The Theories and Explanations About Crime Behaviour

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There is no one straight answer to the question ‘Why do people commit a 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 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 the 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.

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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 maximize 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 weighed up in the process of rational decision making. The potential emotional costs that are associated with criminal behavior, could prevent the likelihood of criminal behavior.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 byPositivist 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). Positivist criminology argues that a criminal’s actions are motivated not by rational choice but are a consequence of factors that a person can not 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 behavior was put together by their biological makeup – 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 the 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 arises from many factors such as upbringing, economic or social circumstances or peer group pressure.

Psychological theories suggest that criminal behaviors 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 behavior is controlled by a process that occurs 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 influence their thoughts and behavior which could then lead to personality disorders which would explain criminal acts. Sociological theories of crime have based on the importance of social factors and their influence on human behavior. Anomie– is the concept used to explain a state of social disobedience in which the accepted rules of behavior – including the law – are insufficient in deterring people from partaking in criminal behavior which benefits them – regardless of the impact that this has on others. Merton (1968) suggested a 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 opposed 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 a crime. An approach related to strain theory, focuses again on social disorganization particularly in communities – the importance of the impact of ‘neighborhood effect’ is focused upon – the social status and rate of crime in a neighborhood has a significant effect on an individual's likelihood of becoming involved with criminal behavior 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 early2000. It had been stated that anti-social behavior had largely been dramatized– although, in urban areas, areas with social housing and social deprivation – youth offending concerns were strongly voiced.

Opportunity theory is also linked with youth crime – opportunity theory asserts that obtaining gains in society by legitimate means is impossible and bands together people who have this mindset– 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 crime 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 for 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 a crime – it is important to get a bigger picture of their lives. The murder of Joe Geelong has been analyzed using some of these theories -On the 1st March 2006, JoeGeeling 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 Joe's 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 caregiver, it becomes difficult for 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 behavior. Bowlby 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’strial 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 one 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 he was further fuelled by his quiet nature leading him to be bullied at school – this further reinforces the feelings of abandonment that he harbored.

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 socialize with children his own age and associated himself with much younger children, this improper socialisation could lead to personality disturbances that could projectantisocial and deviant behaviour outward, which leads to criminality. The 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 Geelong'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 to control their emotional brain – which can lead to risk-taking and impetuous behavior. 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 type of crime in the same manner – 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 unauthorized payment of a banking fee to accompany director. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, which he served and was released in 2014. It is sometimes more difficult to understand why highflying businessmen commit money-related crimes, as it's 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 behavior 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 behavior- as standard in their industries – making it easier to justify their behavior. The motivation behind a 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 whitecollar crime are these and a massive fear of failure. There are external factors to take into consideration; such as the opportunity for criminal behavior 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. This factorslink 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 a crime; particularly heinous crime, such as rape or murder. Every human being has the capacity to engage in delinquent behavior, but only a certain number of individuals will go on to commit a 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 a 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 pretense, 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 individuals 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 a 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 behavior, the more likely it is that they will go on to commit criminal behavior 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 a 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 as 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 a dispute over all the theoretical theories –there are other aggravating and mitigating circumstances that could influence a person's decisions to commit a crime. People who have been victims themselves, or people suffering from addictions – may not learn criminal behavior 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 “victimization” as a child can affective adult behavior in a negative light – and often has long-term psychological effects on an individual”. Alcoholism and addiction issues are another factors 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.

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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 behavior.

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The Theories and Explanations About Crime Behaviour. (2018, May 20). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 2, 2023, from
“The Theories and Explanations About Crime Behaviour.” GradesFixer, 20 May 2018,
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