Wouldn’t it be great if we could accurately predict which kids will grow up to be criminals? Maybe, maybe not. If you saw the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report,” you know the potential pitfalls (more on that in a sec). But two different groups of researchers released studies this week that purport to be able to ferret out those bad seeds before they turn aggressive, violent, or commit crimes. Personally, I’m scared. And you should be too.

In “Minority Report,” which was set in 2054, the Tom Cruise character is the captain of PreCrime, a special department that arrests people for future crimes–ones they haven’t committed yet. Things go terribly wrong when the predictions turns out to be incorrect. These two studies make it look like that scary bit of the future is already here.
In the first study, Drew Barzman, a child and adolescent forensic psychiatrist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and his team were looking for some way to predict violence among pediatric psychiatric patients—apparently something that’s pretty common. They came up a simple test that measures levels of cortisol, testosterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in saliva. In a study of 17 boys, the test proved to be quite accurate. And the higher the concentration of those hormones, the more aggressive the patient.
“We believe salivary hormone testing has the potential to help doctors monitor which treatments are working best for their patients,” said Barzman. Okay, I can go along with that. And because mental health professionals are far more likely to be assaulted on the job than the average worker, it could offer a quick way to anticipate violent behavior in child psychiatric units,” he added. I can go along with that too. But here comes the problem. “Eventually, we hope this testing might also provide a tool to help improve safety in schools.” How the hell could they possibly do that? I can imagine a scenario where every little boy is required to spit on a card. And based on the analysis of that saliva, some will be expelled. Or maybe even sent to jail. Based on some future crime that hasn’t happened yet—or might not happen at all.

Things only go downhill from there: Barzman’s team is already working on the next phase of the salivary hormone study, which will include girls and a broader age range of patients. His study was published in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly.

In the second study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Sheilagh Hodgins of Université de Montréal, compared teacher-rated conduct problems (CP) and hurtful and uncaring behaviors (HUB) at age 6 and 10 and aggressive behavior at age 12 with criminal convictions up to age 24. They were trying to find out whether childhood behavior could predict future crimes. And, sure enough, they found what they were looking for.

Six-year-old boys who were rated by their teachers as having the highest degree of CP (things like absenteeism, blaming other, bullying, destroying property, disobedience, fighting, lack of empathy, lying, and stealing) and HUB were 4 times more likely to be convicted of violent crimes and 5 times more likely to be convicted of nonviolent crimes than boys with lower ratings.

Pretty much the same was true for the girls: six-year old females with the highest CP and HUB ratings were 5 times more likely than girls with lower ratings to have a conviction for nonviolent crimes by age 24.

According to Hodgins, the goal of the study was to better understand how to prevent future crime and “reduce the human and economic costs associated with criminal activity.” Quite noble, I think. But there’s more.

“If their conduct problems could be identified and reduced early in life,” she said, “this would potentially allow these children to alter their developmental trajectories, live healthy and happy lives, and to make positive rather than negative contributions to our society.” Just one question, doc: How the hell are you going to do that? Lock up a bunch of first graders? Does anyone else think that six years old is a little early to be labeling kids as violent, or criminal, or even likely to misbehave? Especially when basing “interventions” on the assessment of classroom teacher, most of whom aren’t trained child psychologists? The potential for abuse is simply not worth the risk.
The study was published in the March issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.