Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Poorest criminals 'least trusted'

People with a mental illness and a criminal past were more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt by others, a survey found

Young men from poor backgrounds who have committed petty crimes are the least likely to be trusted or expected to succeed, according to new research.

The finding was the result of a scientific survey aimed at establishing if those with a mental illness were likely to encounter problems being forgiven and trusted if they had committed petty crimes.

Instead, researchers at the University of Portsmouth found that people with a mental illness and a criminal past were more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt and that young men from disadvantaged backgrounds but no mental illness were considered beyond redemption.

Lead researcher Dr Claire Nee, a forensic psychologist, said: "We didn't expect this result. We assumed those with mental illness would be stigmatised more.

"The results suggest those with a criminal past and a disadvantaged background are among the most rejected in our society and will face significant obstacles in trying to lead a crime-free life. They are, as many others see it, beyond redemption and have everything stacked against them."

For the research published in Psychiatry Research, Dr Nee and colleagues wanted to know the extent to which the general public discriminated against people with schizophrenia, depression and anxiety and alcoholism and particularly whether they were seen as dangerous in our society.

Dr Nee thinks people might believe that those with a mental illness can recover, deserve treatment and that the illness is not their fault. But for offenders from disadvantaged backgrounds there is no similar understanding and they were seen as having no excuse for their behaviour.

The researchers composed six different backgrounds of a man in his 20s called Sam. They asked 243 members of the general public, aged between 18 and 76, in an anonymous online survey, to rate his trustworthiness, how sympathetic they felt towards him, how likely he was to commit crime in future, how serious such crimes might be, and whether he could be rehabilitated.

She said: "For offenders from poor backgrounds, there is no allowance made for a recovery period, if you slip up, you're punished again, and you will always be an 'ex-con'. Your behaviour is seen as totally your fault, no matter what has gone on in your background."

The researchers suggest further studies need to be done to test attitudes of a wider cross section of participants, but if the results hold, the findings have the potential to be useful to those working with disadvantaged communities.

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