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Psychological Theories Of Crime

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2837 words Published: 10th May 2017

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Psychology and Crime

Psychology of crime tries to give an explanation how some people deviate from the social norms and choose to commit crime. It is also a tool commonly used in the investigation process that helps investigators interview suspects effectively.

Definitions of Crime

A crime is generally considered as an act that is against what criminal law says. Crimes that are ‘mala prohibita’ vary with time and place and are dependent relative to cultural context and values but crimes that are ‘mala in se’ are universally forbidden. mala in se crimes include murder or theft.

Consensus Theories

This view regards all crimes to be intolerable to all society. Society as a whole agrees upon and formulates a written code which defines crimes and is a reflection of values, beliefs, and opinions of society’s mainstream culture. There is a consensus between the majority in society as these agree on which behaviours should be criminalized or not. Sutherland and Cressey link crime with criminal law as according to them criminal behaviour is a violation that goes against mainstream beliefs. They also believe that the legal system deals with crime uniformly thus dealing with all kinds of different people in the same way.

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Social harm – the consensus view distinguishes between illegal behaviours that cause social harm and those that do not. Deviant behaviour is against social norms but does not cause social harm. Deviant acts although deemed shocking or immoral are not necessarily criminal. However the consensus view still condemns victimless crimes even though they have wilful participants, they argue that this behaviour could undermine the social fabric and that all members of society must be protected even if they choose to engage in high-risk behaviours.

On the other hand some other theorists of the Consensus View claim that deviance is in fact beneficial in society as it challenges old-fashioned ideas and brings about the needed change in society.

Conflict Theories

The Conflict Perspective believes that criminal law reflects and protects established economic, racial, gendered and political power. This perspective portrays society as a collection of different groups who are in constant conflict with each other as they are all the time struggling to achieve and maintain this power. Groups use the law in their favour to assert their political power. Therefore they consider criminal law as existing to protect those in power. According to this view the definition of crime is in the hands and monopolised in favour of those who have power. Crime is shaped by the ruling class instead of by societal consensus. Benign violent acts ensure tranquillity preventing the underclass from overthrowing their capitalist exploiters. Conflict theorists believe punishments are not given fairly and thus this theory holds that the system is shaped by the ruling class for the ruling class. For instance lower class people get harsher punishments for petty crimes than do white collar criminals. According to the conflict perspective, real crimes would include violations of human rights and inadequate childcare amongst others.

Interactionist Theories

According to the Interactionists, people act according to their interpretations of reality and assign meanings accordingly. They observe the way others react whether positively or negatively and then re-evaluate and interpret their own behaviour according to the meanings they have learned from others.

Interactionists assert that people in power use their influence to impose their definition of right and wrong on others. To Interactionists crimes are outlawed behaviours because society has defined them that way. Criminal law is shaped by moral entrepreneurs who use their influence to shape the legal system the way they see it. Interactionists argue that crime has no meaning unless people react to it in a negative way.

2. Theories of Crime

Classical Theories

Basic elements of classical theories:

In society people have free will to choose criminal or lawful solutions to meet their needs and settle their problems.

Criminal solutions may be more attractive because they have a quicker and greater payoff.

Persons’ choice of crime may be controlled by fear of punishment.

The more severe, swift and certain the punishment is the better it is able to control criminal behaviour.

The classical perspective influenced judicial philosophy; at the end of the 18th and 19th centuries, prisons started to appear as a form of punishment. Punishment by execution also began to be used for the most serious of offences.

‘Let the punishment fit the crime’ is the key idea where punishment prevents persons from doing crime and from doing serious crime.

Positivist Theories

New discoveries in biology, astronomy and chemistry influenced social researchers to use the same scientific method to be applied to explain human behaviour.

Human behaviour is a function of forces beyond the person’s control. Behaviour is influenced by forces some of which are social, political, historical and biological. A person’s biological makeup and structure also influence behaviour.

The scientific method is used to solve social problems including human behaviour. Factual first hand information and observations are used. The work of Charles Darwin on the evolution of man encouraged further the development of science and that human activity could be verified by scientific principles.

Physiognomists studied facial features of criminals to determine whether the shape of the nose, ears, eyes and the distance between them were associated with antisocial behaviour whilst Phrenologists studied the shape of the skull and bumps on the head and sought to determine whether these attributes were linked to criminal behaviour.

Cesare Lambroso (1835-1909) studied physical characteristics of soldiers convicted and executed for criminal offences and believed that criminals are inherently born criminal as they inherit traits which subject them to criminality. These born criminals suffer from atavistic anomalies meaning that they are throwbacks to more primitive times with enormous jaws, strong canine teeth, sloping shoulders and foreheads, full lips and flat feet.

These criminal traits can be acquired or inherited in 2 ways:

Indirect heredity – inherited from a degenerate family whose members suffered from ills such as insanity, syphilis and alcoholism.

Direct heredity – being related to a family of criminals.

Radical Criminology

Radical or Marxist criminology explains crime within economic and social contexts expressing the connection among social conflict, crime and social control. Theories within radical criminology argue that conflict promotes crime by creating a social atmosphere in which law is a form of social control controlling dissatisfied members of society, whilst the affluent maintain their power. Therefore criminal behaviour is a function of conflict and a reaction to the unfair distribution of wealth and power in society.

Social conflict has its theoretical basis in the works of Karl Marx as interpreted by Bonger, Dahrendorf and Vold. Conflict theorists suggest that crime in any society is caused by class conflict and laws are created by those in power to protect their rights and interests.

Radical criminology views the capitalist system as a major cause of crime; the poor commit crimes because of their frustration, anger and need. The wealthy engage in illegal acts because they are used to competition and to maintain their positions in society therefore the state serves the interests of the ruling capitalist class. Criminal law is an instrument of economic oppression re-enforcing the oppression of the subordinate classes.

There are 2 main branches of radical criminology referred to as instrumental and structural theory. Instrumental theorists believe that the legal system supports the owners at the expense of the workers. Structural theorists on the other hand believe that the law controls the power of the capitalists.

Labelling Theories

Labelling theories are interested in the effects of labelling on individuals and ask why some people committing some actions come to be defined as deviant, while others do not. Once a group or individuals having a certain common characteristic are labelled to be deviant the more likely they are to be arrested for, charged with, and convicted of a particular crime. The label attached may become so dominant that it is often referred to as the ‘master status’ which is seen as more important than all the other aspects of the person. He or she becomes a ‘hooligan’ or ‘thief’ rather than a father, mother or friend.

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Each label carries with it prejudices and images and this may lead to others interpreting the behaviour of the labelled person in a particular way. For example, a person who volunteers to stay late at work is usually seen as worthy of praise, but, if a person has been labelled as a thief, people might be suspicious that they will steal something. For some people once a deviant label has been applied this can actually lead to more deviance. This happens when people start acting in the way they have been labelled.

The Labelling Theory argues that no act is intrinsically criminal as crime is defined in the interest of the people in power therefore it is the designation of criminality by authorities which makes an act unlawful and a person who commits it a criminal. Everyone is a conformist in some ways and a deviant in other ways and therefore dividing people into criminal and non-criminal categories does not make any sense.

1. Police hold stereotypes about ‘typical’ criminals’.

2. They use these stereotypes to interpret the behaviour of suspected deviants

3. The closer that a person comes to the stereotype held by the police the more likely they are to be arrested for, charged with, and convicted of the crime.

Lemert’s Theory of Secondary Deviance

Lemert suggests that deviance doesn’t just happen with a single instance of behaviour. He argues that there is first an act which may be mischievous that deviates from the normatively expected behaviour and which results in a reaction from society. The reaction often involves admonition not to deviate again, and perhaps punishment. Other acts, and reactions, continue to occur. Lemert wisely suggests that some instances of deviance in this pattern are probably simply clumsy and unintended. Punishment and admonition for those acts may very well provoke a sense of being treated unjustly.

After a series of such interdependent interactions, eventually the person begins to employ his deviant behaviour or a role based upon it as a means of defence, attack, or adjustment to the admonitions and prohibitions that behaviour provokes and this is what Lemert calls secondary deviance.

3. Measurement of Crime

Crime is a part of society therefore it is important for it to be measured. Through measuring crime we can see the amount of crime present and therefore test the effectiveness of preventative measures. Crime trends can be estimated and may be used as information for policy makers.

Measurement of crime in USA

In the United States of America crime is mainly measured by two ways; the National Crime Victimization Survey and the Uniform Crime Report. These two different measures are utilized to have a more accurate account of crime. The National Crime Victimization Survey began being used as it became apparent that not all crimes were reported to the police. A scientific survey would have to be conducted of the population in question to discover if they have been victims of crime and have not reported this to the police. The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) are the major crime reports that are reported to the police. These are then given to the F.B.I and they publish these reports.

Measurement of crime in Britain

In Britain the yearly British Crime Survey (BCS) and police records are both used to measure crime rates. Before 1982 only police records were used however it became evident that this was not enough. The BCS is analysed along with the police records to try and determine a precise analysis of the crime in England and Wales. The BCS is considered to be a dependable source of long term crime trends as it delves into detail about the victims’ experiences of the crimes along with the fear of crime in the particular areas. All this information is published in the annual report: Crime in England and Wales.

Police Records

Police records include all the reported crimes to the police which are in turn recorded in their database. These provide a valuable source of information for researchers, members of the press and even the police themselves. However these are still not a reliable source of the crime rates of a particular area as they only include crimes that police officers and victims actually do report. Not all reports are available to the public for a variety of reasons such as; to protect national security, to respect an ongoing investigation or even not to interfere with the prosecution or apprehension of criminal offenders.

The Dark figure of crime

A large percentage of crime committed remains unreported. This trend seems prevalent in many areas and this could be due to multiple reasons. One such reason could be that the person is unaware that they are a victim, such as in cases of fraud or even with drug dealers, where the buyer does not feel like the victim of a crime as he/she is also an active component of the crime. A victim may also feel embarrassed to report the crime which is often the case in sexual abuse and also in certain cases of physical abuse. The victim may decide to protect the offender which can be found in cases such as spousal abuse or it the victim knows the offender etc. It could also be that the victim is not in a position to protect themselves; such is the case with victims of a young age, old age, mentally challenged, physically challenged etc. The trivialisation of certain crimes, such as littering, and the lack of faith in the police and the judicial system, may also result in a deficiency of reports to the police. A victim may feel the wait for justice through the policing system may take too long and even decide to take hold of matters themselves inflicting payback on the offender themselves. This in turn, may be an act of crime in itself. People involved in criminal behaviour tend to take up this kind of activity where they are unlikely to make a report when they are in turn are made victims. The nature of a crime affects the likelihood of the crime being reported, if the crimes are of a serious nature or would entail police reports in order to make insurance claims.

Police discretion may also influence the information represented on police records due to several factors such as; the type of policing which may affect crime patterns and rates. Police in different areas or with different methods may classify crime differently and also the fact that police stereotyping affects who the police search, arraign, arrest and investigate. During police campaigns that lead to arrests and convictions in regards to certain crimes, an increase in that particular crime would be recorded on the police records. However it is important to note that this may not be the case as the increase in the crime records may be a result of more arrests, not due to the increase of the crime itself. Several police forces do not report certain crimes as viewed as unimportant and are overlooked.

Offender Surveys

Offenders are also a component of crime researchers attempt to investigate. This is done through the use of “Offender surveys” where participants are asked if they have ever committed a crime. These are often criticised for being too subjective as they rely on the participants’ perception of what constitutes a crime. They seek to uncover the perpetrators of crime, particularly for crime that is not reported in order to identify the offenders’ experiences of crime.

Victim Surveys

Victim surveys help provide a better and more accurate picture of crime representation alongside official police statistics. Through sampling, a selection of individuals are chosen and asked whether they have been victims of crime and most importantly if they reported these crimes to enforcement agencies.

National Crime Victimization Survey – United States


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