. Neurons are highly specialized, electrically excitable nerve cells that send and receive signals from other neurons by means of chemical transmitters that travel across synapses and axons that connect the neurons. These neural connections, without our awareness, determine how we perceive, how we interpret, how we feel about and how we react to our physical and social environment. How one feels, how one thinks, and how one behaves both reflects and creates the connections among neurons in the brain. The patterns of connections between the neurons form paths that guide our journey in life. The particular networks of connections that are shaped in our brain by our history of interaction with our environment give rise to our own unique thoughts and feelings, our unique personality and our unique self-identity. They form the script for the story of our life that tells us who we are and what roles we will play, should play, and even must play.
Many neuronal networks are developed early in brain develop¬ment in childhood. During the formation of every individual’s brain, his/her genes control the formation of neurons (at a rate of 50,000 every second throughout development in the uterus). During the development of the fetus, the genes also shape the connections that are formed between these neurons. However, the development of our brains is dependent not only on our genes but also on the environment in which our genes operate. For example, the environment in which the brain is developing can have considerable and lasting effects on the growing embryo (including the mother’s use of alcohol or tobacco, the social economic and health stresses she encounters, and her mental health).

Experience, Observation and Activity

There is abundant evidence that neurodevelopment is an experience dependent process. Many, perhaps most of our neural connections are created by our social experiences. These connections continue to direct our emotions, our thoughts and our behavior unless and until alternative connections are developed. Our neuroanatomy is formed by what happens to us. Our neuroanatomy is also activity dependent – it is formed by what we happen to do. Our neuroanatomy is also observationally dependent. All the observations we make create neuronal connections in our brain. Networks of brain cells store and integrate information from those activities, experiences and observations. Environmental and experiential factors continue to impact the development of the brain during childhood, during adolescence and, indeed throughout life. Our brain is a unique record of our past.

Criminogenic Risk Factors

Neuroscience studies have determined that the adverse effects on the developing brain of being exposed to adverse socio-environmental conditions can be long-term. Inadequate nutrition, poverty, low social status, abuse, deprivation, neglect, victimization, oppression, racism, social isola¬tion, alienation, and other cultural, ethnic, racial, or class influences that have been identified by many studies as criminogenic risk factors may permanently impact the development of the brain and the functioning of par¬ticular neurotransmitters and their receptor sites (Farah, Noble, and Hurt, 2006).

The brains of children who, for example, are raised in a socially toxic environment of isolation; poverty; rejection; hostility; abuse and maltreatment; or who experience consistent failure in school or in their interpersonal relations may have those experiences seared in their brains in neural networks that can trigger deep feelings of anxiety, fear, anger and hostility that can engender antisocial behavior. Enduring antisocial patterns can be developed deep in the brain early in brain develop¬ment in childhood and adolescence.


However, the brain is malleable. The brain is like the foundation of a home that is continually being built but is never finished. New connections are continually being created as our experiences, observations and experiences strengthen old connections or form new connections and confirm our identity or revise it. As Ramachandran suggests, “your brain is already being replaced every few months.”

Development of a “Prosocial Brain”

Social cognitive neuroscience has developed an understanding of how new neural connections are formed; an understanding that can enable us to guide neuranatomy formation in a prosocial direction by integrating knoledge from neuroscience with knowledge from criminology.

Criminological research conducted over the past 20 years has identified not only factors that put the individual at risk of developing an antisocial lifestyle – the risk factors (e.g. Nagin & Tremblay, 2005; Depue & Lenzenweger, 2005). It has also has identified protective factors that lead individuals to refrain from or desist from antisocial behavior – what we refer to as “prosocial growth factors”. They include cognitive, environmental, social, familial, educational, and emotional factors. Such research has significant implications for understanding how we can help antisocial individuals develop new neural pathways that will engender not antisocial but prosocial feelings, thoughts, attitudes, values and behaviors.

The brain’s plasticity and its potential for life-long development means that although early criminogenic risk factors launch a trajectory toward an antisocial life-style, experience dependent plasticity can yield a change in the direction of brain development. Experiential factors can impact the development of the brain such that the trajectory is re-directed toward a prosocial life-style and what we refer to as a “prosocial brain”. Our review of the neuroscience research indicates how that can be achieved by particular forms of program interventions designed to influence brain development such that even individuals with long histories of anti-social and criminal behavior can be led to acquire prosocial competence and a prosocial identity.

The Cognitive Behavioral Monopoly

Recent research, including a substantial number of metanalyses, has established that most offender rehabilitation programs that have been successful in reducing the recidivism of offenders have been based on a cognitive/behavioral model that focuses on changing inadequate or erroneous thinking (e.g. poor problem-solving; impulsivity; limited consequential thinking, egocentricity). For example, Lipsey, Chapman & Landenberger (2001) found that the likelihood of offenders recidivating was 55% lower for those treated in cognitive behavioral program than for control groups. Pearson et al. (2002) found that cognitive-behavioral programs yielded a average recidivism reduction of about 30%. More recently, Wilson, Bouffard & MacKenzie (2005) found recidivism reductions of 20-30%.

Here A Program, There A Program, Everywhere A Program

The metanalyses have led some ‘What Works” gurus and government appointed program Accreditation Panels to tell us that cognitive behavioural programs are ‘treatment of choice’. However, “Cognitive behavioral” has become a buzzword for the widespread marketing of a motley variety of offender programs. Programs need only be labeled “cognitive behavioral” to make them appear respectable.

Autopsy Before Mortification

The average re-offending rate for offenders released from prison or after completing a community sentence in the U.K. is approximately 58% (Cuppleditch & Evans, 2005; Cunliffe & Shepherd, 2007). Thus, the achievement of an average reduction of 20% or 30% by cognitive behavioral programs is not only statistically significant but fiscally significant in terms of the cost of criminal justice processing. It is also socially significant in terms of the suffering of many potential victims. However, it may not be good enough to be politically significant. It has not escaped the attention of many academics, criminal justice bureaucrats, journalists and politicians that many programs marketed as “cognitive behavioral” have failed. It is also no secret that a reduction of 30% in recidivism means there is 70% recidivism left. Even though many cognitive behavioral program results have been positive, they have not been positive enough to stem a growing backlash against rehabilitation.

Are We There Yet?

Metanalyses have yielded clear and persuasive evidence that offender rehabilitation can be achieved sometimes with some offenders through the application of some cognitive behavioral programs in some settings when delivered to some offenders by some staff. However, too often it has been naively and mistakenly assumed that the conclusion of the metanalyses is that “cognitive behavioral programs are the whole answer”. They are all that is required. Unfortunately, the experts’ message has too often been misread as “this way is the only way”. The research we have reveiwed raise some serious doubts about the adequacy of relying only on a cognitive behavioral approach to offender rehabilitation.

Cognition is not Enough

Imaging studies have found that when people are exposed to situa¬tions where they might consider or actually engage in antisocial behavior such as aggression or violence the heightened ac¬tivity is not only in the neo-cortex. It is not only in that area of the brain where we consciously and rationally make decisions. It is also deep in the brain. This suggests that antisocial behaviors may not be readily amenable to the rational discourse strategies we take as a basis for much of our way of dealing with antisocial individuals – our cognitive way. The growing neuroscience evidence that our actions are rooted not so much in our conscious rational thoughts as in our deeply embedded automatic thoughts and feelings raises serious questions about the wisdom of relying on cognitive behavioral treatment alone.

Automatic Thinking and Feeling

We like to think that we are in control of our thoughts, that we are rational beings. However, research has made it clear that we do not always operate in a deliberative manner. Much of the time we function on autopilot – in our automatic default mode which is neither deliberative nor even conscious. More than cognitive training is required to strongly influence the automatic antisocial thoughts and the automatic emotions that are triggered in brain areas deeper than the prefrontal cortex.

Emotions Matter

Another major challenge to the cognitive model comes from neuroscience research on emotion. The central thesis of the cognitive model is that what you think determines what you feel and how you behave. Many cognitive-behavioral programs emphasize thinking and reasoning and ignore emotion or view emotions as factors that oppose the rational part of our nature. Neuroscience has seriously challenged such a narrow view by demonstrating that our thinking and feeling systems are fundamentally intertwined. We never do just one or just the other (Damasio,1994). Our thinking and feeling systems are bi-directional with emotions impacting thoughts as frequently and as strongly as thoughts impacting emotions. Understanding emotions as well as understanding thoughts and the relationship of both to our behavior is essential to our understanding of the growth process whereby people come to desist from an antisocial life-style and develop a prosocial identity.

Cognitive-Behavioral and Beyond

Incorporating the findings of neuroscience can embellish and refine the cognitive-behavioral model. It does not reject it. It does not replace it. It extends it. The neurocriminology model does not assume that executive functions are unimportant. Our executive functions monitor and can exert significant, though not complete control of our thoughts and actions, including self-regulation, planning, cognitive flexibility and response inhibition. The development of cognitive skills enables some “top-down” control of our behavior and our feelings. Top-down control mechanisms in the brain can control unconscious processing somewhat even though we have no awareness of what is being controlled. Neuroscience evidence demonstrates that thinking can change the brain’s activity, its circuits and even its structure.

Changing Brains

It may seem to be a considerable cognitive leap to assume that we can change the brain by treatment programs. However, there is evidence that indicates “yes we can”. Thanks to neuroimaging, there is persuasive evidence that psychotherapy does change the brain . Cognitive Behavior Ttherapy has been shown to change the brain in cases of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Depression and to do so in different ways than pharmacotherapy. Cognitive-behavioral programs in which participants learn to think about their thoughts differently can help “rewire” the brain.

Thinking Allowed

The cognitive model assumes that the mind can be studied in terms of its cognitive operations independently of the brain and body. However, this premise is now being challenged by the model of “embodied cognition” that rejects the separation of the body and the mind. Our brain shapes our thoughts. Our thoughts also shape our brain. Our brain and our thoughts also shape our behavior. Our behavior also shapes our thoughts and our brains. The interplay among thought, emotion, brain and environment must be studied to understand cognition..

Reasoning & Rehabilitation

One of the offender rehabilitation programs that was based on the cognitive model has been substantially revised to accord with the neurocriminology model: the Reasoning & Rehabilitation Program (R&R) (Ross & Ross, 1988). R&R was designed to teach cognitive skills to offenders that could enable them to withstand pressures toward antisocial behavior and to achieve success in legitimate pursuits. It is a cognitive-behavioral program that became the core curriculum for rehabilitation programs in forty-seven penitentiaries across Canada for the nation’s most serious offenders. The program has since been delivered to more than seventy thousand juvenile and adult offenders in twenty countries around the world. Its efficacy in reducing re-offending has been demonstrated in several international independent evaluations. The international research documents the success of many applications of the R&R program but also indicates several factors that limit its success.

A new edition of the R&R titled “R&R2” based on the neurocriminology model by incorporates specific techniques that a review of neuroscience research indicates can foster prosocial neurodevelopment. The new edition provides several versions that, are specifically designed not only for particular groups of offenders but also serves as a treatment program for youths in elementary and high schools who engage in antisocial behavior both in school and in the community but have not (or not yet) engaged in offending behavior:

• R&R2 for Adults
• R&R2 for Antisocial Youth
• R&R2 for Youth and Adults With Mental Health Problems
• R&R2 for Girls and Young Women
• R&R2 for ADHD Youths and Adults
• R&R2 for Families and Support Persons

Neurocriminology is Not Phrenology

The neurocriminology model will raise the hackles of those who view any suggestion of a relationship between biological factors and criminal behavior as neo-Lombrosian. The model is not based on the relationship between antisocial behavior and neurological dysfunction or neurological disease. Its focus is not on brain damage, nor on functional abnormalities nor defects in the brains of antisocial individuals, nor on the relation between crime and genetics; biochemical abnormalities (e.g., serotonin or hormone dysfunctions); high levels of testosterone; pathophysiology, poor nutrition, head injury; premature birth; perinatal trauma; fetal alcohol syndrome; food or chemical sensitivities; or environmental contaminants (e.g. smoke; lead; manganese; mercury; and pesticides). Without denying the possible relevance of such risk factors for antisocial behavior, the neurocriminology model is not a “faulty brain” theory.

Nor do the interventions proposed by the neurocriminology model include neurosurgery, psychopharmacology, genetic tampering or some kind of ‘criminectomy’. The model is based on social science and neuroscience research that indicates how noninvasive prosocial cognitive, emotional, behavioral skills training; prosocial role-playing; simulation training; imaging; meditation; some neurobic brain training exercises; and prosocial experiences can foster neural and social development.

The neurocriminology model is compatible with the view that antisocial or criminal behavior is a function of a host of biological, psychological, social, environmental, economic, situational, and personal choice factors. Accordingly, the model is labeled “neurocriminology” rather than “biology and crime” since the model is based not only on biological or neurological factors, but on a host of other factors that are the subject matter of criminology. When Hilborn and Leps (2005) introduced the term, “neurocriminology” they did so in preference to the cumbersome, “biopsychosociological criminology”.

Neurocriminology is not craniometry. Neuroscience has not led to the invention of a crimomometer.

It’s Not All In Your Head

A systemic view of antisocial behavior recognizes that such behavior is influenced by a whole range of internal and external factors. Antisocial behavior occurs within a predisposing social context and is responsive to situational and precipitating events. As Pollak (2003) noted, it is not only what is in their heads, but what their heads are in.

Crime and Biology

Almost 30 years ago, C. Ray Jeffery called for a criminology that was a synthesis of the behavioral, social, and biological sciences (1977). His call appears to have fallen on deaf ears. It was summarily dismissed without a hearing by many criminologists who heard only the ‘B word’ (Biology) and declared that crime is a complex phenomenon that cannot be explained (or explained away) by simple-minded or single-minded biological explanations (even though biology was only one of the disciplines to which Jeffery’s proposal referred). However, the relationship between a host of biological factors and crime has now been thoroughly reviewed in recent books (e.g. Anderson, 2006; Glicksohn, 2002).

Criminology has long touted itself as multidisciplinary. It has claimed to rest on an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach to explaining crime and reducing crime; one that taps and integrates the knowledge of law, sociology, psychology and other disciplines. That has been easy to say, but not so easy to achieve. Many Departments of Criminology share a common characteristic – a somewhat myopic adherence to one or another ideological viewpoint that focuses on one aspect of the human being and society to the exclusion of other views. Many departments tend to reject anything but their own party line and decry the viewpoints and possible contribution of other disciplines that do not jibe with their own. Criminology has been multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary, but usually in name only.

Social cognitive neuroscience seeks to understand the interactions between the environmental, social, cognitive and neural levels of analysis (Ochsner & Lieberman, 2001). One might think that that would spark the interest of criminologists. However, the social cognitive neuroscience movement seems to have passed criminology by. Understanding crime and reducing crime is certainly not a “no-brainer”, but much of Criminology might be said to be ‘brainless’.

“My Amygdala Made Me do It”

The neurocriminology model assumes that antisocial and criminal behavior are a function of interactions among mul¬tiple neurocognitive and neurobehavioral systems that are shaped by environmental, situational and experiential events. Thus, the model does not hold brains or neurotransmitters or synpases responsible for antisocial behavior. The model assumes that individuals are responsible for their behavior as do other explanations of criminal behavior such as psycho-dynamic, socioeconomic or social learning models. We have free will but we also have “free won’t…our brains don’t just ‘make us do it’, they also have specialized systems for stopping us from doing it” (Farah et al., 2006). We are not automatons.

The neurocriminology model does not assume biological determinism. There are many factors outside the brain that influence how we behave. We are not prisoners of our genes. Genes do not simply predetermine our neuroanatomy so that it unavoidably ripens like blossoms on a tree. Our genes do shape our neural development, but we do not simply inherit criminality – “what children inherit are toxic environments” (Pollak, 2003).

We still can choose to behave prosocially even though our environment, our experience or our inadequate neurological development severely limits the nature, number, variety and quality of prosocial alternatives from which we can choose. Unfortunately, even when they have choices many antisocial individuals have not learned to make the best ones.

Excerpted from “Rehabilitating Rehabilitation: neurocriminology for Treatmment of Antisocial Behaviour” (Ross & Hilborn, 2008. Ottawa: Cognitive Centre of Canada, University of Ottawa, Email:[email protected])

4 thoughts on “Neurocriminology For Offender Rehabilitation

  1. I currently lead a succesful restorative program for young offenders. Its called U-Turn and you can visit
    My particular interest in neuro-science leads me with interst into your article. In this program we work intensively with young offenders for ten weeks. We offer training in Cert 1, we do up a car and present it to a victim of crime. We offer rewards for good behaviour. We have a group program that looks at problem solving, identity, decision making, moral reasoning. We play games and do role play. We challenge attitudes and model pro-social behaviouras. We have a case management system that identifies criminogenic need and sets goals accordingly. We do activities like go karting each week. But what else can we do? What else works?

    • Your program appears to be a good fit of the neurocriminology model.

      You might consider improving it by adopting some of the recently developed R&R2 programs that you will find described on the web-site:

      Please send me further information on your program – location, clientele, staff.

      Best wishes

      R.R.Ross Ph.D
      Professor (ret)
      Department of Criminology
      University of Ottawa.

  2. The present trend to promote programs of restorative justice throughout the developed world can only be facilitated by the findings of neurocriminology. The field of prisoner rehabilitation is as yet under-professionalized and under-researched. Programs are generally offered without consideration for prisoner cognitive capacities or related learning potentials. That is not to say that cognitive ‘technologies’ for diagnosis, training, and treatment and prevention do not exist. However, they are still closer to laboratory needs and applications than to the requirements of the clinic and the centres of incarceration. It is as though technology for the show-room Rolls Royce is being applied willy nilly to a beat-up Mini. What is clearly required are a range of cognitive test batteries, each thoroughly integrated with programs of cognitive enhancement that will enable prisoners to begin to use standard programs of social and occupation rehabilitation. These programs can then be compared and refined as the field edges towards more standardised approaches in neurocriminology. We are working on this task at a prison in Northern Israel. Currently we are assembling a simple-to apply and simple to interpret cognitive test battery, and on the means for using this to enhance rehab programs. We would like to make contact with others who share our aims and aspirations.

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