Three on Crime: Lone Wolf Terrorism; Solitary Confinement; Mental Illness & Violence


Decline in far-right, lone-wolf homicide since Sept. 11

Fatal incidents of far-right “lone-wolf” terrorism have been fewer in the past 10 years, according a new study. Scientists have examined characteristics of far-right, extremist homicides in the United States over the past decade. Relying on the Extremist Crime Database, the most comprehensive database of far-right homicides in the United States, the researchers identified three types of far-right, lone-actor terrorists.
Far-right "lone wolves" and "wolf packs" are terrorists who are affiliated with hate groups but execute their attacks alone or in small cells, respectively. Far-right "loner" terrorists are self-radicalized and do not associate with other extremists. Loner terrorists plan and execute their attacks on their own accord.
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"Overall, our findings indicate that the frequency of far-right violence -- in this case, homicides -- committed by so-called lone wolves has not experienced a recent increase as some have suggested," Gruenewald said. "More fatal attacks by far-right loners, lone wolves and lone-wolf packs occurred in the 1990s than in more recent years. In fact, there has been a downward trend since 2001. This finding questions claims by media, politicians and other researchers that far-right, lone-wolf attacks have increased and pose a growing threat to U.S. security."

Recent events -- the deadly shooting at Los Angeles International Airport in November and the 2011 Arizona shooting that killed six people and injured 14, including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords -- have focused attention on domestic far-rightist violence and other lone actors. Gruenewald and colleagues sought to confirm claims that far-right, lone-wolf attacks were on the rise and to fill in other critical gaps in research on far-right, lone-wolf terrorism.

Almost all far-right, violent suspects were white men
The researchers found a few commonalities across all terrorist suspect types and many important distinctions based on whether the suspect was a loner, lone wolf or member of a wolf pack. Almost all far-right, violent suspects were white men. Also, the vast majority of far-right attacks across all three categories did not involve bombs.

Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols anomalies
"Our study found that these attacks were carried out with firearms, knives or other blunt instruments, which makes the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by far-rightists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols an anomaly," Gruenewald said.

But similarities were few compared to many important differences based on terrorist suspect type. 
  • Loners, typically in their late 30s, were more likely to target multiple victims. 
  • They were primarily concerned with anti-government beliefs and focused more on single issues, such as abortion. 
  • Roughly a third of this group affiliated with a single issue, compared to only 4 percent for lone wolves and none of the wolf-pack attacks. 
  • Loners were more likely to target abortion providers and government officials, and most of their attacks -- 82 percent -- involved a firearm.
Suspects in all three categories suffered with mental illness, but evidence showed that a greater percentage of loners -- 40 percent, compared to 20 percent for lone wolves and only 3 percent for members of wolf packs -- suffered some type of psychological disorder.

Differences between lone wolves and wolf-pack members were subtler. Of the three groups, 
  • lone wolves -- those suspects who affiliated with hate groups or far-right organizations but who executed their attacks alone -- were the most active in the far-right-wing extremist movement. 
  • Victims of lone-wolf attacks were more likely to be non-white. 
  • Lone wolves and especially members of wolf packs were proportionately more likely to be affiliated with neo-Nazism, many of them belonging to formal or informal groups of neo-Nazis. 
  • On average, wolf-pack members were much younger, tending to be in their early 20s, as opposed to early 30s for lone wolves and late 30s for loner suspects.
Hatred toward racial and ethnic minorities
The overall most common ideological issue for both lone wolves and wolf-pack members was hatred and hostility toward racial and ethnic minorities. Not surprisingly, victims of both of these groups were more likely to be non-white. More than half of wolf-pack attacks involved knives (46 percent) or blunt objects (16 percent) as their primary weapons.
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Does solitary confinement fuel more crime?

Solitary confinement does not make supermax prison inmates more likely to re-offend once they're released, finds a study on the controversial penitentiaries. 

The study -- one of the first to examine recidivism rates among supermax inmates -- refute critics' claims that serving extended time in isolation leads to more crime. Super-maximum security units, known as supermax units or prisons within prisons, are designed to house problem inmates by keeping them isolated for as long as 23 hours a day.

Jesenia Pizarro, lead author on the study and MSU associate professor of criminal justice, said it wasn't time in isolation that was tied to repeated offenses for supermax inmates. Instead, it was the same factors that led inmates from the general prison population to re-offend -- in other words, they tended to be young drug offenders with prior convictions and disciplinary charges while in prison.

"Similar to inmates who served their time in the general prison population, supermax inmates released to parole supervision should receive help for drug and alcohol addictions and younger offenders should be steered back to educational programs," Pizarro said.
Proponents say supermax units keep corrections officers and other prisoners safe, while critics argue that such solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment that can lead to mental health issues among inmates and thus pose a greater threat to society upon their release.

Pizarro and colleagues analyzed the data of more than 800 supermax inmates in New Jersey, including their criminal histories, prison behavior and whether they re-offended during a five-year period following their release. 

"Interestingly," the study says, "these findings suggest that placement in supermax does not create unique challenges that result in recidivism."

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Related Post:  Guilt vs. Shame Predict Recidivism
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Because supermax prisons have become a mainstay of the American correctional landscape, Pizarro said more research is needed to better understand the effects of serving extended time in isolation. Except in federal cases, prisoners are not sentenced to supermax units -- instead, it is an administrative decision made by a warden or hearing boards.

While many believe that only the "worst of the worst" are housed in supermax units, Pizarro said that's not necessarily the case. Gang members who are serving time for selling drugs, for example, can be sent to supermax even if they don't have violent histories. Critics say assignment to supermax units can be arbitrary and lacking due process.
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Mentally ill more likely to be victims

Almost one-third of adults with mental illness are likely to be victims of violence within a six-month period, and adults with mental illness who commit violence are most likely to do so in residential settings. The study also finds a strong correlation between being a victim of violence and committing a violent act.

This research shows that almost one-third of adults with mental illness are likely to be victims of violence within a six-month period, and that adults with mental illness who commit violence are most likely to do so in residential settings. The study also finds a strong correlation between being a victim of violence and committing a violent act.

"We hear about the link between violence and mental illness in the news, and we wanted to look not only at the notion that the mentally ill are a danger to others, but the possibility that they are also in danger," says Dr. Sarah Desmarais, an assistant professor of psychology at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the work.

The researchers compiled a database of 4,480 mentally ill adults who had answered questions about both committing violence and being victims of violence in the previous six months. The database drew from five earlier studies that focused on issues ranging from antipsychotic medications to treatment approaches. Those studies had different research goals, but all asked identical questions related to violence and victimization.

Researchers found that:
  • 23.9 percent of the study participants had committed a violent act within the previous six months. 
  • 63.5 percent -- were committed in residential settings, not in public. 
  • Only 2.6 percent of the violent acts were committed in school or workplace settings.
The researchers found that a significantly higher percentage of participants -- 
  • 30.9 percent -- had been victims of violence in the same time period. 
  • And of those 43.7 percent said they'd been victimized on multiple occasions.
"We also found that participants who had been victims of violence were 11 times more likely to commit violence," Desmarais says.
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Story Sources:
  1. Materials provided by University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.  Jeff Gruenewald, Steven Chermak, Joshua D. Freilich. Far-Right Lone Wolf Homicides in the United States. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 2013.  
  2. Materials provided by Michigan State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. J. M. Pizarro, R. E. Narag. Supermax Prisons: What We Know, What We Do Not Know, and Where We Are Going. The Prison Journal, 2008.
  3. Materials provided by North Carolina State University. Sarah L. Desmarais, Richard A. Van Dorn, Kiersten L. Johnson, Kevin J. Grimm, Kevin S. Douglas, Marvin S. Swartz. Community Violence Perpetration and Victimization Among Adults With Mental Illnesses. American Journal of Public Health, 2014.

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