Theories about the Origins of Crime

If you are like most people, when you hear of a particularly horrific or brutal crime, you may ask, “How could someone do something like that?”

It’s that kind of question that motivates criminologists to study the reasons why people commit crimes. But beyond that, criminal justice researchers and theorists have been trying to explain the reasons criminal violators offend in order to combat crime and develop programs to reduce or prevent crime.

Early Theories

Hundreds of years ago, philosophers and criminologists developed theories of deviant behavior based on social and religious morals.

Scientific observations were not employed, nor was there empirical research to determine why some people were deviant. When people behaved in deviant or immoral ways, it led those who were in positions of authority to theorize about the nature of good and evil.

In the Middle Ages, there seemed little differentiation between sin and crime (Fagin, 2007). If an individual was deviant, it was because he or she was evil, morally weak, or had the devil inside him or her. Given these kinds of explanations, the religiously based criminal justice system of the time took what was seen as appropriate action to deal with the morally deficient—which is why lawbreakers were frequently tortured, burned at the stake, or subjected to trial by ordeal. Trial by ordeal referred to various methods of torture that usually featured magical or superstitious ways of determining moral guilt (Siegel, 2006).

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