The Role of Callous-Unemotional Traits within Adolescent Group Offending

Forensic-Training-AcademyCallous-Unemotional (CU) traits are associated with a greater likelihood of adolescents offending in groups and being in a gang. Additionally CU traits are associated with taking a leadership role within group offending, as well as with greater levels of planning in the group offense. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

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Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2015, Vol. 39, No. 4, 368-377

 

Callous-Unemotional Traits and Adolescents’ Role in Group Crime

Authors

Laura C. Thornton, University of New Orleans
Paul J. Frick
, University of New Orleans and Australian Catholic University
Elizabeth P. Shulman, Brock University
James V. Ray, University of Texas at San Antonio
Laurence Steinberg,
 Temple University and King Abdulaziz University
James V. Ray, University of Texas at San Antonio
Elizabeth Cauffman, University of California at Irvine

Abstract

The current study examined the association of callous-unemotional (CU) traits with group offending (i.e., committing a crime with others; gang involvement) and with the role that the offender may play in a group offense (e.g., being the leader). This analysis was conducted in an ethnically and racially diverse sample (N=1,216) of justice-involved adolescents (ages 13 to 17) from 3 different sites. CU traits were associated with a greater likelihood of the adolescent offending in groups and being in a gang. Importantly, both associations remained significant after controlling for the adolescent’s age, level of intelligence, race and ethnicity, and level of impulse control. The association of CU traits with gang membership also remained significant after controlling for the adolescent’s history of delinquent behavior. Further, CU traits were associated with several measures of taking a leadership role in group crimes. CU traits were also associated with greater levels of planning in the group offense for which the adolescent was arrested, although this was moderated by the adolescent’s race and was not found in Black youth. These results highlight the importance of CU traits for understanding the group process involved in delinquent acts committed by adolescents. They also underscore the importance of enhancing the effectiveness of treatments for these traits in order to reduce juvenile delinquency.

Keywords

adolescents, callous-unemotional (CU) traits, delinquency, gang membership, group offending

Summary of the Research

Past research conducted on juvenile delinquency has indicated three comprehensive findings regarding adolescent offending. First, most adolescent crime is committed in groups and it is rare to find antisocial adolescents who only commit crimes alone. Second, association with deviant peers is highest in adolescents who have developmentally inappropriate levels of callous and unemotional (CU) traits (i.e., deficits in empathy). Third, adolescents with higher levels of CU traits, in comparison to other antisocial adolescents, are more likely to commit crimes in groups. Taken together, research has consistently demonstrated that adolescents frequently offend with deviant peers in groups, especially when the adolescent has higher levels of CU traits.

In an attempt to replicate previous findings outside a serious offender sample, the current study utilized a sample of first-time adolescent males in the juvenile justice system across three states. “We assumed, based on past work, that the majority of crime in the adolescent sample would be committed in groups and we asked the adolescents to report on their role in a crime committed with others. From these data, we tested the prediction that CU traits would be associated with adolescents reporting that the crime was less spontaneous and that they played a leadership role in planning and carrying out the crimes committed with others” (p. 369).

Researchers controlled for several variables that were likely to be associated with both CU traits and being the leader in a group crime: adolescents’ history of offending behavior, intelligence, and impulse control. Age and race or ethnicity were considered as potential moderators in the association of CU traits and adolescent group crime.

Results suggested that CU traits have an association with adolescents’ participation in group crime and being in a gang, which is consistent with previous findings. However, results indicated that “the association between CU traits and group offending was not independent of the number of previous offenses reported by the adolescent, whereas the association between CU traits and gang membership was independent of previous offending” (p. 373). This finding could indicate that “gang membership is indicative of more than just group offending” (p. 373).

The findings of this study also contribute to our understanding of the association between CU traits and adolescents’ report of taking a leadership role in group crimes. “CU traits were related to taking a leadership role in group crimes and this was independent of the adolescent’s age, race/ethnicity, intelligence, and level of impulse control. However, for only one of these three variables (i.e., endorsing a leadership role in past offenses) did this association remain significant after controlling for the adolescent’s history of offending” (p 373).

“Influence on peers may be related to adolescents with CU traits having the skills and motivation to manipulate and exploit others. However, it is also possible that adolescents with elevated CU traits show higher levels of narcissistic traits and these traits may make them more likely to perceive themselves as leaders and overestimate the importance of their roles in group crimes” (p. 373).

“Contrary to predictions, CU traits were not negatively associated with the crime being unplanned and spontaneous. This finding is inconsistent with results from samples of adolescents incarcerated in adult prisons for serious violent crimes and adolescents who committed sex offenses, in which CU traits were associated with greater levels of planning and premeditation. One possible reason for this inconsistent finding may be that this association is only found among adolescents who commit more severe and often violent offenses. However, our findings suggested another possible explanation. Specifically, we found an interaction between CU traits and race/ethnicity in the likelihood of committing an unplanned and spontaneous act. That is, for White non-Latino adolescents, those higher in CU traits were less likely to report that the index offense had “just happened,” whereas for Black adolescents, there was no association between these variables.”(p. 374).

Translating Research into Practice

Clinicians may benefit from understanding the role that CU traits play in offenses committed by adolescents. Adolescents who displayed higher levels of CU traits were found to play a more dominant role in the commission of the offenses. This study also highlighted the importance of parsing out gang related crime from general group crime, as CU traits contribute to gang membership and “gang membership may be indicative of a more serious and chronic pattern of offending” (p 373).

“Findings that CU traits are related to gang membership and taking a leadership role in group offending highlight the importance of improving treatment for adolescents with CU traits, and the promise that such interventions might hold for reducing juvenile crime more generally. In the past, persons with CU traits have been considered to be resistant to treatments, but recent work suggests that adolescents with elevated CU traits do respond to intensive multi-component treatments that are tailored to their unique emotional, cognitive, and motivation styles” (p. 376). The development of effective treatment for adolescents with CU traits, particularly those adolescents who are in contact with the juvenile justice system, may reduce the incidence of juvenile crime.

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The predicted association of CU traits with the probability of committing the index offense with others was not found among Black youth. Similarly, the association between CU traits and lifetime group offending was weaker for Black adolescents. Also, the association between CU traits and being the leader of the index group offense was not observed among Black youth.

Results suggest that future studies should explore whether CU traits are related to group offending differently for Black adolescents compared with adolescents of other ethnicities or whether findings that rely solely on official records lead to differences in findings across ethnic groups because of differential processing by the juvenile justice system” (p. 374).

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Authored By: Amanda Beltrani

DarkBlue-Forensic-Training-AcademyBeltraniAmandaAmanda Beltrani is a current graduate student in the Forensic Psychology Masters program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, specifically, criminal matter evaluations. Amanda plans to continue her studies in a doctoral program after completion of her Masters degree.

Mental Health and Substance Use Associated with Criminal Activity in Adolescent Inpatients

Forensic-Training-AcademyOlder age, male gender, previous admission to a psychiatric facility, a history of childhood maltreatment, limited insight into mental illness, substance use, disorders of childhood/adolescence, and aggressive behavior are found to be associated with criminal activity among adolescent inpatients. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health| 2015, Vol. 14, No. 1, 33-44

Prevalence and Correlates of Criminal Activity in Adolescents Treated in Adult Inpatient Mental Health Beds in Ontario, Canadaijfmh

Authors

Shannon L. Stewart, Western University
Philip Baiden, University of Toronto
Wendy den Dunnen, University of Ottawa
John P. Hirdes, University of Waterloo
Christopher Perlman, University of Waterloo

Abstract

Using logistic regression, this study seeks to examine the prevalence and correlates of criminal involvement in the previous year among adolescents in inpatient psychiatric facilities across Ontario, Canada. A sample of 2,613 adolescents aged 12 to 18 years who were admitted to adult inpatient mental health beds were examined. Just over one quarter of adolescents engaged in criminal activity within the past year. Older age, male gender, previous psychiatric admissions, a history of child abuse, poor insight into mental illness, substance use, specific types of mental health disorders, and aggressive behavior were all significantly associated with the presence of prior criminal activity. The well-founded association between mental health problems, substance use, and criminal behavior highlights the need for effective screening in settings providing services in the areas of juvenile justice, mental health, and addictions. Clinician awareness in all three settings is recommended so that these factors associated with at-risk behavior can be identified and appropriate treatment and referrals can be provided at the earliest point of involvement with any of these service systems.

Keywords: criminal activity, adolescents, mental health, insight, substance use

Summary of the Research

In adolescence research, many studies have shown that criminal activity rises in early adolescence, peaks in adolescence, and begins to decline in adulthood. This pattern can also be seen in a data analysis from the Canadian Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) survey, which indicated that in 2010 crime rates were the highest among individuals between the ages of 15 to 20 years.

Various factors have been associated with adolescent criminal activity, such as being a male, having mental health problems, and a history of maltreatment. For female adolescents, experiencing sexual abuse and family problems increases the likelihood of participating in delinquent and criminal activity. “While the majority of patients with mental illness do not engage in illegal activity, the risk of engaging in criminal activity increases for some patients with mental illness. In one of the first Canadian studies documenting the rates of mental health problems in incarcerated adolescents, Ulzen and Hamilton in 1998 found that psychiatric disorders and related comorbidities were 7 to 8 times higher than that exhibited in a matched community sample. This finding clearly outlines the fact that many adolescents in conflict with the law are struggling with underlying mental health issues.” (p. 34) Additionally, maladaptive behaviors, such as lying, cheating, stealing, teasing, and bullying, are associated with adolescents who experience maltreatment and trauma-related events.

Although many predictors have been identified for criminal activity, “systematic reviews produced by both Collins et al. (2010) and Fazel and Danesh (2002) indicated that research, particularly on the relationship between mental illness and criminal activity among adolescents, is still underdeveloped relative to what is known among adults. Most of the existing studies on insight into mental illness with adults have found that individuals with poor insight into their mental illness have an increased risk of engaging in violent behavior. Buckley et al. (2004) also found that individuals with poor insight into their mental illness were not only more likely to engage in violent crime, but they were also less likely to accept responsibility for their crime. However, it is unknown whether these associations found in adult populations are consistent for adolescents.” (p. 34)

The current study examined “the prevalence and correlates of criminal involvement among adolescents in inpatient psychiatric facilities across Ontario, Canada.” (p. 33) It was undertaken to add to the existing, limited knowledge on the prevalence and correlates of criminal activity for adolescents with mental health problems. The objective was to further examine factors associated with criminal involvement in a large sample of Canadian, adolescent inpatients. In particular, it aimed to examine previously identified correlates of criminal activity in adolescence, such as age, gender, previous maltreatment, and various mental health problems, to provide increased empirical evidence and understanding related to these factors. In addition, this study examined the role of insight into mental illness on criminal activity in this inpatient sample… Given that many adolescents with mental health problems do not engage in criminal activity, it is possible that insight into one’s mental illness may differentiate those who engage in such activities from those who do not.” (p. 35)

This study used retrospective data from the Ontario Mental Health Reporting System, collected by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) using the Resident Assessment Instrument-Mental Health (RAI-MH) from October 2005 through March 2011. The adolescent inpatients in the study were between the ages of 12 and 18 and were admitted into adult inpatient mental health beds in Ontario, Canada for more than 72 hours. The final analysis included 2, 613 adolescents with a mean age of 17.15 (SD=1.13).

Variables on the RAI-MH include demographic and background factors, history of involvement with the criminal justice system, mental health service use history, reasons for referrals, mental state indicators, physical and behavioral factors, substance use and excessive behaviors, self-harm and harm to others, history of abuse and other traumatic events, medications, and provisional DSM-IV diagnostic categories.

Translating Research into Practice           

This study found that age, gender, previous psychiatric admissions, aggressions, history of child abuse, level of insight into mental illness, substance use, and certain mental health diagnoses were associated with criminal activity. “In particular, impulse control disorders, disorders of childhood/ adolescence, and schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses were associated with a history of involvement in illegal activity. A significant proportion of youth (one in four) admitted for mental health issues had a history of criminal activity within the past 12 months. However, this is lower than what has been previously reported for criminal involvement of adolescents in inpatient, psychiatric treatment.” (p. 39)

“The association between childhood abuse and engaging in criminal activity supports the long-standing findings related to the cycle of aggression and violent behavior. Specifically, child abuse is a risk factor for aggressive behavior among children and youth and it increases the likelihood of future antisocial behaviors by more than five times. Such trauma in childhood has been specifically linked to an increase in a variety of lifelong criminal behaviors.” (p. 39)

“One important contribution of this study to the existing literature was the association found between level of insight into mental illness and adolescent criminal activity. Most of the existing studies on insight into mental illness examined adult samples. The current findings suggest that the relationship between poor insight into mental illness and increased risk of engaging in violent behavior is consistent throughout adolescence and adulthood.” (p. 40)

“This study found that about 80% of adolescent patients had limited or no insight into their mental illness. Poor insight is a common phenomenon among patients with mental illness, particularly those suffering from psychosis. Adolescents who lack insight into their mental illness may require more extensive work establishing a realistic understanding of their mental illness and identifying problematic symptoms before treatment is commenced. The degree of awareness or insight may be a protective factor that influences the risk of criminal involvement in mentally ill adolescents. Evaluating insight and incorporating interventions that address self-awareness deficits is an important primary goal for treatment. This approach to treatment could also allow for the identification and application of more adaptive behavioral responses in stressful situations and potentially prevent future engagement in criminal actions.” (p. 40)

“Mental health interventions for adolescent patients who exhibit violent and aggressive behavior should focus on enhancing prosocial skills in order to moderate their violent and aggressive behaviors. Approaches to enhance adaptive emotion-regulation strategies, such as teaching these adolescents about the need to reflect on their actions before responding to events, have been found to be effective. Mindfulness training has also been found to improve aggressive and disruptive behaviors in adolescents with conduct disorders as it teaches adolescents to attend to conditions that trigger maladaptive behaviors. The well-founded association between mental health problems, substance use, and criminal behavior also highlights the need for effective screening in the juvenile justice, mental health, and substance use settings. Clinicians in all three service settings should be aware of and screen for the factors associated with at-risk behavior so that appropriate treatment and referrals can be provided at the earliest point of involvement with any of these systems, preferably before all three of these high-risk factors become areas of concern. This is particularly important given that previous admission to a psychiatric facility was associated with criminal activity, indicating that earlier targeted treatment for criminal behavior and mental health problems may have been possible.” (p. 40)

“Children and adolescents receiving services in mental health, juvenile justice, or substance use settings should be screened for these risk factors and provided targeted treatment to increase insight into their mental illness and reduce aggressive behavior, mental health problems, and involvement in criminal activity as early as possible to prevent further problems with the justice system in adulthood.” (p.41)

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Authored By: Betsy Galicia

GaliciaBetsy-pictureBetsy E. Galicia is a graduate student born and raised in Houston, Texas pursuing her MA in Forensic Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is interested in cultural differences in forensic assessments and cultural competency. She plans to write a thesis on these topics and go on to earn a doctoral degree. Other interests include traveling and exploring the world, going to parks, riding her bike, and re-reading The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Developmental Factors May Contribute to Adolescent Offending

lhbDevelopmental factors serve to tip adolescents’ risk appraisals toward risk-taking, which contributes to adolescent offending. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2013, Vol. 37, No. 6, 412-423

Reward-Biased Risk Appraisal and Its Relation to Juvenile Versus Adult Crime

Author

Elizabeth P. Shulman, University of Pennsylvania and Temple University
Elizabeth Cauffman, University of California, Irvine

Abstract

To what extent is criminal behavior in adolescence attributable to risk appraisal? Using two large cross-sectional samples (N = 929, age range: 10 –30 years; and N = 1,357, age range: 12–24 years), we examine whether (a) reward bias in risk appraisal is more prominent in adolescence and (b) the association between risk appraisal and criminal behavior is stronger during adolescence than at other ages. In Study 1, criminal behavior was self-reported; in Study 2, it was defined by involvement with the court. Perceived chances of a negative outcome, seriousness of consequences, and benefits versus costs of various risky activities were assessed to gauge reward bias in risk appraisal. The findings indicate that reward bias is elevated during the adolescence years. Also, risk appraisal bears a stronger relation to self-reported crime in middle adolescence and to official law-breaking behavior in early adolescence than at other ages. The findings are consistent with a dual-systems model of adolescent development and align with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions addressing juvenile offenders’ culpability.

Keywords

risk perception, crime, risk-taking, adolescence, reward-bias

Summary of the Research

This research used two large datasets to test hypotheses regarding the relations between adolescent development (risk perception) and juvenile crime. The researchers “theorized that criminal behavior in adolescence results, in part, from reward bias in adolescent risk appraisal, reduced capacity to temper initial responses, and weaker ability to restrain approach impulses (resulting from risk appraisal) in the face of potential rewards. To the extent that this developmental model is correct, we would expect that reward bias in risk appraisal—the tendency to perceive greater rewards, fewer costs, and less danger associated with risky activities—would be generally more pronounced in middle adolescence than in earlier or later stages of development. In addition, if adolescents are less likely to modulate or reappraise their initial risk judgments and are less able to restrain their impulses, then we would expect the relation between risk appraisal and law-breaking behavior to be stronger among adolescents than among adults” (p. 414).

Study 1: To examine whether adolescents have elevated levels of reward bias and whether reward bias is more strongly associated with law-breaking among adolescents than adults, data from 929 participants, aged 10-30 years, recruited from 5 geographic locations (Denver, CO; Irvine, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Philadelphia, PA; Washington, DC) were analyzed. Participants in this study had completed measures of law-breaking, risk perception, age, and several control variables. Results indicated that adolescents had elevated levels of reward bias compared to adults (reward bias increased steadily until age 16-17, at which point it peaked and began to decline into adulthood). In addition, results indicated that reward bias is more strongly associated with (self-reported) law-breaking behavior among adolescents than adults. “Age, IQ, and sex were also linearly associated with law-breaking behavior such that older individuals, higher IQ individuals, and females reported less law-breaking behavior than did younger individuals, lower IQ individuals, and males” (p. 416). One shortcoming of this study is that the data for both risk perception and law-breaking behavior were self-reported. The next study addressed this limitation.

Study 2: To examine whether the results of Study 1 were replicable, data from 1,357 participants, aged 11-24 years, drawn from 4 geographic regions (Los Angeles, CA; Philadelphia, PA; Virginia; Florida) were analyzed. Half of the participants were court-involved individuals, recruited from juvenile detention facilities and adult jails, whereas the other half of the participants were drawn from the community and had no court involvement. Court involvement was used as an index of law-breaking behavior (as a means of addressing the limitation of using self-reports of law-breaking behavior in Study 1). Results indicated that community (non-court involved) adolescents showed elevated levels of reward bias compared to adults (reward bias increased steadily until age 14-15, at which point it peaked and began to decline into adulthood). In addition, results indicated that reward bias is more strongly associated with law-breaking behavior (court involvement) among adolescents than adults.

“The findings [from both of these studies] support the hypothesis that reward bias is more strongly associated with law-breaking behavior among adolescents than adults…Overall, the results support the hypotheses that adolescent risk appraisal (compared to that of adults) is biased toward reward (over cost) and translates more directly into criminal risk-taking” (p. 419).

Translating Research into Practice

“The results of the two studies included in the present analysis support two conclusions. First, adolescents are more reward-biased in their risk appraisals than adults or preadolescents. Second, even accounting for this age effect, reward bias correlated more strongly with both self-reported law-breaking behavior (in a large community sample) and with officially alleged law-breaking behavior (in a large sample of detained/incarcerated individuals and a community comparison sample) during early-to-middle adolescence than during adulthood. These patterns are robust to adjustments for sex, intelligence, and social class. In all, the findings are consistent with the dual-systems model of adolescent development, and they support the view that adolescent offending is partly attributable to developmental factors that tip adolescents’ risk appraisal toward risk-taking” (p. 420).

The authors of this article included an important section on the study implications for legal policy. They note that this research serves to reinforce the notion that adolescent crime is, in part, a product of developmental immaturity and argue, “in light of the developmental evidence, adolescence itself should be viewed as a mitigating circumstance and adolescent defendants should be considered categorically distinct from adult defendants” (p. 421). Thus, developmental considerations might serve to mitigate blameworthiness or culpability.

The authors note that the U.S. Supreme Court has shown signs of agreeing with this position as it has considered the issue of whether immaturity mitigates culpability three times in the past decade (Roper v. Simmons, 2005; Graham v. Florida, 2010; Miller v. Alabama, 2012).

Another implication of this research is with respect to the issue of incapacitation. “If a juvenile is likely to ‘outgrow’ the factors (e.g., reward-biased risk perception, weak self-regulation) that contributed to his or her criminal behavior, then it may be unnecessary (and perhaps counterproductive [refs omitted]) to institutionalize a youth in the interest of protecting the public” (p. 421).

Finally, the authors note that “the nature of adolescent risk perception may not only increase the chances of criminal behavior, it may interfere with the deterrent intent of legal sanctions. If, as suggested by the developmental literature, adolescents tend to discount risks and future consequences, the are unlikely to give sufficient weight to the potential legal consequences of law-breaking prior to indulging in it. Rather, they will be more swayed by the potential short-term rewards of the illegal action (e.g., thrill, novelty, revenge, enhanced social status)” (p. 421).

“To summarize, developmental immaturity, insofar as it contributes to criminal behavior, diminishes adolescent culpability, reduces the benefit-to-cost ratio of incarcerating juvenile offenders, and impedes the deterrent effect of punitive responses” (p. 421).

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