Society Doesn't Cause Crime, Says Dr. Stanton E. Samenow; Criminals Do Because They Enjoy It

UPDATED 05/14/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/14/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

Murder is exciting. Robbery is exhilarating. Criminals commit crimes not because they come from underprivileged homes, take drugs or watch a lot of violence on TV but because they like to. This chilling view of criminal motivation is the centerpiece of Inside the Criminal Mind (New York Times Books, $15.50) by Dr. Stanton E. Samenow, an Alexandria, Va. psychologist who has studied criminals for 14 years. The book is a sequel to Samenow's earlier work, The Criminal Personality, a two-volume academic tome, co-authored in 1976-77 with the late Dr. Samuel Yochelson.

For eight years Samenow, 42, under Yochelson's direction, studied both jailed criminals and the criminally insane at St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington, D.C., where John W. Hinckley is now incarcerated. Like most criminal psychologists, they began their work believing that crooks were the maladjusted products of bad environments. But after probing the psyches of hundreds of inmates, they decided that the criminals weren't sick, they were just very good at manipulating psychologists. Convinced that classic psychiatry was wasted on these men, they devised a therapeutic technique designed to force criminals to confront their behavior realistically.

Samenow's work is respected by many criminologists and law enforcement personnel, but the acceptance is far from universal. Oliver J. Keller, a former head of the American Correctional Association, dismisses Samenow's book as "sensational, full of lurid stories, dogmatic statements and contradictions. The whole thing is ridiculous." Charles E. Silberman, author of the critically acclaimed 1978 study Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice, is particularly offended by Samenow's insistence that environment doesn't cause crime. "The fact is that the majority of street criminals come from slums," Silberman says. "It's not their genes, it's their environment."

Nevertheless, Samenow's ideas are employed in some U.S. prisons, and he regularly works with offenders and probation officers in the Washington, D.C. area. He discussed his controversial theories and therapy techniques with correspondent David Van Biema.

Do you really believe that kids from prosperous, happy homes are as likely to become criminals as kids from poor, unhappy homes?

Having an intact and stable family does not guarantee that a person is going to be law-abiding any more than drinking tea does. One thing doesn't have anything to do with the other.

But studies of prison populations show, for instance, that about 80 percent of all inmates claim to have been abused as children.

First of all, criminals lie. Secondly, some kids so consistently defy their parents that the parents slug them or slap them out of desperation. So you have to ask, what did the kids do to bring on this abusive treatment? As far as sexual molestation goes, I found very few criminals who had been sexually abused as children.

How do you explain the fact that most of the people in prison are poor and black?

What the statistics reflect is that our system of justice falls far short of being just. The well-heeled and influential, with their access to competent counsel, are often likely to avoid winding up behind bars.

If environment has little to do with creating crime, what does?

In my daily clinical experience I find that criminals create crime because they like it. Crime is their oxygen. It gives them a kick like nothing else.

Are you suggesting that some people are just born bad?

I don't know if I'd say that. But there are children who start showing signs of criminality as early as age 2. They don't respond to their parents' attempts to guide them, restrain them or give them affection.

At what age do most criminals start committing crimes?

At 3, 4 and 5, some children start sneaking around taking money from their mothers' purses. At 7 or 8, a kid may start getting into trouble in the neighborhood, shaking down other kids for their milk money, that kind of thing. By age 13 or 14, he's committed dozens of crimes—illegal drugs, shoplifting, assaultive patterns at school. By high school graduation, he's knee-deep in crime.

What can parents of such kids do ?

Try to be as firm and consistent as possible. Deliver consequences that are in line with the misbehavior. And be the best parent you can to your other kids. Don't spend time on guilt trips thinking you caused the problem. And don't let your marriage fall apart over it.

In what ways are criminals alike?

The criminal is a person who views the world as a chessboard. People and objects are like pawns for him to move around at will. He believes that everybody must cater to him. Trust, love, loyalty and teamwork are incompatible with the criminal's way of life.

Don't criminals have consciences?

Not like the rest of us. They can turn theirs on and off. There are some people who will commit murder but won't step on a bug.

Don't criminals want to have normal lives?

No. They think normal people are dull.

Deep down, though, don't they believe they're bad?

No. Every criminal I've ever interviewed regarded himself as a good, decent human being.

Are forgers, con artists and other white-collar criminals psychologically different from rapists and muggers?

Despite a multitude of differences in their backgrounds and crime patterns, they are all alike in how they think. A gun-toting, uneducated criminal off the streets of southeast Washington, D.C. and a crooked Georgetown businessman are extremely similar in the way they view themselves and the world.

Why are drugs so often involved in crime?

The criminal uses liquor and narcotics to help him overcome inhibitions and shut out fear of consequences.

Aren't some people more mad than bad?

Not most criminals. Dr. Yochelson's and my findings have been that most people convicted under the insanity defense aren't crazy at all. We studied them in dozens of confidential interviews over a long period of time. They were rational, purposeful and deliberate in what they did. But they were very astute at conning the system, the courts, the psychiatrists and the hospital into believing that they were mentally ill, thereby beating the charge. "Son of Sam," David Berkowitz, stated publicly that he made up his delusions to find some justification for his acts against society.

Is rehabilitation, then, a myth?

Yes. The concept doesn't apply to criminals. You can rehabilitate an old house. You can rehabilitate a stroke victim. But there is nothing to rehabilitate in a criminal because he never acquired moral values or concepts of responsible living.

Is reform possible?

Yes. But you have to reach the criminal when he is at a real low point in his life, when he's fed up with himself.

How do you begin treatment?

By holding the criminal completely responsible for his actions and making him feel total self-disgust. Criminals are told that none of their hard-luck stories are relevant. The circumstances of their lives are of no concern. They are not victims. I'm not advocating locking up all criminals and throwing away the key. At the heart of this program is the premise that a man is capable of choosing between good and evil.

If he chooses good, how does he change?

By drastically altering his thinking patterns and, ultimately, his entire self-image. It takes a long time, more than a year, but gradually the criminal learns how to "deter" criminal thinking and acquire moral values. For example, when he sees a woman and rape flashes through his mind, he learns to think about something else or to consider the horrendous consequences.

What success rate have you had so far?

In my work with Dr. Yochelson at St. Elizabeth's, more than a third of 30 hard-core criminals who had the therapy went straight and stayed straight.

Can criminals really change their characters?

No one talks about ex-alcoholics. Nor are there any ex-criminals.

Would most criminals be acceptable subjects for your form of therapy?

No, only the few who really want to change. For some criminals there is no hope. Like this one guy at St. Elizabeth's who quoted Paradise Lost to explain his attitude. He told us, "I'd rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven."

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