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Hooked on Crime: The Ex-Detective Who Sees Crime as an Addiction

11/03/2013 23:07 GMT | Updated 11/05/2013 10:12 BST

Jackie Malton has spent her life fighting. First, as detective chief inspector Malton, the tough talking, heavy drinking, real life role model for Helen Mirren's detective character in Prime Suspect, she fought crime. Later on she fought her own addiction to alcohol. Now, at 61 and with many years of prison counselling and an MA in addiction treatment behind her, she fights the two together.

But while there are endless studies, research groups and counsellors looking at the interrelation between addiction and crime, Malton takes a different approach. For her, addiction isn't just a force that leads people into crime as a means to finance their habit. For many, she believes, crime itself is the addiction, committed first and foremost to satisfy a need to do so within the criminal.

She arrived at the idea after leaving the police force in the late 1990s and starting a MA in storytelling. "I have always thought that there is a strong link between police work, storytelling and addiction", she says, "and that the storyteller's sense of narrative is key in understanding why people do the things they do".

As she studied, she started to make sense of her experiences as a detective, both what she saw and what she felt. The difference between the two seemed smaller than expected; the characteristics she had seen in herself when on a case she also saw in the criminals she had been chasing. "Being a detective is seductive, its obsessional", she says. "For me it was also about proving myself, on the understanding that I wasn't enough. These are also all motives for many criminals. And they are all motives for addicts".

Years later, after starting a new career both writing and working in prisons, Malton decided to go back to study- this time an MSc in addiction psychology. Her central thesis was on crime as an addiction, a section of which she recently published in Addiction Today.

Her case is strong, and though it isn't widely talked about, she's not alone in making it. Since the 1980s, a few addiction specialists have been noting the similarities between the way in which criminals describe the experience of committing a crime, and the way alcoholics, drug users and gamblers talk about the experience of indulging in their own vices. To both criminals and addicts, the feeling of power, control and self esteem are often central to their experience, while the increasing difficulty of achieving this state as time goes on plagues each alike. Perhaps more tellingly, certain criminals were said to exhibit all the characteristics commonly associated with addiction; increased tolerance, withdrawals, craving, salience, conflict and relapse to name a few.

But Malton wasn't satisfied with this which, with limited actual evidence to go on, amounted to mere speculation in the eyes of the authorities. She set out to conduct a series of in depth interviews with 10 prison inmates in the hope of finding further links between the mindset of an addict and that of a criminal.

What she found strongly reinforced her thesis. Nine out of 10 of the inmates interviewed talk of "a powerful emotional reaction... ranging from nervousness and fear to buzz. Verbs used included: super-human feelings, intense, control, adrenaline, buzz, scared, nervous", she writes. Seven of the interviewees described obsessive planning or fantasizing over their crimes, with "all of life, thinking, feeling and behaviour dominated by and organized around the next opportunity to offend". A further seven described what Malton calls "positive feedback loops", addiction jargon to describe an escalating need for higher and higher levels of stimulation, characterized by increased tolerance, withdrawal and feelings of guilt.

Taken together, the study suggests that at least 70% of those interviewed displayed all the major hallmarks of addiction; a very high rate by any standards. I put the concept to addiction specialist Daniel Gerrard at addictionhelper.com. "I don't know why the link (between crime and addiction) hasn't been considered more strongly before", he says. "Like gambling, crime can offer an intense emotional experience. Combined with the right social and personal context, this can lead to addiction".

If Malton is right and crime could, for some, become an addiction, then some serious moral considerations could come into play. In the current medical understanding, addiction is a brain disease where, after regular use of a substance or engagement in a potentially addictive activity (i.e. gambling, shopping, sex etc), the functioning of the brain changes and the patient becomes reliant on the stimulant, leading to all the characteristics mentioned above. It is understood to be a non-recoverable and relapsing disorder.

Not only does this model imply that once an addict, the person is no longer entirely responsible for their actions (hence the frequent AA assertion that you are not the problem, alcohol is), it also assumes that relapse is an inevitable part of the process of recovery. For criminals, this amounts to mixed messages. If they are not responsible for their actions, how can they be punished? But if their addiction means they are MORE likely to reoffend, what choice is there but to lock them up?

For Malton, this logic is redundant. "At some level we are all responsible for our actions", she says. More important than deliberating over the moral implications of the addiction model is the way it is considered when approaching rehabilitation and criminal counselling. "People displaying the hallmark characteristics of addiction in relation to crime should get rehabilitation and treatment that looks at their behavioural patterns in the context of addiction", she says.

This approach, rather than applying the fateful logic of the disease model that "once an addict always an addict", looks forward to a more stable future, built on knowledge and understanding. "I know from my own personal experience, as a counsellor and an addict, that people can change", she says.