What Causes People to Commit Crimes?

Chapter Outline

  • 1. Theories about crime causation
  • 2. Classical theories
  • 3. Biological theories
  • 4. Psychological theories
  • 5. Sociological theories
  • 6. Is it nature or nurture?
  • 7. Criminological theories and the crime analyst
  • 8. Models and methods to address crime
  • 9. Why do we still have crime?

Learning Objectives for Chapter 3

  • 1. Better understand the major theories of crime causation
  • 2. Gain an understanding of what criminological theories are relevant to the crime analyst
  • 3. Learn more about the models and methods used by law enforcement to address the problem of crime
  • 4. Address the questions related to why crime has not been eliminated

It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the fundamental principle of good legislation, which is the art of conducting men to the maximum of happiness, and to the minimum of misery, if we may apply this mathematical expression to the good and evil of life. But the means hitherto employed for that purpose are generally inadequate, or contrary to the end proposed. It is impossible to reduce the tumultuous activity of mankind to absolute regularity; for, amidst the various and opposite attractions of pleasure and pain, human laws are not sufficient entirely to prevent disorders in society.... To what a situation should we be reduced if everything were to be forbidden that might possibly lead to, a crime? We must be deprived of the use of our senses: for one motive that induces a man to commit a real crime, there are a thousand which excite him to those indifferent actions which are called crimes by bad laws. If then the probability that a crime will be committed be in proportion to the number of motives, to extend the sphere of crimes will be to increase that probability. The generality of laws are only exclusive privileges, the tribute of all to the advantages of a few.

Cesare Beccaria (1764)

The following statement refers to the process by which a particular person comes to engage in criminal behavior.

  • 1. Criminal behavior is learned. Negatively, this means that criminal[ity] is not inherited, as such; also, the person who is not already trained in crime does not invent criminal behavior, just as a person does not make mechanical inventions unless he has had training in mechanics.
  • 2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other person in a process of communication. This communication is verbal in many respects but includes also “the communication of gestures.”
  • 3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups. Negatively, this means that the interpersonal agencies of communication, such as movies and newspapers, play a relatively unimportant part in the genesis of criminal behavior.
  • 4. When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple;

(b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.

Edwin Sutherland (1960)

Control theories assume that delinquent acts result when an individual’s bond to society is weak or broken. Since these theories embrace two highly complex concepts, the bond of the individual to society, it is not surprising that they have at one time or another formed the basis of explanations of most forms of aberrant or unusual behavior. It is also not surprising that control theories have described the elements of the bond to society in many ways, and that they have focused on a variety of units as the point of control.... I begin with a classification and description of the elements of the bond to conventional society. I try to show how each of these elements is related to delinquent behavior and how they are related to each other. I then turn to the question of specifying the unit to which the person is presumably more or less tied, and to the question of the adequacy of the motivational force built into the explanation of delinquent behavior.

Travis Hirschi (1969)

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