There is no one straight answer to the question ‘Why dopeople commit crime?’. Do criminals act rationally after weighing up theconsequences of crime? Is society to blame for why people engage incriminality? Do mental health disorders, neurological conditions or geneticsplay a role? There are many theories that seek to establish explanations as towhether these acts are deliberate or based upon circumstances against theoffenders control some of these theories will be explored in this essay. Classicist criminology is based upon the ideathat people commit crimes because the consequences of their actions are notclear to them.
Jeremy Bentham was a key influential figure in classicistcriminology and he assumed that being sure of the knowledge of consequences ofcommitting crime would act as a deterrent that would ensure rational members ofsociety not to commit it – he stated that criminality resulted from a person’supbringing rather than being congenital, people are rational beings that willseek to find pleasure whilst at the same time trying to avoid pain and thatcriminals lack the self-control needed to sway their passions. This is based upon the assumption that humanbeings are rational and weigh up the consequences of their actions before proceedingwith them. When applied to crime being committed the person would have to weighup the benefits of the crime such as monetary gain against the potentialpunishment – if the latter outweighed the former then a rational decision wouldbe made to not partake in criminal activity. Rational choice is however, basedupon numerous assumptions – the first being that the offender identifiesthemselves as an individual, known as ‘individualism’. The second states thatthe criminals must maximise their goals and lastly – that they areself-interested. Emotion plays animportant role within rational choice theory – a person’s state of emotionalityis an important factor which rational conduct rests upon. The anticipatedemotional consequences of criminal conduct are one of the benefits that isweighed up in the process of rational decision making. The potential emotionalcosts that are associated with criminal behaviour, could prevent the likelihoodof criminal behaviour.
Emotions arecentral to the psychological process of motivating individuals to pursue theirdesires. A major difficulty withclassicist criminology is the insistence of its belief that crime is a rationalact based upon an individual’s calculation of gain – this is challenged byPositivist criminology, Joyce (2012). Thetheory of deterrence believes states that people make the decision to obey orbreak 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 criminalactivity, which is known as restrictive deterrence. If legal punishments can becertain, severe and quick, this should be enough to deter people from engagingin criminal activity. Punishments can be objective; such as what legalofficials actually do to punish offenders – and perceived punishments, which isthe perceptions that potential offenders hold of what legal officials actuallydo.
There are also extra-legal punishments to be considered, such as stigma andvigilante justice. There are problems with the idea of free will and rationalchoice as they cannot account for crimes committed by people who cannot beclassed 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, andfree will fails to consider people who commit crimes out of necessity – such aspoverty or victims of domestic violence.
Social causes of crime are completely neglected,Newburn (2009). Positivist criminology argues that a criminal’s actions aremotivated not by rational choice but are a consequence of factors that a personcannot control – therefore treatment rather than punishment is the correctresponse to a person’s criminality. Positive criminology is based upon findingsbased on scientific investigations – including; biology, sociology andpsychology. Lombroso put forward that the ‘criminal man’s’ behaviour was puttogether by their biological make up – he said that criminals were individualswho had not evolved at the same rate as beings who do not offend. Thesuggestion that a person is simply ‘born bad’ paved the way for biologicaltheories which raised questions regarding genetic make-up and questioned if crimewas genetic and could run in families. The idea that your biological build up makes you a criminal ischallenged by the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate – nurture argues that criminalitycan arise from many factors such as upbringing, economic or social circumstancesor peer group pressure. Psychological theories suggest that criminal behaviouris based upon sickness of the mind, such as; personality disorders orneurological problems.
Freud – who’s work paved the way for the theory thathuman behaviour is controlled by process that occur in the mind of theindividual – paid specific attention tochildhood memories and experiences, particularly traumatic ones. He stated thatthese memories are stored in the unconscious part of a person’s mind and influencedtheir thoughts and behaviour which could then lead to personality disorderswhich would explain criminal acts. Sociological theories of crime are based uponthe importance of social factors and their influence of human behaviour. Anomie– is the concept used to explain a state of social disobedience in which theaccepted rules of behaviour – including the law – are insufficient in deterringpeople from partaking in criminal behaviour which benefits them – regardless ofthe impact that this has on others. Merton (1968) suggested strain theory toexplain criminality. He states that crime is a consequence of a society puttingincreasing pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals, whenindividuals lack the means to achieve such goals – it leads to strain whichcould result in criminal activity being undertaken to achieve such unrealisticgoals.
This can be seen in the present day in the rising culture of socialmedia – putting individuals under more pressure to conform. Drug dealing andprostitution could fall under the strain theory umbrella, as a way of gaining financialsecurity. Cohen (1950) examined groups using the strain theory and put forwardthat 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 ofsociety as deviant. These groups may behave criminally in attempts to gainstatus among associates – such as stealing a car and joyriding it as oppose toselling it for financial gain. Straintheory receives criticism because it is mostly based upon lower classcriminals, as these are a group who struggle with resources to acquire theirgains.
Strain theory overlooks white collar crime even though the white-collarcriminal has ample opportunities to achieve through legitimate and legal means.Merton also overlooks the social structure which forms the strains that are puton to individuals that commit crime. An approach related to strain theory,focuses again on social disorganisation particularly in communities – theimportance of the impact of ‘neighbourhood effect’ is focused upon – the socialstatus and rate of crime in a neighbourhood has a significant effect on anindividual’s likelihood of becoming involved with criminal behaviour regardlessof their socioeconomic status. Community context is a crucial part of why someunemployed and youths living in poverty have a greater need to commit crimethan other similar young people.
Thiscan be seen in contemporary Britain with the emergence of ‘ASBOs’, dispersalzones, exclusion orders and curfews – which have been on the rise since early2000. It had been stated that anti-social behaviour had largely been dramatised– although in urban areas, areas with social housing and social deprivation – youthoffending concerns were strongly voiced. Opportunity theory is also linked inwith youth crime – opportunity theory asserts that obtaining gains in societyby 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 criminalopportunities available in each area. In areas where criminal and gang activityis rife – gangs would be emerged into that environment – whereas an area thatwas lacking in such criminal structure would be filled with gangs competing tosecure control of it. The theory of deterrence believes states that people makethe decision to obey or break the law after calculating the gains andconsequences of their actions. People may withhold from committing crimesbecause of the fear of legal punishment – which is known as absolutedeterrence, or they may restrict their criminal activity, which is known asrestrictive 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 topunish offenders – and perceived punishments, which is the perceptions thatpotential offenders hold of what legal officials actually do. There are alsoextra-legal punishments to be considered, such as stigma and vigilante justice.When considering reasons why a person might be driven to commit crime – itis important to get a bigger picture of their lives. The murder of Joe Geelinghas been analysed using some of these theories – On the 1st March 2006, JoeGeeling was stabbed, beaten and then dumped in a park. A huge search waslaunched when Joe, who suffered from cystic fibrosis, failed to return homefrom school, his body was found in a nearby park the next day, it had beenloosely covered by debris. Michael Hamer a 15-year-old pupil that attended thesame school as Joe, was arrested the same day, it transpired that Hamer hadlured Joe to his home, using a fake letter supposedly from the deputy head oftheir school. Hamer who was struggling with his sexuality, made a sexualadvance towards Joe, who rebuffed him and threatened to announce to everybody thatHamer was gay, which enraged the boy, who then went on to attack Joe with afrying pan and stab him sixteen times. He then placed Joes body into a wheeliebin and dumped it in a nearby park, Bunyan (2006).
It emerged during histrial that he had a ‘sexual obsession’ with Joe, although he was not openlygay. Hamer was believed to have suffered from an attachment disorder whichstemmed from being abandoned as a child by his father. Bowlby (1969) statesthat children who suffer the absence of a parent during childhood can lead to avariety of problems in later life – if a child has gone through a prolongedperiod of separation from a primary care giver, it becomes difficult for thethem to learn how to bond and form relationships as they develop. It is easyfor a child to become apathetic and very concentrated on themselves. Thesecharacteristics 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 haveconcern for the wellbeing of others and this stems from their inability tobond. These children are also at higher risk of developing personalitydisorders, depression and cognitive difficulties.
Psychiatrists at Hamer’strial established that he was suffering from an Adjustment Disorder, whichstemmed from his troubled childhood, and that this affected his mental ability.His mental capacity was not deemed unstable enough to reduce the crime to manslaughterand Hamer admitted that it was his anger and sexual rejection that led to themurder of Joe. He stated that he wantedJoe to feel ‘lonely and scared’ by sexually abusing him – this could link withthe inability to feel empathy or concern for others.
Hamer suffered from asense of shame, perhaps that stemmed from being abandoned by his father andthis was further fuelled by his quiet nature leading him to be bullied atschool – this further reinforces the feelings of abandonment that he harboured.Everywhere he turned he was faced with rejection, from his home life, althoughhe did have a loving and supportive mother, to school – Hamer was never able tofind a place where he fitted in. In psychoanalytictheory; correct socialization is suitable enough to curb the natural drives andurges that Freud says all humans have stored in their unconscious. MichaelHamer would often spend hours at a time in his bedroom, playing video andpretend games on his own, he also struggled to socialise with children his ownage and associated himself with much younger children, this impropersocialisation could lead to personality disturbances that could projectantisocial and deviant behaviour outward, which leads to criminality. Rational choice theory would argue that Hamer knew the consequences ofkilling Joe but he made the decision to commit the act – perhaps as a way ofprotecting himself from Joe revealing at school about his sexuality.
Althoughthis could also have been out of a sense of panic whereby Hamer saw thatkilling Joe was his only option – without thoroughly thinking of theconsequences. The fear of his bullies – and potentially his absent fatherfinding out about his sexuality, was not enough to deter Hamer from thekilling, even with the knowledge that killing Joe wound significantly affecthis life and the life of those around him, as well as Joe Geeling’s family. Biologically Hamer’sact 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 tocontrol their emotional brain – which can lead to risk taking and impetuousbehaviour.
Inherited criminality could not be attributed as a factor in Hamer’scase – 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 typeof crime in the same manor – one that is greatly overlooked by society and themedia in general. In 2005, Leo Kozlowski was convicted of crimes related tohis obtainment of $81 million in unapproved bonuses, as well as the purchase ofover $14 million worth of art and an unauthorised payment of a banking fee to acompany director. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, which he servedand was released in 2014. It is sometimes more difficult to understand why highflying business men commit money related crimes, as its not out of necessitybut out of greed. The justice system generally still treats white collar crimewith a lot more leniency than ‘street crime’, even though white collar crimecauses 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 findways to justify their behaviour to themselves.
Embezzlers believe they’re justborrowing money. Executives that break worker safety policies or excusepollution as obstructive invasions into the free market. Corporate managers whodefraud their companies’ clients tell themselves they’re just doing what theirbosses demand. Surveys have shown that many executives believe that unethicaland even illegal behaviour- as standard in their industries – making it easierto justify their behaviour. Themotivation behind white collar crime, is simply – making money, but it can alsobe influenced by the competition between executives in their quest for wealthand status – which could link in with strain theory. Society sees greed andmaterial competition as innate human characteristics – a key element in whitecollar crime are these and a massive fear of failure. There are externalfactors to take into consideration; such as opportunity for criminal behaviourwithin a specific sector, the chances of being caught – deterrence theory isnot a strong theory for white collar crime, as people who commit it are rarelyheld accountable and the punishments are quite often less severe.
These factorslink back to debateable social norms that treat these – sometimes severe –crimes differently than any other crime, to address white-collar crime wouldrequire in depth cultural change. It is hard for law abiding citizensto understand why people commit crime; particularly heinous crime, such as rapeor murder. Every human being has the capacity to engage in delinquentbehaviour, but only a certain number of individuals will go on to commit crime.
It is difficult to establish a solid relationship between criminal activity andsocial class, there has been much research into crimes of the lower classes andthe statistics do show clearly – that working class people are more criminal –there are issues with statistics themselves. Statistics don’t account forunreported crime, or crime that doesn’t make it to court. Crime committed bythe higher classes is largely ignored and unreported, as it is sometimes seenas victimless and is very hard to hold a specific individual accountable. Thismakes it almost impossible for a correct relationship between social class andcrime to be recorded. Strain theory and functionalism assume that peopleare 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 proposesindividuals will commit crime unless there are social controls such as policingand punishment in place (Brym, 2007).
The control theory better explains casesof white collar crime; such as officials embezzling funds, under the pretencethey won’t be caught – the act is not out of necessity but out of greed. Whenlooking at deterrence it’s important to note that punishment isn’t always aneffective reaction to criminal activity – prison is not a very effective way todeter crime – when individuals are sent to prison, they are able to learn moreeffective crime procedures and long sentences can desensitize a prison from thethreat of returning to prison. In more modern times – in youth and gangculture, being sent to prison can be celebrated and cements an individual’splace in gang culture. Prison time can be seen as a trophy and asserts criminalstatus.
Violence within jails has also risen, as gangs fight it out for controlof prison contraband and to secure their place as key players in the criminalunderworld, Casciani (2016). Police use certain measures to deter crime – suchas increasing the perception that people who engage in criminal activity willbe caught and adequately punished. The sight of a police officer will have aninfluence on an individual’s decision to commit crime – as the fear ofimmediate punishment is enough to deter an individual. The rise of ‘grassculture’ could also influence deterrence theory as it is becoming increasinglycommon in modern society for individuals to not cooperate with the police.
Agreeingwith Merton – Cloward and Ohlin (1960) both suggested that not everyone sharesthe same principles and morals of judging what acts are right or wrong,something that is considered ‘normal’ in one part of society is judged completelydifferent in another. It is claimed that the more a person is exposed to adultcriminal behaviour, the more likely it is that they will go on to commit criminalbehaviour as an adult. These theories centralpoint is on areas run down with poverty and no attention is paid to whitecollar or corporate crime. People who commit white collar crime may face thesame frustrations due to strain but their stressor may be on the maintenance oftheir goals as opposed to non-achievement of them.
Everybodyis born with a natural desire to be respected and to hold this status withinsociety – Messerschmidt (2004) argues that the desire to acquire ‘masculinestatus’ is significant to crime – hence why more men are imprisoned thanwomen. This does not state that only menare criminals. The need for young people to be regarded high within theirsociety often results in gang membership, in modern times the need forfriendship, excitement and protection often results in gang affiliations. Carrabine(2009) observed that “having a notorious street reputation may win no pointswith 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 aperson’s decisions to commit crime. People who have been victims themselves, orpeople suffering with addictions – may not learn criminal behaviour via childhoodor association – they may not be able to make rational calculations of theiractions. People who have survived abuse – sexual, mental or physical may bedriven to crime to help deal with their experiences.
Bedard (2005) drew theconclusion that “victimisation” as a child can affective adult behaviour in anegative light – and often has long term psychological effects on an individual”. Alcoholism and addiction issues are anotherfactor that can influence crime – according to the British crime survey 2008 –nearly a million of violent attacks reported were believed to be carried out bypeople under the influence, although it is important to note that these surveysare 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 chargewas reduced as it was stated he was the victim of genetic misfortune – he hadfive genes known to be associated with violent behaviour.
(The Times Online, 1stJanuary 2018).