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Beyond a Crime Gene: Genetic Literacy and Correctional Orientation

Abstract

Is there a “crime gene”? This question has been answered by the scientific community, and the response is a definitive “no.” Yet, it is unclear whether this information has been communicated to the general public. Furthermore, it is unclear whether people’s views about the genetics of crime influence their perceptions of the way offenders should be treated. This study uses attribution theory to understand how perceptions of the role of genetic factors in criminal behavior influence beliefs about the punishment, redeemability, and rehabilitation of offenders. Drawing on a national sample of White respondents (N = 392), this study finds that only a small proportion believe there is a single crime gene. Compared to other respondents, those who believe crime is caused by a single gene believe that punishment should be weakened, are less supportive of rehabilitation efforts, and believe that offenders are less capable of redemption. Implications of these findings are discussed.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    These scale characteristics correspond with previous research using the care/harm scale (see, e.g., Chowdhury, 2019; Smith, Alford, Hibbing, Martin, & Hatemi, 2017; Yilmaz & Saribay, 2017).

  2. 2.

    At the request of reviewers, the SUR model was estimated with the genetic literacy variable recoded as a dichotomy between the “gene X environment interaction” response and all others. Additionally, a reviewer suggested collapsing the “single gene” and “several genes” responses into one category when estimating this model. Neither of these models produced estimates for genetic literacy that were substantively different from the models presented in Table 3, so we opted to present the SUR model because it had greater explained variation in the dependent variables than the models estimated using the coding of this variable as suggested by reviewers. These results are available upon request.

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Appendix

Appendix

Racial Resentment

How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements: (1 = strongly agree to 5 = strongly disagree)

  1. 1.

    It is really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as Whites

  2. 2.

    Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors

  3. 3.

    Over the past few years, Blacks have gotten less than they deserve (R)

  4. 4.

    Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class (R)

Redeemability

How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements: (1 = strongly agree to 5 = strongly disagree)

  1. 1.

    Given the right conditions, the average offender can turn their lives around and become law-abiding citizens

  2. 2.

    The average offender can go on to lead productive lives with help and hard work

  3. 3.

    The average offender is so damaged that they can never lead productive lives (R)

  4. 4.

    The average offender is unlikely to change for the better (R)

  5. 5.

    Despite their best efforts, the average offender just can’t manage to go back to living straight (R)

  6. 6.

    It’s possible for the average offender to change and lead a law-abiding life

Rehabilitation

How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements: (1 = strongly agree to 5 = strongly disagree)

  1. 1.

    It is a good idea to provide treatment for offenders who are supervised by the courts and live in the community

  2. 2.

    Rehabilitation programs should be available even for offenders who have been involved in a lot of crime in their lives

  3. 3.

    All rehabilitation programs have done is to allow criminals who deserve to be punished to get off easily (R)

  4. 4.

    It is important to try to rehabilitate adults who have committed crimes and are now in the correctional system

  5. 5.

    I would not support expanding the rehabilitation programs that are now being undertaken in our prisons (R)

Offender Exclusion

How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements: (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree)

  1. 1.

    If someone is convicted of a crime, they should be permanently excluded from sitting on a jury, even after they have paid their debt to society.

  2. 2.

    If I owned a company, I would never hire an ex-offender because I could never really trust them.

  3. 3.

    More often than not, it is a good idea to put criminal records on the Internet for anyone to see.

  4. 4.

    When prisoners return to society, we should avoid them and let them try to make it on their own.

Racial Sympathy

How much sympathy do you have for the person described in each of the scenarios below?

  1. 1.

    Michael is a young black man who lives in a Midwestern city. One day Michael is crossing the street and jaywalks in front of cars. Some local police officers see Michael jaywalk and stop and question him. Michael argues that he was just jaywalking and is otherwise a law-abiding citizen. The police officers feel that Michael is being uncooperative and so they give him a pat down to see if he is carrying any concealed weapons. Michael is very upset by this treatment.

  2. 2.

    Milford is a mid-sized city in the Northeast. The main bus depot for the city is located in the Whittier section of Milford, a primarily black neighborhood. Whittier community leaders argue that the concentration of buses produces serious health risks for residents; they point to the high asthma rates in Whittier as evidence of the bus depot’s harmful effects. The Milford Department of Transportation officials, who are mostly white, state that Whittier is the best location for the depot because it is centrally located and many Whittier residents take the bus. Furthermore, it would be expensive to relocate the bus depot to a new location. Whittier community leaders are very upset by the Department’s inaction.

  3. 3.

    Tim is a white man who owns a hair salon. His business is growing rapidly and so he decides to place an advertisement to hire new stylists. In the advertisement, he writes that interested applicants should come for an interview first thing next Monday. When he arrives at the salon on Monday, he sees a line of seven or eight people waiting outside the door, all of whom appear to be black. He approaches the line and tells the applicants that he’s sorry, but the positions have been filled. The applicants are upset; they feel they have been turned away because of their race.

  4. 4.

    Mrs. Lewis, a white woman with young children, posts advertisements for a nanny on community bulletin boards. She receives many inquiries and decides to interview all applicants over the phone. Mrs. Lewis is most impressed with a woman named Laurette, who has relevant experience, is an excellent cook, and comes enthusiastically recommended. Mrs. Lewis invites Laurette over for what she expects will be the final step of the hiring process. When Laurette arrives, Mrs. Lewis is surprised to see that Laurette is black. After Laurette’s visit, which goes very well, Mrs. Lewis thanks her for her time but says that she will not be offered the job. When Laurette asks why, Mrs. Lewis says that she doesn’t think that her children would feel comfortable around her. Laurette is upset about Mrs. Lewis’ actions.

Responses: 1 = a great deal of sympathy, 2 = a lot of sympathy, 3 = some sympathy, 4 = a little sympathy, 5 = I do not feel any sympathy.

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Graham, A., Barnes, J., Liu, H. et al. Beyond a Crime Gene: Genetic Literacy and Correctional Orientation. Am J Crim Just (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12103-020-09595-5

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Keywords

  • Genetic literacy
  • Attribution theory
  • Punishment
  • Public opinion
  • Crime gene