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Strain or pressure linked to pushing people to commit crime

In legal terms, criminal act occurs when one breaks the law. Punishment that follows comes in many forms, nevertheless in vast majority of cases it is incarceration that is used to “teach” criminals to stay away from delinquent behavior in the future. Outside factors like low socio economic status of the offender are not taken into deeper consideration by our courts. The verdicts are based strictly on criminal acts rather than entire nature of criminal behavior. Many individuals however, are more likely to commit crime because they have experienced certain strain or pressure, often caused by inability to obtain material success and respect. In addition, the huge gap between the goal of material success and opportunity to obtain this goal creates fundamental tension under which the societal standards weaken and normlessness follows thus creating higher crime. This paper will examine the Regina vs. Hamilton case which resulted in incarceration of two adult women for smuggling of illegal drugs into Canada. I will analyze this case using General Strain, Anomie and Restorative Justice Theories.

On March 6th 2002, Marsha Hamilton and Dona Mason appeared in Ontario Superior Court of Justice to hear that they are accused of smuggling large amount of cocaine into the country of Canada. The trial became known as Regina vs. Hamilton. Introduction to the case was very brief and concise. From the beginning, prosecution took a very punitive stance on connection of narcotics to the case. Cocaine was defined as a highly addictive and dangerous drug that is available not only to “adult consumers, but also school-aged children.”(Regina vs. Hamilton 2003) The prosecution acknowledged that both offenders were carriers, "mules" in the jargon of the drug trade, recruited by bosses of illegal drug supply nets to accept the exclusive risk of potential apprehension in transporting cocaine from Jamaica to Canada. Both offenders had no prior criminal record. Hamilton had three children (aged 3, 7 and 8), Mason was also a mother of three (aged 1, 8 and 10). Both women were single mothers and were not provided with any financial support by children’s fathers. During their statements prior to sentencing, they acknowledged their involvement in the criminal offence and expressed the remorse for their actions. Offenders plead guilty in 2002; however the judgment was initiated on February 20, 2003. For the time between trials, women were obligated to reside at the specific addresses and report to the Peel Regional Police daily.

During the course of the trials prosecution came up with lots of statistical data related to drug consumption and abuse in Canada. The prosecutors stated that the cost of substance abuse flowing from illegal drugs is “$1.4 billion annually”, mainly due to “hospital days in Canada attributable to illicit drugs.” (Regina vs. Hamilton 2003) Moreover, mortality from drug abuse, especially cocaine that is abundantly available in Ontario region tends to involve younger victims. It wasn’t a surprise that prosecution highlighted the fact that the objective seriousness of the offence was evident. The significant and often tragic consequences, as prosecution acknowledged, emphasize the harm caused by trafficking in illegal drugs is a matter of serious concern in Canada. Canadian Parliament expression of the seriousness of illegal drug importation reflects the statutory maximum punishment of life imprisonment for this offence. Both offenders were aware they were importing cocaine into Canada and therefore they had to be aware of the seriousness of the offence committed. Prosecution believed that high sentences for both offenders would lead to more effective deterrence.

The defense took considerably different approach of presenting evidence for the case. The approach was mostly based on the assessment of deterrence in terms of severity of the sentence imposed as well as relation between “proportionality and gravity of the offence and responsibility of the offender” (Regina vs. Hamilton 2003). One of the witnesses- Dr. A. Doob, a distinguished Canadian criminologist of international reputation, was retained by the defense to provide expert opinion evidence relating to the impact of disparities in the severity of sentences on crime. His main concern was with the notion that the difference in the harshness of judgments would have overall deterrent effects. As he stated in front of the judge, “There is no conclusive evidence that that supports the conclusion that harsh sentences would reduce crime through the mechanism of general deterrence.”(Regina vs. Hamilton 2003) Dr. Noob believed that there is “no convincing body of knowledge to suggest that harsher sentences would reduce crime” (Regina vs. Hamilton 2003) He based his opinion on major evaluation of current writings including “three strikes” legislation.

Since both women were first time offenders, pleaded guilty and have complied with their bail conditions including a daily curfew, judge went easy on them and sentenced Hamilton and Mason to twenty and 24 months accordingly. The imprisonment was to be served under special conditions on the obligatory constitutional terms 742.3(1) of the Criminal Code. (Regina vs. Hamilton 2003), and additional conditions like legal supervision, curfew and inability to leave their residences except when really required. Those circumstances restricted lives of both women and forced them to provide adequate support and care for their children.

Differential Association Theory is the first theory I have chosen to provide deeper insight into the case described above. It was developed by Edwin Sutherland. According to the theory, “crime is learned through associations with criminal definitions.” (Sutherland Cressey 1960, p.126) Interacting with antisocial peers is one of the major causes of crime. The process of learning criminal behavior usually occurs within intimate, personal groups. Criminal learns the techniques of committing crime and definitions encouraging violating the law. Sutherland’s theory is detailed in form of nine propositions. The core of the theory, which in my opinion applies to the Regina vs. Hamilton case is formed in sixth proposition which states that, “A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to law violation over definitions unfavorable to violation of law” (Sutherland Cressey 1960, p.126). According to Southerland (1960), factors such as social class, race and broken homes influence crime because they affect the likelihood that individuals will associate with others who favor criminal definitions.

General Strain Theory focuses on explaining why some individuals are more likely to commit crimes than others. According to the theory, some people are pressured into crime. Frequently, it has been debated that individuals are pressured into crime when they are prevented from achieving positively valued goals through legitimate means. Our society encourages everyone to pursue certain goals but lots of people are prevented from achieving these goals in lawful way. It is also characterized by high level of economic inequality where some people are very rich and some are very poor. Such imbalance of wealth may lead poor people to increase their desire for economic success. Socio-economic factors, like uneven impact of deindustrialization, poverty and unemployment, especially among people of color in large urban areas as well as frustration from inability to achieve success create a severe goal blockage. Under such conditions, individuals may respond by engaging in criminal activities. Strains may also be caused by negative relationships with others, “especially when others are not treating individual a she or she would want to be treated” (Agnew 1992, p.50). Such negative relationships increase the probability that the individual will experience variety of negative emotions, such as anger and frustration which may lead to crime.

Institutional Anomie Theory, although closely related to Strain Theory is also quite different. The origins of this theory are attributed to Robert Merton(1938); however revisions were made by such great criminologists as Cohen, Messner and Rosenfeld (2007). The central prediction of the theory is that high crime rates are higher in societies where there is a dominance of economy over other social institutions such as family, school or political system. Studies related to the Anomie Theory demonstrate that crime rates are lower in societies and regions with stronger families, schools and religious institutions. Moreover the effect of economic stressors on crime is also lower in societies and areas where non-economic institutions are stronger.

Differential Association Theory developed by Edwin Sutherland is the last theory I have chosen to provide deeper insight into the Regina vs. Hamilton case described above. Sutherland (1960) believed that crime is learned through associations with criminal definitions. Interacting with antisocial peers is one of the major causes of crime. The process of learning criminal behavior usually occurs within intimate, personal groups. Criminal learns the techniques of committing crime and definitions encouraging violating the law. When criminal subcultures exist, many individuals can learn to commit crime in certain location and crime rates may go up. Sutherland’s theory is detailed in form of nine propositions. The core of the theory which applies to the Regina vs. Hamilton case is formed in sixth proposition which states that, “a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to law violation over definitions unfavorable to violation of law” (Sutherland, Cressey 1960, 126). According to Southerland (1960), factors such as “social class”, “race” and “broken homes” influence crime because they affect the likelihood that individuals will associate with others who favor criminal definitions. (p. 127)

The criminal theory that is in my opinion most applicable to the legal case presented earlier in the paper is General Strain theory, which explains that some people are more prone to commit crime because they are under certain form of strain. Both, Hamilton and Mason were certainly under heavy economic and emotional pressure. As Canada Customs Superintendent Mark Hayes testified in the sentencing hearing, “Drug couriers are people normally in dire circumstance[s] that need money” (Regina vs. Hamilton 2003) The offenders were single mothers raising children; they also had no relationship with children’s fathers who did not provide them with any financial or emotional support. In addition, Hamilton was physically abused by her former partner. Such undesirable relationships like those that the women had with their spouses caused them to feel further rage and frustration. Under such harsh conditions their ability to obtain positive goals was very limited. In many cases people respond to such strains through crime. They see crime as the only way to achieve financial or social realization.

Although General Strain Theory should definitely not be used to justify the actions of Hamilton and Mason, it surly puts a different light on the motives of their criminal behavior. The fact that both women had no prior convictions suggests that economic pressure they were under might have been the main reason why they decided to smuggle drugs into Canada.

Institutional Anomie Theory can be well combined with General Strain Theory when explaining the Regina vs. Hamilton case. Although most of the studies on anomie tendencies were conducted in United States, the Canadian cultural orientation is also characterized by commitment to the goal of material success to be pursued by everyone in society under open, individual competition. The probability that two women of color that came from poor, broken families had the same opportunities to achieve this goal of economic prosperity in the country like Canada is very slight. When there is a gap between the economic prosperity and opportunities to achieve it the structural pressure rises and societal norms weaken creating crime- encouraging conditions.

The social institutions are the pillars of whole societies. They are fairly constant sets of norms, values and organizations that “regulate human conduct to meet the basic needs of the society” (Bassis, Gelles, and Levine 1991, p.142). While political institutions are responsible for controlling crime within the society and provide channels for resolving conflicts, the institutions of family and education are mainly responsible for transmitting cultural standards to new generations. When social institutions such as family are weak to begin with or are weakened by the goal of economic success the economic institution becomes dominant. Joblessness makes it difficult for families to remain complete. “Where the rates” of unemployment are high, “so are the rates of divorces and single-parent households.”(Manson 1987, p.185) These conditions apply to the social and economic circumstances Hamilton and Mason had to deal with in everyday life.

One of the principals of Sutherland’s (1960) Theory of Differential Association argues that “a person becomes delinquent” because the surplus of definitions encouraging to violation of law over definitions disapproving to violation of law (p.127). When a person becomes criminal, they do so because of contact with criminal patterns and isolation from non-criminal patterns. It is clearly stated in the Regina vs. Hamilton that, “Jamaica is a major transshipment point for smugglers moving Latin American-produced cocaine into North American markets.” (Regina vs. Hamilton 2003) Because Hamilton and Mason were of Jamaican descent, it is quite possible that because of their weak material status and broken home situation they associated themselves with people that were already in drug business. This association might have introduced them to criminal patterns. Gaining quick money by smuggling narcotics is a good example of criminal behavior that could have been triggered by negative associations.

I believe that the statement: “One should never judge the criminal solely by the crime he/she has committed but also by circumstances that preceded and led to the wrongdoing” can be qualified as one of the most important concepts that I have learned while writing this assignment. I strongly believe that criminological theories are very useful not only in providing valuable perspectives on legal issues but also essential in understanding the true nature of criminal behavior. I think that legal systems in western societies like US or Canada should be more favorable to impose shorter sentences to suitable, one time offenders such as Hamilton and Mason. Providing such offenders with social and career counseling would definitely discourage them from committing the same crime much than simply locking them up for certain period of time.

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