Understanding Recidivism Through Child Abuse and Mental Health

In 2016, Chicago struggled with the highest number of homicides the city has seen in more than a decade. Lawmakers are now scrambling to find solutions to curb the violence plaguing neighborhoods across the city. Recently, Illinois state legislators representing Chicago have suggested increased sentencing for repeat offenders as a means of removing those who are most likely to commit violent crimes from the streets. Yet, a recent study published in BMC Psychiatry and conducted by researchers Eun Young Kim, Jiung Park and Bongseog Kim suggests that there may be a better solution to preventing an individual’s relapse into criminal behavior. The authors find that identifying and addressing psychological issues caused by child abuse and neglect, when present, can reduce recidivism.

The study focuses on how five types of childhood maltreatment—emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical abuse, physical neglect, and sexual abuse—impact adult probationers and their likelihood to commit another crime. Abuse victimization as a child is closely linked to the development of mental disorders, so the authors looked at the associations between abuse and mental illness, mental illness and recidivism, and abuse independent of mental illness and recidivism in order to better identify the root causes of an individual committing repeat offenses. They assessed 183 adult probationers, over half of whom were males, to determine individual histories of child abuse and/or neglect, as well as levels of emotional regulation.

First, they found a significant relationship between major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and alcohol use disorder and recidivism. These mental illnesses were far more prevalent in probationers who had a history of childhood maltreatment. They also found that physical neglect, defined as a guardian failing to provide for a child’s basic needs like food, shelter, clothing and safety, acts as an independent predictor of criminal recidivism; it is worth noting that physical neglect is also highly correlated with poverty. This held true even after the researchers controlled for mental health problems. While a causal relationship cannot be inferred from these results, it is clear from this study that child maltreatment and mental illness are associated with both the likelihood to commit crime and the likelihood of recidivism.

This study provides a basis for holistic solutions that focus on both the incarcerated and their families in order to reduce the likelihood of recidivism. The authors note that repeated interactions with the criminal justice system tend to occur within the same neighborhoods and families, and these interactions can cause gaps in care and physical neglect that the study shows are linked to increased odds of affected children later committing crimes. Therefore, the study indicates that preventing physical neglect should be an important point of any intervention to address the prevalence of crime in the long term.

An increase in funding for social services, perhaps through tax dollars saved from a reduced prison population, would better equip social workers to identify and intervene in situations of neglect or abuse. Providing individuals who have committed crimes with opportunities to rehabilitate, contribute to their families, and raise their children could also go a long way in empowering the formerly incarcerated to break this cycle of violence within their own families.

There are almost 50,000 adults currently being held in Illinois prisons, over half of whom are violent offenders. Addressing mental health issues for those who suffer from them is one way to help prevent recidivism. However, as the authors indicate in their paper, focusing on childhood maltreatment and its impact on mental health can also reduce rates of psychological deterioration and thoughts of suicide. In this respect, the proposed solution for recidivism also addresses other barriers to a healthy life.

Improving access to mental health resources, such as individual and family therapy and psychiatric treatment, may provide a cheaper and longer-lasting solution to preventing crime than other approaches. As this study suggests, probationers are uniquely accessible because of required repeated interactions with state officials and their need for meaningful mental health interventions. Moreover, improving the delivery of mental health services improves researchers’ ability to evaluate and determine the potential impact these services have on individuals and communities, which should help facilitate effective and informed policy solutions in the future.

Article Source: Kim, E. Y., Park, J., & Kim, B. Type of Childhood Maltreatment and the Risk of Criminal Recidivism in Adult Probationers: A Cross-Sectional Study.” BMC Psychiatry 16: 294 (2016).

Featured photo: cc/(nambitomo, photo ID: 500696260, from iStock by Getty Images)

Anne Gunderson
Engineer turned policymaker. Detroiter turned Chicagoan.

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