Friday, November 20, 2009

Criminal Thinking

If you follow writing, you're probably aware of the hoopla surrounding Harlequin's new vanity press and the responses from major writers' organizations, such as RWA and MWA. There's plenty of that to read elsewhere. But bottom line: in publishing, money is supposed to flow TO the author. Vanity publishing exists, and writers should be allowed to choose. However, the Harlequin approach of dangling a "pay us to publish your book and maybe someday you can become a 'traditional' author" carrot has raised hackles. An excellent look at what's going on was posted at Murder She Writes yesterday, by author Allison Brennan. News continues to break, and by the time you read this, things might have changed.

A week or so ago, I'd mentioned rerunning some of my most popular posts on Fridays now that we've finished with Detective Hussey's case files. My site stats say that my notes from the Civilian Police Academy on Criminal Thinking are at the top of the list. This was originally posted in July of 2008, and I know there are a lot of new readers here who haven't seen it.

The class on "Inside the Criminal Mind" was fascinating and crammed full of information, but I'll say right up front that these are the facts as I understand them, and there might be places where I'm not spot-on. These are the facts and opinions as our speaker presented them, not necessarily mine. However, he's the expert, and most of what he said made perfect sense to me. As always, one can't make broad generalizations, and there are always exceptions.

Our speaker was David Malinowski, the Regional Transition Coordinator for the Florida Dept. of Corrections. He became interested in the field of criminal thinking after realizing that traditional approaches with education did not work in a prison classroom.

Anyone incarcerated in the Florida prison system is required to go through a course from the Transitional Life Skills Center, within 6 months of release to help transition them into the "responsible" world, which is the way Mr. Malinowski refers to what most of us consider the "outside" or the "free world." The class was designed to address myths and mistakes often made when dealing with a criminal population and what is required for true change to take place.

First, he spoke of sympathy for the victims, who get lost in the system. He referred to the need for the offenders (another term he uses) to understand that whatever they did hurts people. His goal is to lead them toward change, but change has to come from the offender. Nobody can force change on someone else.

His presentation was subtitled "Criminal Thinking" and this is the crux of the matter.

What defines a criminal? They think differently. Somewhere along the line, they don't have the internal constraints that most of us have. He spoke at length of Responsible vs. Irresponsible thinking.

If one can make a generalization, it's that the criminal mind works on the "rules don't apply to me" foundation.

According to Malinowski, Criminal Thinking is erroneous thinking that comes automatically out of fear, like a reflex, or is a reaction.

Thinking leads to Feeling leads to Behavior. Criminals live out of their feelings. They don't move past it to cognitive behavior.

We've all been cut off in traffic. We react emotionally at first (although if you live where I do, the tourist population with it's "I need to turn left here, and it doesn't matter that I'm in the right hand lane" style of driving tends to become commonplace enough so that natives are aware of it, look out for it, and let it slide).

Although those who are not desensitized to idiot drivers can curb their immediate reaction to do something to the driver of the car. As responsible thinkers, we might hit the horn or flip the bird, but we don't normally crash into his car or shoot him.

He went on to give three basic reasons for crime: Power, Control, and Excitement. And three areas of crime: Property, Assault, and Sex.

To a criminal thinker, information is power. They will collect facts which may or may not be useful at the time. But if they know something about you, that gives them power. Those working in the system don't (or shouldn't) keep family photos in their offices.

He gave one interesting example. If you or I (assuming you're not a criminal thinker—I can speak only for myself here!) stand in a classroom doorway for 15 seconds and look around, we're likely to notice things like gender and racial mix of the group, the instructor, who's looking at the instructor, etc. When the offender stands in the doorway, he's noticing who's got an open purse, the keys on someone's desk, who's got cigarettes, and even the classroom roster on the instructors computer screen.

The criminal sees his behavior as normal. He's probably done it dozens of times without being caught. There are probably very few real "first time offenders" in prison. They're there because it was the first time they were caught.


Barb Schlichting said...

Some good thoughts and speculations to think about.//Barb

Carol Kilgore said...

This is so interesting. I loved how criminals see things in such a different way. Almost like writers see things differently but in a much safer way than criminals. Although when we write mystery, we might see things from the criminals viewpoint.

Terry Odell said...

Barb, Carol -- yep, that's why I share these. If you're writing a mystery or any book with that element, it helps to get the character 'right' if you know how they think. Kind of like the his brain/her brain series I did.

Mary Ricksen said...

You have to become that character to think as they do. Good job Terry!

Toni Anderson said...

Interesting post, Terry.

Melanie Atkins said...

Fascinating insight, Terry. When my youngest son was in his teens, I used him as a model for irresponsible behavior. He certainly fit that model. lol Thank heavens he's grown up now and has moved to the responsible model. I'm going to show this to him.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Wow--very cool stuff here. I've never thought about the way that criminals justify their behavior. Lots of good material and ideas to mull over. Thanks, Terry!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Terry Odell said...

Toni, Melanie, Elizabeth -
I'll continue this series over the next few Fridays.

Mary Marvella said...

Interesting, Terry! I enjoy slipping into a criminal's mind. People think I look too innocent!

Sheila Deeth said...

I'm glad you're reposting this. I've not seen it before and it's fascinating.

Autumn Jordon said...

Excellent blog, Terry. I learned a few things here. Glad I stopped by.


Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Terry,
Very interesting.

Terry Odell said...

Mary, Sheila, Autumn and Margaret - I'm glad you stopped by as well.

I will definitely continue this as a Friday series, so please continue to visit.

Penny Rader said...

Great post, Terry! Thanks for sharing. I love info that gives insight into characters and helps me understand why people act the way they do.

Patricia Stoltey said...

This is very helpful -- I was having trouble tellingo my writer's group why my bad guy could be so detail-oriented in one way and so stupidly dense in another. It made sense to me on an instinctive level, but I couldn't explain it logically. Good stuff, Terry.

Terry Odell said...

Patricia - glad you found it helpful. The amount of information we got in that session was amazing.

Terry Odell said...

Penny, for me it's all about the characters. Glad you got something out of the post. More next week.

Harl Delos said...

Someday in a novel, I'd like to have someone on the stand point out that the insanity plea is based on an inability to tell the difference between right and wrong, and conform his behavior accordingly, and yet what is important is that someone conform to the law, not to ethical standards. In some cases, he would point out, the law allows unethical behavior, and in other cases, the law mandates it.

Terry Odell said...

Harl - excellent point.