What Causes People to Commit Crimes?


  • 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 Gain a better understanding of 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 ultimate end of every good legislation, which, to use the general terms for assessing the good and evils of life, is the art of leading men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible unhappiness ... It is impossible to reduce the turbulent activity of mankind to a geometric order, without any irregularity and confusion ... To what should we be reduced if everything were forbidden to us that might induce us to crime? It would be necessary to deprive man of the use of his senses. For one motive that drives men to commit a real crime there are a thousand that drive them to commit those indifferent acts which are called crimes by bad laws.

(Beccaria, 1963/1764, pp. 93—94)

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 persons 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.
  • (Sutherland, 1947, pp. 5—7)

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.

(Hirschi, 2004/1969, p. 294)

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 why 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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