logo   banner
Home Page
Latest news
Members' stories
Twelve Steps and Traditions
Format for an OA meeting
Independent research
  Notes on the material in this section  
  Addiction To Crime  
Search the Site
Contact Us
Addiction To Crime
John E. Hodge

Before taking up my post in an English Special Hospital about four years ago, I worked mainly with people with alcohol problems and, to a lesser extent, other addictions. It was while I was working with this group of people that I developed an interest in offenders. It seemed to me that many of the people I worked with had been in contact with the criminal justice system. Of course there is a large literature on the connection between addictions and offending. Alcohol in particular has been associated with violent offending, although we are still not clear about the precise nature of the relationship. Illicit drugs have also been associated with offending, although more often with theft of drugs or money to buy them. There is, then, already a well established relation between substance addictions and crime, although by no means all such addictions are associated in this way - smoking and overeating, for example. It may be, however, that addictions are associated with crime in quite a different way.
It is well known that a relatively small proportion of criminals account for a very large proportion of crime (Walker, 1987). In fact, a recent British Home Office document has suggested that 7 per cent of offenders account for 65 per cent of offences ( Home Office, 1989). This particular group consists of both the most dangerous criminals who repeatedly commit violent offences and the most expensive criminals, in terms of the cost to society of repeated prison terms. Many theories have been put forward to explain their recidivism in the face of repeated punishments, but with little result in terms of effective rehabilitation strategies.
What I wish to propose in this paper is that, for some of these people, their criminal behaviour itself may have become addictive. By this I mean that they are as addicted to their particular form of criminal activity as is a heroin addict to smack or an alcoholic to alcohol. It implies that they would have the same difficulty in resisting committing criminal acts as would other addicts in resisting their own cravings, and it means that they would show the same apparent indifference to consequences as do other addicts.

The nature of addictions
To understand this proposal, we first need to examine the nature of addiction itself. Most popular theories of addiction are physiological or biochemical: that is, they view addiction as the property of substances. This implies that an individual can only truly become addicted to a substance with addictive properties, such as alcohol or heroin. However, recent psychological work on non-substance addictions, such as gambling (Brown, 1987) has demonstrated that it is not necessary to have a substance for addictive behaviour to develop. All the characteristics of addiction can occur to activities or sets of activities, such as gambling, jogging or even, perhaps, committing offences.

There is a fairly general agreement as to the common characteristics of addictions. These characteristics include:
Tolerance - the need for more to produce the same effect.
Withdrawal - distress after a period of non-engagement.
Craving - distress associated with desire to re-engage.
Salience - increasing importance of addiction in lifestyle.
Conflict - increasing awareness of negative consequences.
Relapse - reinstatement after a decision to stop or reduce.

Recent work by Brown (1991), Peele (1985) and Orford (1985), working separately, has demonstrated that these characteristics of substance addictions can also occur in relation to other forms of behaviour where no substance is ingested. Addicted gamblers, for example, can show tolerance in that they become dissatisfied with small bets and gradually bet more and more; they show a well defined withdrawal syndrome, including irritability and depression; they describe craving when unable to gamble; gambling becomes more and more important to them; they often admit to conflict about the effects that gambling is having on the family; and they regularly relapse after deciding to stop.
Theories of addiction are still very much in development, but two of the current front runners are those of Peele (1985) and Brown (1991). Peele's theory is based on the concept of "addiction to an experience". He claims that "addictive experiences are potent modifiers of mood and sensation". He describes the enhanced sense of control, power and self esteem experienced by addicts when they engage in their addiction of choice. Stone et al (1984)also noted that cocaine users described the effects of the drug in terms of power and control. Similar feelings seem also to be induced by alcohol in men, though not women (Brown et al, 1980) In passing, it is worth mentioning that these experiences of control, power and self esteem are often used in describing the motivation for criminal activity as well.
Brown’s theory of addiction differs slightly from that of Peele. He also describes the central component as one of addiction to an internal experience. He argues that most people have an optimum level of arousal. Most of the time the strategies we employ to achieve this optimum level of arousal are fairly hit-or-miss. However, occasionally people hit on a strategy that is more reliable. Of course they make more and more use of this strategy and in doing so other strategies become relatively less and less effective. The strategy used, whether it be drugs or a particular aspect of behaviour such as work, gambling or jogging, is what is developing into an addiction.
Both theories agree, however, that while drugs may be important in some addictions, they are not necessary for addiction to occur. Any behaviour which either offers an intense emotional experience (Peele’s theory) or which can be used to manipulate emotional arousal (Brown’s theory), can become addictive. During the process of development of the addiction , the various factors of tolerance, withdrawals, craving, salience, conflict and relapse will come into play.

Why addiction to crime
Theories of criminal behaviour are often overinclusive; they often appear to be attempting to explain all criminal behaviours within one framework. At the same time, most professionals recognize that most forms of complex behaviour, including criminal behaviour, are multifactorial. This usually means that a number of different factors, for example heredity, upbringing and learning experiences, combine within the individual to result in the end behaviour such as criminal activity. An alternative viewpoint, however, is that for some individuals some specific factors may be much more important than others in influencing their behaviour. For some individuals, particular factors may be of paramount importance. I would like to suggest that a major factor for some individuals may be the development of an addiction to their criminal behaviour and whilst other factors (such as socioeconomic class and upbringing) may play a part, the major determinant in the development of their offending will be an addictive process.
A major implication of this view is that because of the predominant role of this element, any criminological rehabilitation strategies which do not take it into account will be ineffectual. On the other hand, if criminals behaviour is indeed truly an addiction for some, then they are more likely to respond best to rehabilitative strategies developed to help people overcome addictions. If this is the case, then we need to be able to identify those criminals who may be addicted to their criminals behaviour, and also identify the most effective rehabilitation strategies from the addiction literature.

Addiction to crime
What are the characteristics of these addicted offenders? How can we recognize them so that they may be offered the most appropriate form of rehabilitation. Perhaps we can do this by using the characteristics of addiction which I have already described to differentiate these from other criminal offenders. The three most visible signs of addicted offenders are likely to be evidence of tolerance, conflict and relapse. Tolerance would be indicated if their offence history shows a pattern of gradual escalation in a direction more appropriate to an emotional motivation, rather than, for example, to a financial one. For example, a housebreaker may have a history of breaking into more and more difficult premises without any obvious improvement in his “take”, while easier premises are ignored. Conflict may become evident when an offender who is apparently highly motivated to reform reoffends or, perhaps, when an offender shows reluctance to be released or discharged. Relapse – a term which is not synonymous with recidivism – is observed where the offender has made the prior decision not to reoffend. The other characteristics of addiction can be applied to offending, but are more difficult to observe. There are, however, anecdotal reports in the literature of individual offenders reporting apparent withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to stop themselves offending.
One apparent difference between some kinds of offending and other addictions is in terms of the frequency of the addictive behaviour. This difference is more apparent than real, since some offenders offend at very high frequency, while some other addicts only engage in their addictions periodically (eg the binge drinker). However, some types of criminal behaviour which may otherwise match the characteristics of addictive behaviour is of quite low frequency, for example, serial murder. Recent research on one type of offender, the sex offender, has indicated that fantasy plays a major role for some offenders in preparing the offence behaviour (McCulloch et al, 1983). Similarly, Prentky et al(1989) in the United States, and Gresswell (1991) in the United Kingdom have both emphasised the role fantasy plays in serial murder. There has been very little research on the role of fantasy in other addictions. However, there are some indications that the importance of fantasy may be much greater than currently recognised. For example, while there seems to be little or no research on the topic, gamblers are well known to clinicians for their gambling fantasies, and Brown (1991) has suggested that fantasy may play a major part in the relapse process in drug addiction. It may well be that by promoting research on addictive offending, we may further develop our understanding of addictions.
Fantasy can be described as internal behaviour which can exhibit all the characteristics of addictions described above. Its role in compulsive offending probably varies according to the nature of the offence. For some types of offence, for example joyriding or shoplifting, its role may be minimal since the offence behaviour itself is capable of frequent expression, while for other types of offence, such as certain sexual offences, fantasy may be the central component driving the offending through the mechanism of tolerance.

Sexual offending – an example of addiction to crime
I would like to emphasise that I am using sexual offending as a model of addictive offending simply because there is currently more evidence for addictive elements within the literature on sexual offending than there is in that on other types of offending. However, a similar case could be made for addiction to housebreaking, joyriding, shoplifting, and perhaps even football hooliganism. Again, I must emphasise that I am not by any means claiming that all offenders in each of these categories are addicted. This model only applies to a proportion of offenders.
There are four main studies in the sexual offending literature which suggest that some sexual offending can be addictive. The first is that of McCulloch et al (1983) where the authors took a sample of sadistic sexual offenders in a British Special Hospital. They found that of their sample of 16, 13 described elaborate and frequent masturbation fantasies. These fantasies showed tolerance in that for many subjects, they were being constantly revised in the direction of greater sadistic and violent content. Some offenders reported that, after a time, their fantasies had become unsatisfying and had to be supplemented with their acting-out part of the fantasy for them to continue to achieve that state of arousal they were seeking. For many, these “behavioural try-outs” eventually led to the full index offence or offences for which they were convicted. From the very full description of the development of these fantasies in the paper, it is clear that they demonstrated the characteristics of tolerance, craving, and salience. Similarly, a paper by Prentky et al (1989) showed that serial sexual murderers reported much higher levels of offence-related fantasies than sexual murderers who had killed only once. In addition from analysis of “scene-of-crime” data they were able to show that these fantasies probably played a major role in the planning of the murders. A much higher proportion of the first murder of the serial murderers were “organized” than were the offences of the single murderers.
On a different tack, Pithers in two papers (Pithers et al, 1983; Pithers, 1990) has applied Marlatt’s (Marlatt and Gordon, 1985) “Relapse Prevention” model to sexual offenders, again placing fantasy in a central role. This model is a cognitive behavioural model of the relapse process which is currently generating considerable research in the addictions literature. Pithers’ application of it to sexual offenders is currently being researched by Marques and her colleagues in California. Finally, Herman (1990), in a more theoretical paper, arguing from a feminist perspective, puts forward an addictive model for sexual offending on the basis of a convincing comparison with alcoholism.
Whilst these papers in themselves do not prove my contention that, for some criminals, offending itself is addictive, they do provide clear examples that some common process seems to be at work in addictions and in some offences. While theorists are still struggling clearly to define what this process is, it should be possible for clinicians and pragmatists to make use of the parallels in designing rehabilitation programmes.

Rehabilitation of addicted offenders
Earlier I suggested how addicted offenders may be recognised, but obviously these ideas need further development and proper verification. However, what can we do with addicted offenders once we have identified them? To non-specialists, addictions are notoriously difficult to treat. There is, however, a growing and encouraging literature on the treatment of addictions which is beginning to show very positive results. Most of this literature is non-specific and seems equally applicable to the broad range of addictions and so should be capable of utilisation in the rehabilitation of addicted offenders. Some relevant examples of recent advances in the treatment of addictions are motivational interviewing techniques (Miller, 1983) which encourages clients to recognize their problem and accept the need for change. These have already been tried with offenders with some positive results (St Ledger and Hodge, in press). Pithers’ translations of Marlatt’s model of Relapse Prevention to sex offenders shows considerable promise in designing multi-faceted rehabilitation programmes for suitable groups of offenders. The Relapse Prevention model itself is essentially a cognitive-behavioural approach designed to develop coping strategies for situations which may otherwise precipitate a recurrence of the addictive behaviour. Another interesting line of current research with considerable practical implications is based on the findings that addictive behaviour is highly responsive to environmental cues. Some research on people with alcohol problems (Rankin et al, 1983) and drug problems (Childress et al, 1986) have indicated that exposing people to the cues which are associated with their substance use can greatly assist in their resistance to relapse. At the present time addictions is a fertile field for both research and treatment and perhaps clinical criminologists can usefully draw on this knowledge.

BROWN, R.I.F. (1987). Classical and operant paradigms in the management of gambling addictions. Behavioural Psychotherapy: 15; 111-122.
BROWN R.I.F. (In press) A Hedonic Management Model of Addiction.
BROWN, S.A., GOLDMAN, M.S., INN, A. and ANDERSON, L.R. (1980) Expectations of reinforcement from alcohol; their domain and relationship to drinking patterns. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology; 48: 419-426.
CHILDRESS, A.R., McLELLAN, A.T. and O’BRIEN, C.P. (1986) Abstinate opiate abusers exhibit conditioned craving, conditional withdrawal, and reduction in both through extinction. British Journal of Addiction: 81; 653-660.
GRESSWELL, D.M. (1991) Psychological models of addiction and the origins and maintenance of multiple murder. Paper presented to the Division of Criminological and Legal Psychology of the British Psychological Society, University of Kent at Canterbury.
HERMAN, J.L. (1990) ‘Sex offenders: a feminist perspective’. In Marshall, W.L., Laws, D.R. and Barbaree, H.E. (eds.) Handbook of Sexual Assault. New York, Picnum.
HOME OFFICE (1989) Tackling Crime
MARLATT, G.A. and GORDON, J. (1985) Relapse Prevention. New York;
Guildford Press.
McCULLOCH, M.J., SNOWDEN, P.R., WOOD, P.J.W., and MILLS, H.E. (1983)
Sadistic fantasy, sadistic behaviour and offending. British Journal of Psychiatry; 143: 20-29.
MILLER,W.(1983) Motivational interviewing with problem drinkers. Behavioural Psychotherapy; 11: 147-172.
ORFORD, J. (1985) Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions.
Chichester, Wiley.
PEELE, S.(1985) The Meaning of Addiction: Compulsive Experience and its Interpretation.
Lexington MA, Lexington Books.
  Offenders Anonymous
Email info@offenders-anonymous.org.uk