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6 traits that lead to criminal behavior

In order to best rehabilitate offenders, we need to know how likely they are to reoffend; here’s a look into the process of determining recidivism rates

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, written in a personal capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, or any other governmental agency.

Criminal behavior is often a difficult topic to discuss, as there are many different variables that must be taken into account in order to truly define and obtain a thorough understanding of the concept. What is criminal behavior? “A criminal act occurs when there is a motive, a means, and an opportunity. Criminal behaviors that lead offenders to recidivate are often called “risk factors” or “criminogenic needs” (National Institution of Corrections & Services). One of the ways to attempt to understand criminal behavior is to gain comprehension and knowledge of criminogenic needs. These needs are traits associated with criminal thinking and behavior. It has also been dynamically defined as “crime producing factors that are strongly associated with risk” (Latessa & Lowenkamp, 2005). There are several factors related to increasing risk and criminality related to individuals exhibiting criminogenic traits; however, there is an identified beginning to criminal behavior, and it starts with biology and genetics.

Biological risk factors can be defined as “anything that impinges on the child from conception to birth” (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 2010). Many people would be surprised to hear that criminal behavior can be broken down and identified as early as conception. However, if we consider the fact that parents genetically pass on their prior behavior, we can try to begin to understand that parents who may have possessed criminogenic needs, could potentially pass on those traits that lead to criminal behavior. “Genes even help shape the environment. Genes influence how parents bring up their children; genes affect the responses that children evoke from their families and the others around them; and, as children grow older, genes sway their choice of companions and surroundings” (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 2010). Genes can define an individual’s ability to control temperament, impulsivity, low self-esteem, and a lack of empathy.

One of the easiest topics to discuss as it relates to how biological factors can contribute to criminal behavior would be substance abuse. “When the faces of sisters and brothers in a family resemble those of their parents, physical inheritance has clearly played a role in the clustering of physical characteristics within the family” (Miller & Carroll, 2006). If physical characteristics are passed on from generation to generation, it is certainly possible for psychological characteristics to be passed on as well. Some of those psychological characteristics include genes that are directly associated with substance abuse, which can often lead to increased negative criminal behavior.

Once an individual crosses over into the justice system, it is our responsibility as a society to make every attempt possible to rehabilitate. I am not so naïve to think that we can change everyone; however, I do believe we can change those that may simply be tired of the system, or are ambivalent about whether they want to change. Believe it or not, there are plenty of people that want to change, but they simply don’t know how. The best practice for achieving potential success is by using a combination of resources that are now being implemented by many agencies across the nation. The first involves assessing an individuals’ risk of recidivism by using a validated assessment tool. This calculates the likelihood an individual will commit additional crime based on various factors such as prior criminal history, marital status, age, a history of drug or alcohol abuse, employment and educational history, as well as financial status. All of these factors can help identify the percentage of risk a person portrays, and their likelihood that they will be arrested. These assessment tools are accurate, and can even break down the probability to identify the risk of re-arrest within a six month period. The higher the risk, the higher the chance that the individual will be back in the system with another criminal charge. While assessing risk can assist probation officers in learning how to monitor an individual, it is only a small part of an algebraic equation that can be used to help change the criminal mindset.

The second part of the assessment tool involves identifying criminogenic needs. As discussed earlier, these are traits that a person possesses that can lead to criminal behavior. There are a few schools of thought on this matter. One study found a person could possess up to eight traits, while others identified that a person can possess up to six. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on six:

1. Anti-social values: This is also known as criminal thinking. It includes criminal rationalization or the belief that their criminal behavior was justified. Individuals possessing this trait often blame others for their negative behavior, and show a lack of remorse.

2. Criminal Peers: Individuals with this trait often have peers that are associated with criminal activities. Most are often involved with substance abuse including drugs or alcohol. Peer influence often persuades the individual to engage in criminal behavior. They will also typically present with a lack of pro-social community involvement.

3. Anti-social personality: These traits often include atypical behavior conducted prior to the age of fifteen and can include, running away, skipping school, fighting, possessing weapons, lying, stealing and damage to either animals or property.

4. Dysfunctional family: One of the most common traits includes a lack of family support, both emotionally and otherwise. An individual’s family lacks the ability to problem solve and often is unable to communicate effectively. Family members often don’t possess the ability to express emotions in an appropriate manner. More often than not, they are also involved with criminal activity.

5. Low self-control: This involves one’s ability to control temperament and impulsivity. People that carry this trait often do things that they didn’t plan, and will fail to think before acting. The mindset is of the here and now, and not on the consequences of the behavior.

6. Substance abuse: The use of drugs or alcohol that significantly affect one’s ability to engage in a successful and productive lifestyle. There is often an increased tolerance to substances, in addition to an inability to stop use.

A normal assessment process can take approximately sixty day to complete; any more or less can lead to inaccurate results that may be skewed. Once an officer has an idea of the risk level and has identified the criminogenic traits involved, they can begin the supervision using appropriate tactics that will help motivate the individual to be successful, but also hold them accountable by using appropriate sanctions to correct negative behavior during the entire course of supervision. In Part II of this article, we will discuss some possible ways to enhance motivation, in addition to identifying a few of the appropriate methods of addressing accountability to ensure compliance with court ordered sanctions.

What would you do to help reduce recidivism? Are you already practicing similar tactics? Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions.


Kaiser, B., & Rasminsky, J. (2010, October 25). Biological Risk Factors for Challenging Behavior. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from

Latessa, E. J., & Lowenkamp, C. (2005). Community Corrections: Research and Best Practices. Cincinnati, OH: Division of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati.

Miller, W., & Carroll, K. (2006). Rethinking Substance Abuse. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

National Institution of Corrections, U. D., & Services, M. D. (n.d.). tools of the trade, a guide to incorporating science into practice.

This article, originally published May 20, 2015, has been updated.

Criminal justice practitioner with over sixteen years of experience working in multiple facets of the justice system. John began his career in 1998 working in the probation field in Massachusetts. He relocated to the State of Georgia where he initially worked as an adult probation officer in Atlanta. After having an opportunity to attend the police academy, he worked as a law enforcement officer, where he focused his training on advanced field sobriety and traffic enforcement. John has a wide array of experience, and has previously held the position of corporal, as well as being a certified field training officer. He was assigned to the criminal investigations division and worked as both lead detective and as a crime scene technician. In 2009, John relocated to Charlotte, NC to work as a probation and parole officer. In 2014, he was selected to join the administration, and he currently holds the position of Assistant Chief of Special Operations for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. His main responsibilities involve the development and implementation of a field training program. John is a certified criminal justice general instructor for the State of North Carolina.

John has achieved several academic accomplishments. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. While there, he obtained an associate’s degree in criminal justice, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a certificate in law enforcement science. In 2009, John obtained a master’s degree in strategic leadership from Mountain State University. He recently completed a second graduate degree earning a master of science in criminal justice from Boston University. John currently serves on multiple public safety advisory committees, including Central Piedmont Community College, ECPI University, and Kaplan University. In addition to holding several academic degrees, he has three years of experience working as an adjunct professor of organizational leadership for undergraduate degree seeking students.