In this day and age, it is not uncommon to hear the term “dangerousness” in news, radio and other media, especially when they talk about issues related to the criminal field.

“Highly dangerous criminal”, “medium dangerous prison” and other concepts and terms are examples of how we hear such terminology on a daily basis, to the extent that we believe we are familiar with it. Despite this, this concept continues to be one of the most misunderstood within criminology as it is often confused with others such as aggressiveness and violence.

In addition, the new forms of criminality that arise with the new times oblige us to review and revise them in depth. In this article we propose to conceptualize the concept of dangerousness, point out its characteristics and explain its importance .

Criminal Danger: Knowing the History of the Concept

The idea of danger is by no means new, however the concept of criminal dangerousness is relatively modern.

Its clearest precedent goes back to the theses of the German author Feuerbach, whose term would become part of the Bavarian Criminal Code in 1800 and who defined it as the quality of a person who makes a well-founded presumption that he will violate the law .

Modern definitions and approaches

The most modern definition of dangerousness was introduced to criminology by Rafael Garófalo with his fearfulness to designate the constant and active perversity of the offender and the amount of the expected evil to be feared by the offender himself .

The concept, although controversial since then, was quickly accepted until in 1892 the International Union of Penal Law , by the hand of eminent masters of this branch of law such as Von Liszt and Prins, officially recognized it.

Unitary definition from criminology

Danger, from Latin periculum , refers to the risk, the imminent contingency of some evil happening , being the situation, thing or obstacle that increases the possibility of some harm or damage.

Danger , when we apply it to a person, is the quality of damage that could be caused by him, in view of the factors that impel him to do this damage . The Royal Academy of Language accepts this term referring to a person as one who can cause damage or commit criminal acts.

To make this concept clearer, let us review other definitions given by various authors who are scholars of law and criminology. Rocco defines it as the power, attitude, the suitability, the capacity of the person to be the cause of harmful or dangerous actions. Petrocelli defines it as a set of subjective and objective conditions under whose impulse an individual is likely to commit a socially dangerous or harmful act. The Quillet Encyclopedia says that dangerousness is the set of subjective conditions that authorize a prognosis about an individual’s propensity to commit crimes.

As can be observed, the common elements in the definitions are the potentiality and the intention to be prone to crime . Just as there is a clear difference between aggression and violence, dangerousness is distinguished from the two previous ones in that both terms help us to try to diagnose the latter.

Hazard components

Scholars of criminal behavior agree that dangerousness has two essential components: criminal capacity and social adaptability .

The first concept, the criminal capacity , refers to the internal criminal tension, the criminal power, which is capable of giving the criminal personality in the criminal field. On the other hand, the social adaptability is the suitability of the delinquent for social life, that is, the possibility of adaptation of the delinquent’s activity to the environment in which he is inserted.

From these components we can recognize four forms of dangerous states .

  1. Very strong criminal capacity and very high adaptability : here are presented the most serious manifestations of antisocial behaviour such as white-collar crime, political-financial crime, organized crime, organized psychopaths, etc.
  2. Very high criminal capacity and uncertain adaptability : less serious but with a very harmful criminogenic potential. Their maladjustment makes them easy to attract attention to themselves. Professional and specialized criminals, social outcasts, among others, are in this category.
  3. Not very high criminal capacity and weak adaptation : these are the criminals who usually flood the prisons. Among them are psychic misfits, characteristic criminals and similar typologies.
  4. Weak criminal capacity and high adaptability : light forms of criminality Their dangerousness is low or acute (the dangerousness can be chronic or acute because of the duration; we will talk about this later). Here we recognize the occasional and passionate delinquents

Constituent elements of hazard

We will cite and explain below the most important characteristics of dangerousness .

  • Elements : two elements of danger are recognized. The first, known as the dangerous state, is the situation experienced by a person who is about to commit a crime. Meanwhile, the opportunity is the convenience of time and place that lends or favors the subject to take the step to the act.
  • Forms : psychiatrists, psychologists and criminologists distinguish two types of dangerousness, the first being chronic (or permanent), which generally occurs in cases of psychopathy and in other criminals who are difficult to readjust; while the second refers to acute dangerousness, which is rather episodic and can even be exhausted in the act itself. However, if the criminogenic circumstances continue, the acute danger may become chronic.

Quantifying danger, an interdisciplinary work

Clinical criminology attempts to explain crime from the point of view of the criminal, his personality, his personal history and the various factors that play a role in his behaviour. It aims to formulate a diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of the subject who commits an antisocial behaviour .

To quote Wolfgang and Ferracuti, clinical criminology consists of the integrated and joint application of criminological knowledge and diagnostic techniques to individual cases and for diagnostic-therapeutic purposes. Thus, in terms of the functions of clinical criminology, the following stand out

A) To synthesize the different studies carried out on the antisocial subject and to integrate them for a correct criminological synthesis that allows to issue a diagnosis, prognosis and treatment

B) Discover the criminogenesis and criminodynamics of the offender

C) Issuing opinions and expert reports criminological

D) Propose, if necessary, which type of penalty is most convenient for you

E) To do criminological prophylaxis and attend to the criminological needs of the subject

F) Estimate the level of danger

Science and Professionals Assessing Dangerousness of Offenders

Despite the fact that the clinical criminologist is the figure in charge of quantifying the level of danger, it would be impossible to carry out this work without the correct application of various disciplines that provide him with tools of an objective nature on the antisocial subject.

The criminological synthesis must derive from at least seven sciences that together allow a reliable diagnosis to be made and that complement each other in explaining antisocial behaviour. Such sciences are: anthropology, medicine, psychology, sociology, victimology and penology. To these we can add others that allow us to emit other objective criteria about the subject such as: social work, pedagogy, etc.

A practical example to understand the role of each professional

As an example of the interdisciplinary work, we could exemplify with the following case : we have a subject who is accused of theft, the pedagogue emphasizes that an important criminogenic factor is his level of learning itself which turns out to be scarce, he states that this difficulty has repercussions on his few job opportunities, finding in theft the easiest way to make a living. The doctor explains that malnutrition played an important role in the poor development of his brain during the first years of his life, which would explain in part a low IQ that reinforces the idea of his low level of learning; in turn, a psychologist suggests that both conditions, over the years, accentuated levels of insecurity and feelings of inferiority that prevented him from seeking an honest way of life due to the fear of being rejected.

In this way, the criminogenesis of the offender is gradually being uncovered, which in turn allows us to more reliably estimate his level of danger.

Assessment and quantification of criminal dangerousness

The evaluation of the hazardousness is of a qualitative and quantitative nature . The first is appreciated in the detailed and objective study of the antisocial subject’s criminogenic factors, both endogenous (for example, his character and biotype, organic disposition, psychopathologies, etc.) and exogenous (social environment, environmental conditions, culture, educational level, others).

In this sense, it is also extremely important to establish whether the dangerousness of the subject in question is absolute, that is to say, whether his antisocial behaviour develops under the influence of any criminogenic stimuli, or whether we are talking about a relative dangerousness in which the individual only moves on to the act after the influence of specific factors and in very particular circumstances.

On the other hand, the quantitative assessment refers to the value, quantity and size of factors that allow predicting, among other things, the probability of recidivism and the effectiveness of a prison treatment . It is usually classified as minimum, average and maximum, but different authors handle multiple scales based on pre-established items correlated to qualitative dangerousness, trying to point out the greatest number of possible criminogenic factors present in the subject. Examples of such studies are given below.

The criminogenic threshold

This raises a number of issues regarding what various scholars of human behavior call the criminogenic threshold, also known as the delinquency threshold, which is defined as the subject’s ability to react to a certain amount of criminogenic stimuli.

It is a single characteristic . Thus, the lower the subject’s criminogenic threshold, the less criminal stimulus he will need to make the move (just as people with a low threshold for pain need a small stimulus to produce it). When comparing personality studies, the individual’s previous criminal record should be added, as well as observing the differences in action between one act and another, since the dangerousness tends to increase in proportion to the complexity of the crime.

Scales for assessing danger

For Schied (German author), dangerousness can be quantified on a scale consisting of 15 factors , each of which adds up to a negative point and which in turn is related to the probability of recidivism. Among the factors included by this author, the following stand out: psychopathy, hereditary illnesses, work regularity, legal history, etc.

Other support tools that are included to assess dangerousness include the HCR-20 (protocol to assess the risk of any type of violence), LSI-R (which calculates the probabilities of recidivism), SVR-20 (specially designed to calculate the probabilities of recidivism of sexual offenders), etc.

What’s the point of knowing how dangerous a criminal is?

From a clinical point of view, establishing the level of danger of a criminal has several objectives among which we highlight the following:

1. Establish what the criminological action will be . If it will be prophylactic or only a specific treatment, if it needs a total reintegration work or if the specific criminogenic factors that lead to the criminal behaviour must simply be attended, that is, it allows to make the penitentiary treatment more individualized.

2. To help the judge determine what the criminal reaction is . whether it is worthy of a custodial sentence or a security measure. Whether you need a prison treatment of five years or twenty years.

3. Indicate what is your probability of recidivism by helping to establish a correct diagnosis and prognosis and therefore your probability of returning to society.

4. Justify which penitentiary institution is more convenient for you for treatment and if you deserve to be in a penitentiary center or in a low, medium or high danger prison.

5. To give an idea of the damage that can be done against others.

Reflections on the validity of the concept of dangerousness

Due to the enormous complexity of the human personality, despite the various items and methods proposed to try to quantify the danger, there are no 100% objective parameters that allow a reliable diagnosis in this aspect.

Furthermore, among the most pronounced criticisms of the term is the idea that it is stigmatising and prejudicial. Some jurists and psychologists criticize the concept of dangerousness because it limits the study of criminals.

If we reflect carefully, prison is practically useless: it is expensive, it keeps criminals idle, it multiplies their vices, it is just one more punishment, isolation causes abnormalities ranging from neurosis to psychosis and promotes promiscuity.

Unfortunately, today the vast majority of governments still choose to punish criminal intent and the reasoning behind criminal acts , but the proportionality of the crime and the dangerousness of carrying it out are not examined in depth. However, countries that adopt the model of individualized reintegration based on the subject’s criminogenic needs, that take into account the subject’s level of dangerousness and that apply qualitative rather than quantitative punishments have better results and lower recidivism rates.

Bibliographic references:

  • Rodríguez Manzanera, L. (2003). Criminology. (18 ed.). Mexico: Porrúa
  • Mendoza Beivide, Ada Patricia. Psychiatry for criminologists and criminology for psychiatrists. Mexico: Trillas (Reimp. 2012)
  • Pérez, Luis Carlos: Criminal Law. Bogotá, 1981.
  • Landecho, Carlos María. Social danger and criminal danger. University of Valencia. 1974