Opinion Editorials
Opinion Editorials

14 February 2022

Opinion Editorial by Betzi Pierce, CEO of NICRO

The recent story about a 21-year-old Mpumalanga man who was arrested in connection with a litany of violent crimes, again underscores the extent of violent crime in our society, as well as the urgent need to address it.

Upon hearing this story, one is left to wonder what could lead someone to behave in such a violent and gruesome way. Although no simple answer exists, we must ask, 'what is likely to be the cause of this behaviour?'

In reality, there is a complex interaction of a combination of factors that could lead to this outcome. We must consider whether the suspected offender may have been the victim of physical or sexual abuse themselves; whether they had exposure to violence in their family and community; and whether they have a history of violent and high-risk behaviour. Should there be a history of such behaviour, we need to keep in mind that the younger it starts, the more violent and the greater the propensity to commit such crimes will be.

While trying to understand the compounding factors that underscore violent behaviour, we also need to look at genetic factors; whether brain or head injury has been suffered; whether the use of drugs and alcohol is at play; and whether a combination of stressful family and socioeconomic factors exist. These could include poverty, severe deprivation, single parenting or living with aged grandparents, as well as the loss of support from extended family, to name a few.

Based on this list of factors, it's quite apparent that our society is subject to many, if not all of them. South Africa appears to be riddled with elements that create the perfect breeding ground for criminal, and often violent, behaviour. That is to say that the prevalence of these contributing factors needs to change before we will see a meaningful reduction in the rate of crime.

In cases like this one, certain key steps need to be taken in the wake of such violent criminal acts. Someone who is suspected of crimes of this magnitude needs to be subject to an evaluation. Professional evaluations should be done by psychologists, social workers as well as criminologists, to establish the criminogenic risks in terms of the contributing factors that were outlined previously, and to develop a suitable treatment plan for the offender. The goal of this sort of treatment plan must be to change the behaviour on the part of the offender in question.

Failure to implement adequate treatment for such violent offenders would mean merely incarcerating them for a period of time, following which they're likely to be released back into society without having addressed the causes of their criminal behaviour. This is unfortunately a recipe for reoffending. Sadly, it is also and a depiction of the current state of affairs. Since the rate of recidivism is so high in South Africa, it's almost guaranteed that once someone has committed a crime, they will re-offend if they are not involved in behaviour change programmes and/or don’t get support. This makes the case for an intervention that leads to a change in behaviour, that much more compelling.

One of the ways to change behaviour on the part of an offender is to develop empathy and genuine remorse. The purpose of developing empathy that leads to real change is to help the offender fully understand the harm that was done, and to make reparations. As trained specialists, when we evaluate an offender, we pay careful attention to whether they are sincere, or whether they are merely parroting what they think the evaluator wants to hear.

When considering the impact of personality disorders on an individual's propensity towards committing violent crime, it's important to note that while all personality disorders can be associated with violent crime; some are more prevalent than others. The most common personality disorders (PD) that are associated with violent crime are Sadistic PD, psychopathy, Antisocial PD, and Paranoid PD.

In most cases, where an individual has a long history of involvement in violent crime, we find that there is an increased likelihood that such an individual has a personality disorder, or potentially has some sort of brain injury and that the individual experienced severe deprivation as a young child or was exposed to abuse or a violent caretaker, often a caretaker that abused substances. And that he or she likely started exhibiting violent behaviour from a young age that was left unabated.

How we tackle interventions where youth and children are exhibiting high-risk behaviour is therefore critical in whether we succeed or fail in preventing them from pursuing a life of crime. Once someone has committed a criminal offense, it then becomes even more crucial that we step in and offer effective treatment before the pattern of criminal behaviour becomes entrenched.

**This comment is meant to contribute to civil discourse. NICRO in no way assumes the guilt or innocence of the suspect in question**