February 7, 2023 - 2:36pm

The government’s much delayed independent review of Prevent, led by William Shawcross, will be published tomorrow, and is expected to find that officials have been too focused on addressing the “personal vulnerabilities” of extremists, treating terrorism as if it were akin to a mental illness. As the draft review details:

Prevent is a crucial pillar of the UK’s counter-terrorism architecture, yet it has increasingly come to be seen as synonymous with safeguarding (i.e. an emphasis on protecting those referred into Prevent from harm and addressing their personal vulnerabilities) […] Prevent too often bestows a status of victimhood on all who come into contact with it.
- Prevent review

This attempt to explain crime as a consequence of “personal vulnerabilities” is by no means confined to terrorism. Just one recent example of this in practice was the Independent Serious Further Offence (ISFO) review of Jordan McSweeney, the man who sexually assaulted and murdered Zara Aleena as she walked home after a night out in London on 22 June 2022. 

McSweeney committed the murder nine days after being released on licence from prison for an earlier offence of robbery, the culmination of a long history of violent offending dating back to 2005. The ISFO review was tasked with making recommendations to the probation service, the state agency responsible for the fact that McSweeney was out on the streets and therefore free to take Aleena’s life. 

Reading parts of this review, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a report into the misbehaviour of a primary school student. In a section headed ‘Diverse Needs’, for instance, the review describes McSweeney’s various diagnoses of “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Personality Disorder (PD) and […] depression”, and the probation service is criticised for paying too little attention to how McSweeney’s ADHD, in particular, “affected his day-to-day cognitive functioning and learning styles, and if there were links with offending behaviour.” 

Bear in mind that, according to one 2018 study, 13.6% of American adolescents aged 12-17 had been diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives. This particular diagnosis had proved hugely popular among parents and teachers, given that medicating hyperactive kids (particularly boys) makes these kids easier to discipline. 

But as psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander writes, “‘ability to concentrate’ is a normally distributed trait.” Which means that, in practice, applying an ADHD diagnosis means that “we draw a line at some point on the far left of the bell curve and tell the people on the far side that they’ve ‘got’ ‘the disease’ of ‘ADHD’.” 

This is not to say that people diagnosed with ADHD do not genuinely struggle to concentrate, because of course they do. But there is no easy distinction to be drawn between pathological and non-pathological poor concentration, just as there is no easy distinction between sadness and clinical depression, or between a person with a difficult personality and a person with a personality disorder. It all depends on the diagnostic criteria, which in turn depend enormously on cultural context. 

It is clearly true that people with certain behavioural traits are more likely to commit crime, and that it is often possible to describe those traits using medicalised language. For instance, Antisocial Personality Disorder is the most common psychiatric disorder among people who have been incarcerated. Which is hardly surprising, given that the disorder is defined by symptoms including irritability, impulsiveness, deceitfulness, and failure to conform to social norms — in other words, exactly the kind of traits you would expect to find in a person who defies social norms like ‘don’t commit crime’. 

I don’t object to diagnosing criminals — including terrorists — with psychiatric conditions, and then looking for correlations in the data. Plausibly, these diagnoses could be used to predict future offending and thus protect the public. 

But as the independent review into Prevent makes clear, this trend for medicalising criminality is often not used to protect the public, but rather the opposite, encouraging authorities to take pity on violent offenders who are cast as victims. From there, it’s only a short step to suggesting that these pitiable victims ought not to be in prison at all. 

The truth is that there is no good evidence to suggest that a focus on “learning styles” or talking therapies or any other kind of gentle intervention would have prevented Jordan McSweeney’s murder of Zara Aleena, given his very violent history and the fact that worldwide recidivism rates are extraordinarily high, even in countries that put a great deal of effort into rehabilitation. Prisons are the only tool we have which definitely reduce crime, for the simple reason that they physically separate criminals from potential victims. In the end, that’s what the criminal justice system is for.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.