There is no one straight answer to the

There is no one straight answer to the question ‘Why do
people commit crime?’. Do criminals act rationally after weighing up the
consequences of crime? Is society to blame for why people engage in
criminality? Do mental health disorders, neurological conditions or genetics
play a role? There are many theories that seek to establish explanations as to
whether these acts are deliberate or based upon circumstances against the
offenders control some of these theories will be explored in this essay.


Classicist criminology is based upon the idea
that people commit crimes because the consequences of their actions are not
clear to them. Jeremy Bentham was a key influential figure in classicist
criminology and he assumed that being sure of the knowledge of consequences of
committing crime would act as a deterrent that would ensure rational members of
society not to commit it – he stated that criminality resulted from a person’s
upbringing rather than being congenital, people are rational beings that will
seek to find pleasure whilst at the same time trying to avoid pain and that
criminals lack the self-control needed to sway their passions.  This is based upon the assumption that human
beings are rational and weigh up the consequences of their actions before proceeding
with them. When applied to crime being committed the person would have to weigh
up the benefits of the crime such as monetary gain against the potential
punishment – if the latter outweighed the former then a rational decision would
be made to not partake in criminal activity. Rational choice is however, based
upon numerous assumptions – the first being that the offender identifies
themselves as an individual, known as ‘individualism’. The second states that
the criminals must maximise their goals and lastly – that they are
self-interested.  Emotion plays an
important role within rational choice theory – a person’s state of emotionality
is an important factor which rational conduct rests upon. The anticipated
emotional consequences of criminal conduct are one of the benefits that is
weighed up in the process of rational decision making. The potential emotional
costs that are associated with criminal behaviour, could prevent the likelihood
of criminal behaviour.  Emotions are
central to the psychological process of motivating individuals to pursue their
desires.  A major difficulty with
classicist criminology is the insistence of its belief that crime is a rational
act based upon an individual’s calculation of gain – this is challenged by
Positivist criminology, Joyce (2012).  The
theory of deterrence believes states that people make the decision to obey or
break the law after calculating the gains and consequences of their actions.
People may withhold from committing crimes because of the fear of legal punishment
– which is known as absolute deterrence, or they may restrict their criminal
activity, which is known as restrictive deterrence. If legal punishments can be
certain, severe and quick, this should be enough to deter people from engaging
in criminal activity. Punishments can be objective; such as what legal
officials actually do to punish offenders – and perceived punishments, which is
the perceptions that potential offenders hold of what legal officials actually
do. There are also extra-legal punishments to be considered, such as stigma and
vigilante justice. There are problems with the idea of free will and rational
choice as they cannot account for crimes committed by people who cannot be
classed as responsible for their actions – such as people who’re mentally ill.
People who commit crimes of passion do not act upon any rational calculus, and
free will fails to consider people who commit crimes out of necessity – such as
poverty or victims of domestic violence. Social causes of crime are completely neglected,
Newburn (2009).

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Positivist criminology argues that a criminal’s actions are
motivated not by rational choice but are a consequence of factors that a person
cannot control – therefore treatment rather than punishment is the correct
response to a person’s criminality. Positive criminology is based upon findings
based on scientific investigations – including; biology, sociology and
psychology. Lombroso put forward that the ‘criminal man’s’ behaviour was put
together by their biological make up – he said that criminals were individuals
who had not evolved at the same rate as beings who do not offend. The
suggestion that a person is simply ‘born bad’ paved the way for biological
theories which raised questions regarding genetic make-up and questioned if crime
was genetic and could run in families. 
The idea that your biological build up makes you a criminal is
challenged by the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate – nurture argues that criminality
can arise from many factors such as upbringing, economic or social circumstances
or peer group pressure. Psychological theories suggest that criminal behaviour
is based upon sickness of the mind, such as; personality disorders or
neurological problems. Freud – who’s work paved the way for the theory that
human behaviour is controlled by process that occur in the mind of the
individual –  paid specific attention to
childhood memories and experiences, particularly traumatic ones. He stated that
these memories are stored in the unconscious part of a person’s mind and influenced
their thoughts and behaviour which could then lead to personality disorders
which would explain criminal acts.   Sociological theories of crime are based upon
the importance of social factors and their influence of human behaviour. Anomie
– is the concept used to explain a state of social disobedience in which the
accepted rules of behaviour – including the law – are insufficient in deterring
people from partaking in criminal behaviour which benefits them – regardless of
the impact that this has on others.


Merton (1968) suggested strain theory to
explain criminality. He states that crime is a consequence of a society putting
increasing pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals, when
individuals lack the means to achieve such goals – it leads to strain which
could result in criminal activity being undertaken to achieve such unrealistic
goals. This can be seen in the present day in the rising culture of social
media – putting individuals under more pressure to conform. Drug dealing and
prostitution could fall under the strain theory umbrella, as a way of gaining financial
security. Cohen (1950) examined groups using the strain theory and put forward
that those whose social circumstances make it difficult to achieve these norms,
develop a different sense of moral views which would be viewed by the rest of
society as deviant. These groups may behave criminally in attempts to gain
status among associates – such as stealing a car and joyriding it as oppose to
selling it for financial gain.  Strain
theory receives criticism because it is mostly based upon lower class
criminals, as these are a group who struggle with resources to acquire their
gains. Strain theory overlooks white collar crime even though the white-collar
criminal has ample opportunities to achieve through legitimate and legal means.
Merton also overlooks the social structure which forms the strains that are put
on to individuals that commit crime. An approach related to strain theory,
focuses again on social disorganisation particularly in communities – the
importance of the impact of ‘neighbourhood effect’ is focused upon – the social
status and rate of crime in a neighbourhood has a significant effect on an
individual’s likelihood of becoming involved with criminal behaviour regardless
of their socioeconomic status. Community context is a crucial part of why some
unemployed and youths living in poverty have a greater need to commit crime
than other similar young people.  This
can be seen in contemporary Britain with the emergence of ‘ASBOs’, dispersal
zones, exclusion orders and curfews – which have been on the rise since early
2000. It had been stated that anti-social behaviour had largely been dramatised
– although in urban areas, areas with social housing and social deprivation – youth
offending concerns were strongly voiced. Opportunity theory is also linked in
with youth crime – opportunity theory asserts that obtaining gains in society
by legitimate means is impossible and bands together people who have this mind-set
– particularly gangs of youths, who then developed a subculture of delinquency.
This subculture is not consistent – as it is dependent upon the criminal
opportunities available in each area. In areas where criminal and gang activity
is rife – gangs would be emerged into that environment – whereas an area that
was lacking in such criminal structure would be filled with gangs competing to
secure control of it. The theory of deterrence believes states that people make
the decision to obey or break the law after calculating the gains and
consequences of their actions. People may withhold from committing crimes
because of the fear of legal punishment – which is known as absolute
deterrence, or they may restrict their criminal activity, which is known as
restrictive deterrence. If legal punishments can be certain, severe and quick,
this should be enough to deter people from engaging in criminal activity.
Punishments can be objective; such as what legal officials actually do to
punish offenders – and perceived punishments, which is the perceptions that
potential offenders hold of what legal officials actually do. There are also
extra-legal punishments to be considered, such as stigma and vigilante justice.

When considering reasons why a person might be driven to commit crime – it
is important to get a bigger picture of their lives. The murder of Joe Geeling
has been analysed using some of these theories –  On the 1st March 2006, Joe
Geeling was stabbed, beaten and then dumped in a park. A huge search was
launched when Joe, who suffered from cystic fibrosis, failed to return home
from school, his body was found in a nearby park the next day, it had been
loosely covered by debris. Michael Hamer a 15-year-old pupil that attended the
same school as Joe, was arrested the same day, it transpired that Hamer had
lured Joe to his home, using a fake letter supposedly from the deputy head of
their school. Hamer who was struggling with his sexuality, made a sexual
advance towards Joe, who rebuffed him and threatened to announce to everybody that
Hamer was gay, which enraged the boy, who then went on to attack Joe with a
frying pan and stab him sixteen times. He then placed Joes body into a wheelie
bin and dumped it in a nearby park, Bunyan (2006). 

 It emerged during his
trial that he had a ‘sexual obsession’ with Joe, although he was not openly
gay. Hamer was believed to have suffered from an attachment disorder which
stemmed from being abandoned as a child by his father. Bowlby (1969) states
that children who suffer the absence of a parent during childhood can lead to a
variety of problems in later life – if a child has gone through a prolonged
period of separation from a primary care giver, it becomes difficult for the
them to learn how to bond and form relationships as they develop. It is easy
for a child to become apathetic and very concentrated on themselves. These
characteristics are also seen in children who engage in delinquent behaviour.
Bolwby says that crime and violence are disorders of the attachment system –
children who are not properly attached to their caregivers may struggle to have
concern for the wellbeing of others and this stems from their inability to
bond. These children are also at higher risk of developing personality
disorders, depression and cognitive difficulties. Psychiatrists at Hamer’s
trial established that he was suffering from an Adjustment Disorder, which
stemmed from his troubled childhood, and that this affected his mental ability.
His mental capacity was not deemed unstable enough to reduce the crime to manslaughter
and Hamer admitted that it was his anger and sexual rejection that led to the
murder of Joe.  He stated that he wanted
Joe to feel ‘lonely and scared’ by sexually abusing him – this could link with
the inability to feel empathy or concern for others. Hamer suffered from a
sense of shame, perhaps that stemmed from being abandoned by his father and
this was further fuelled by his quiet nature leading him to be bullied at
school – this further reinforces the feelings of abandonment that he harboured.
Everywhere he turned he was faced with rejection, from his home life, although
he did have a loving and supportive mother, to school – Hamer was never able to
find a place where he fitted in.

In psychoanalytic
theory; correct socialization is suitable enough to curb the natural drives and
urges that Freud says all humans have stored in their unconscious. Michael
Hamer would often spend hours at a time in his bedroom, playing video and
pretend games on his own, he also struggled to socialise with children his own
age and associated himself with much younger children, this improper
socialisation could lead to personality disturbances that could project
antisocial and deviant behaviour outward, which leads to criminality. Rational choice theory would argue that Hamer knew the consequences of
killing Joe but he made the decision to commit the act – perhaps as a way of
protecting himself from Joe revealing at school about his sexuality. Although
this could also have been out of a sense of panic whereby Hamer saw that
killing Joe was his only option – without thoroughly thinking of the
consequences. The fear of his bullies – and potentially his absent father
finding out about his sexuality, was not enough to deter Hamer from the
killing, even with the knowledge that killing Joe wound significantly affect
his life and the life of those around him, as well as Joe Geeling’s family.

Biologically Hamer’s
act could be explained by the lack of emotional maturity in his brain – at 14,
the frontal lobe has yet to fully develop so adolescents are not always able to
control their emotional brain – which can lead to risk taking and impetuous
behaviour. Inherited criminality could not be attributed as a factor in Hamer’s
case – as his mother was a caring and loving parent and his dad although absent
– was a police officer with no history of offending.

It is also possible to look at a completely different type
of crime in the same manor – one that is greatly overlooked by society and the
media in general.

In 2005, Leo Kozlowski was convicted of crimes related to
his obtainment of $81 million in unapproved bonuses, as well as the purchase of
over $14 million worth of art and an unauthorised payment of a banking fee to a
company director. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, which he served
and was released in 2014. It is sometimes more difficult to understand why high
flying business men commit money related crimes, as its not out of necessity
but out of greed. The justice system generally still treats white collar crime
with a lot more leniency than ‘street crime’, even though white collar crime
causes more deaths and injury than any other type of crime. Sutherland (1987)
says that men like Kozlowski commit their crimes, because they’re able to find
ways to justify their behaviour to themselves. Embezzlers believe they’re just
borrowing money. Executives that break worker safety policies or excuse
pollution as obstructive invasions into the free market. Corporate managers who
defraud their companies’ clients tell themselves they’re just doing what their
bosses demand. Surveys have shown that many executives believe that unethical
and even illegal behaviour- as standard in their industries – making it easier
to justify their behaviour.  The
motivation behind white collar crime, is simply – making money, but it can also
be influenced by the competition between executives in their quest for wealth
and status – which could link in with strain theory. Society sees greed and
material competition as innate human characteristics – a key element in white
collar crime are these and a massive fear of failure. There are external
factors to take into consideration; such as opportunity for criminal behaviour
within a specific sector, the chances of being caught – deterrence theory is
not a strong theory for white collar crime, as people who commit it are rarely
held accountable and the punishments are quite often less severe. These factors
link back to debateable social norms that treat these – sometimes severe –
crimes differently than any other crime, to address white-collar crime would
require in depth cultural change.


It is hard for law abiding citizens
to understand why people commit crime; particularly heinous crime, such as rape
or murder. Every human being has the capacity to engage in delinquent
behaviour, but only a certain number of individuals will go on to commit crime.
It is difficult to establish a solid relationship between criminal activity and
social class, there has been much research into crimes of the lower classes and
the statistics do show clearly – that working class people are more criminal –
there are issues with statistics themselves. Statistics don’t account for
unreported crime, or crime that doesn’t make it to court. Crime committed by
the higher classes is largely ignored and unreported, as it is sometimes seen
as victimless and is very hard to hold a specific individual accountable. This
makes it almost impossible for a correct relationship between social class and
crime to be recorded.

Strain theory and functionalism assume that people
are driven to crime and deviance by social factors. But this is not always true
– the control theory argues that if all people are assumed bad it proposes
individuals will commit crime unless there are social controls such as policing
and punishment in place (Brym, 2007). The control theory better explains cases
of white collar crime; such as officials embezzling funds, under the pretence
they won’t be caught – the act is not out of necessity but out of greed. When
looking at deterrence it’s important to note that punishment isn’t always an
effective reaction to criminal activity – prison is not a very effective way to
deter crime – when individuals are sent to prison, they are able to learn more
effective crime procedures and long sentences can desensitize a prison from the
threat of returning to prison. In more modern times – in youth and gang
culture, being sent to prison can be celebrated and cements an individual’s
place in gang culture. Prison time can be seen as a trophy and asserts criminal
status. Violence within jails has also risen, as gangs fight it out for control
of prison contraband and to secure their place as key players in the criminal
underworld, Casciani (2016). Police use certain measures to deter crime – such
as increasing the perception that people who engage in criminal activity will
be caught and adequately punished. The sight of a police officer will have an
influence on an individual’s decision to commit crime – as the fear of
immediate punishment is enough to deter an individual. The rise of ‘grass
culture’ could also influence deterrence theory as it is becoming increasingly
common in modern society for individuals to not cooperate with the police. Agreeing
with Merton – Cloward and Ohlin (1960) both suggested that not everyone shares
the same principles and morals of judging what acts are right or wrong,
something that is considered ‘normal’ in one part of society is judged completely
different in another. It is claimed that the more a person is exposed to adult
criminal behaviour, the more likely it is that they will go on to commit criminal
behaviour as an adult. These theories central
point is on areas run down with poverty and no attention is paid to white
collar or corporate crime. People who commit white collar crime may face the
same frustrations due to strain but their stressor may be on the maintenance of
their goals as opposed to non-achievement of them. Everybody
is born with a natural desire to be respected and to hold this status within
society – Messerschmidt (2004) argues that the desire to acquire ‘masculine
status’ is significant to crime – hence why more men are imprisoned than
women.  This does not state that only men
are criminals. The need for young people to be regarded high within their
society often results in gang membership, in modern times the need for
friendship, excitement and protection often results in gang affiliations. Carrabine
(2009) observed that “having a notorious street reputation may win no points
with society as a whole, but it may satisfy a youth’s desire to be somebody”.


In dispute of all the theoretical theories –
there are other aggravating and mitigating circumstances that could influence a
person’s decisions to commit crime. People who have been victims themselves, or
people suffering with addictions – may not learn criminal behaviour via childhood
or association – they may not be able to make rational calculations of their
actions. People who have survived abuse – sexual, mental or physical may be
driven to crime to help deal with their experiences. Bedard (2005) drew the
conclusion that “victimisation” as a child can affective adult behaviour in a
negative light – and often has long term psychological effects on an individual”.  Alcoholism and addiction issues are another
factor that can influence crime – according to the British crime survey 2008 –
nearly a million of violent attacks reported were believed to be carried out by
people under the influence, although it is important to note that these surveys
are not always a correct representative. Although mostly seen as outdated now –
Lombroso’s ‘biological throwbacks’ have recently won some support in court.
Abdelmalek Bayout, admitted in 2007 to stabbing and killing another man – his charge
was reduced as it was stated he was the victim of genetic misfortune – he had
five genes known to be associated with violent behaviour. (The Times Online, 1st
January 2018).