Why Do People Commit Crime? (Part 1)

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Disclaimer: This writing is only meant to be a brief explanation about the cause of crime that may be useful for creating debate arguments related to criminal justice system or criminal law motions. The substantive provided here will not be given in comprehensive form that contains statistical analysis, case study, or further theoretical examination (I don’t plan to create a thesis or essay now, hehehehe…). To attain more information, please read more books or other resources discussing about Criminology, Sociology, Psychology, and Criminal Justice System.

To know the reason why people commit crime has been an ongoing mystery to be solved for a long period of time. A lot of attention has been given to study this “abnormality of behavior”, whether it is analyzed in law, sociology, psychology, and many other study fields. Why so much spotlight? Well, because people are suffering from being disturbed, threatened, and experience losses (material loss to the extermination of soul) and they want to know what is bothering them and how to mitigate the circumstances. Another urgency also can be seen from the situational development during pre – Criminology period. During the Middle Age (Dark Period), people were being prosecuted and executed (yes, I literally mean executed or killed, cruelly) without clear reason or appropriate tribunal process by the despotic authority, further worsen by the influence of despotic religious institution which proclaimed that criminals were possessed by evil and Satan, or even to the extent that they were also the descendant of Satan and must be terminated. The existing rules, which were not well socialized and known by the general population, were only implemented to favor the position of religious institution and the state authority to punish people that were up against them. This period is marked by extensive torture or inquisition by religious institution, or known as the “Witch Hunt”.  Due to this alarming state of inhumane treatment, many thinkers, philosophers, writers, etc criticized the woeful conduct and thus contributing to the understanding of criminality that would be the fundamental foundation to the creation of law that punished criminals in the most effective and morally acceptable way. Then, a special branch of study field known as Criminology was founded to accommodate this urgency of discovery. It is a study to know more about crime, criminal, plus society’s role and reaction to criminality. Today, Criminology plays important role alongside Criminal Law, Criminal Justice System, and policy making by the state to create just law and safer society, plus to anticipate and prevent circumstances that can promote the rise of criminality. Fun isn’t it? So, without further, longer introduction, let’s get started with the basics!

Classical School / Rational Decision Theory

The oldest theory recorded during the development of Criminology on the 18th century. Although the aim was just to improvise and re – developed the criminal justice system on that time, but there are some explanations that contribute much to the analysis of criminal conduct. The Rational Decision Making theory assumes that people are born as creature of free will (definitely influenced by the growing concept of human rights, human dignity, and government by social contract that time). Free as in that they can decide anything that is good to them, what they want do, how they want do it, their goals, ambitions, etc, a free creature free from oppression in making choices. And the basic logic that becomes the foundation of this human rationality is “hedonism”, which makes people tend to maximize pleasure and minimize pain or suffering. People do things that they like and perceive as good in giving the benefit, and dislike things that will not give them pleasure or benefit. And human also tends to be individualistic or self – centered in applying hedonistic value. So, in connection with criminality, people do crime when they think that the benefits of conduct outweigh the consequences, and further rationality includes logical evaluation of opportunity of offending, the surrounding condition, and the readiness to commit such crime. To solve this tendency, we will have to increase the level consequence to equalize or exceed the level of benefits in order to deter them from doing criminality, or we called as “Deterrence Effect” by implementing punishment. This punishment must only be used as last resort since the nature of it is evil and also must be done proportionately with the crime itself. Downright cruel punishment is condemned, and retaliation value is not upheld. And in order to make the punishment effective, it must contain 3 aspects:

  • Certainty = how sure that the crime will be punished
  • Celerity = how speedy the crime will be punished
  • Severity = how hard the crime will be punished.

Punishments that are certain and speedy will result in great deterrence effect since criminal will surely get caught and be punished, therefore making them think twice before conducting crime, plus, both points also make law looks supreme and society can link certain aspect of crime with the punishment, creating awareness and public deterrence. Severity in this case is the least needed to make deterrence effect since moderate punishment with high level of celerity and certainty is effective enough. And severity cannot stand alone when celerity and certainty are low, even when the punishment is cruel since due to the hedonistic mindset of people, they can calculate the possibility of impunity.

Positive School / Biology and Psychology Theories

The theory proposed on 19th century when science and technology were developing fast. If the foundation of Classical School is based on philosophical analysis, then Positive School relies more on applying science, facts, and experimentation to explain crime.

Theory of Evolution, popularized by Charles Darwin, was the early major influence to Positive School. The biology theory of crime explains that criminals are people that fail to proceed into full evolution from their primate or primitive ancestor into the current human form. This failure results in criminal not being able to develop moral value of human and definition of altruistic sensibility (basic concept of what is right and wrong, good and bad)  thus, still inheriting the violent nature of their primitive ancestor (degenerative state). This theory (atavism concept) is constructed by experimentation done of dead human bodies, presumed criminals and violent soldiers, and the experimentation found out that the dead bodies have resemblance of certain primitive body parts, different with the rest of human general population. It is concluded that due to this biological inheritance from the primitive ancestors, criminals are viewed to have certain common physical form such as huge forehead, swollen lips, predatory looks on the eyes, violent – like facial expression, etc. Then, an extension of the theory emerged, stating that geographical aspects also influence the biological reaction in criminality. For instance, people commit crime more during hot and dry climate because of the uncomfortability caused by the temperature, which triggers anger or instable emotion.  Food also plays a part here. For example, poverty translates to a certain type of diet and exposure to pollutants. The resulting nutrients and chemicals are transformed by the biochemical system into neurochemical compounds within the brain, thus, poverty indirectly leads to behavioral differences and potentially, criminal behavior. About the role of brain in criminality, some researchers also suggest that criminals have this “feeblemindedness” situation. Their brains are defective, resulting in low moral intelligence. Criminals also are assumed to have lower IQ level, although this test is criticized due to the high level of bias of questions that favor middle to high class perceptions.  Furthermore, a more “radical” theory appeared, stating that indeed, certain “inferior races” that do not evolve completely tend to commit more crime, and assume that Western culture is a civilized form of life, and non-Western culture is primitive form of life. This assumption is strengthened by anthropological evidences gathered from missionaries or colonial governments that had little experience in doing anthropological field observation. This explanation is severely criticized for creating the impetus of Racism, further justified by the rise of Fascism and Nazism during World War 2.

In the genetic based theory, the family histories of criminals were examined and criminal heredity traced to certain ancestors. It is assumed that people tend to do crime more when certain members in their family were also criminals. The genetic code in their blood makes this criminality inheritance possible. And in the infamous twin study, it is found that twin siblings, especially identical twins will inherit criminal behavior if one of them has it (high level of concordance). Genetic that influences human’s endocrine traits also plays a role in determining the criminal behavior a person. The most well know one proposed 3 categories of a combination of body types and personality temperaments, also called as “Somatotypes”, which explains the following:

  • Ectomorph = person who is small – boned, lean, and frail, with a sensitive and introverted (shy) personality. This type is assumed to commit few crimes.
  • Endomorph = a person with soft and fat build with relaxed, jovial, and extroverted personality. This type is assumed to also commit few crimes.
  • Mesomorph = a person of muscular, larger – boned body build with an aggressive, action – oriented, outgoing (extroverted) personality. This type commits more crimes.

In the psychology based theory, psychiatrists had examined the effect of unconscious conflict on criminal behavior. The theory suggests that people commit crime due to the influence of their sub conscious mind that is severely affected by traumatic experiences. This traumatic experiences indirectly controls them to react more violently when encountering shocking or panic situation, and the experiences also teach them to be violent because their mind is learning and recording the violent experiences. This also leads to the development of “Learning Theory”, which assumes that people learn and imitate what they see when continually exposed to the matter, since 70% total of information that human gets in their life comes from visual recognition processed in their brain.

Another psychology based theory suggests that criminals do have naturally implanted deficiency. They are born with abnormal thinking patterns that affect their ability to make decisions. This “criminality personality” seeks excitement, has an inordinately high opinion of self, is exploitative and selfish, manipulates others, is amoral, and so forth. An attack on criminal’s self – image tends to produce a violent reaction. Furthermore, “Personality Dimensions” approach also explains that criminals tend to have high level of psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism, although certain types of crime may be correlated differenty. Young offenders tend to have higher level of extraversion, while older offenders tend to have higher level of neuroticism. Psychoticism is inherited in all type of offenders. Criminals are also correlated with the behavior of anti social traits, and will seek high level of external stimulation such as thrill seeking behavior.

To be continued…… Next writing (part 2) will discuss about the cause of criminality on the perspectives of Chicago School that gave birth to the rise of early sociological based explanation of crime during the 20th century, plus other perspectives that were developed under the very influential Chicago School perspectives.


Sources:

Brown, Stephen E., Finn Aage Esbensen, and Gilbert Geis (2010), Criminology: Explaining Crime and Its Context, 7th Edition, Lexis Nexis

– Siegel, Larry J. (2012), Criminology: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies, Cengage Advantage Books, 10th Edition

Williams III, Frank P., Marilyn D. McShane (2004), Criminological Theory, 4th Edition, Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey

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