What Can Urban Theory Tell Us Criminology Essay

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The classical and positivist approaches to criminological theory were both highly influential in their definition of and approach to dealing with crime and criminal punishment.  For centuries scholars and theorists have attempted to adopt a new and effective approach to criminal punishment, in the hope that one can understand and thus know how to deal with criminal behaviour in an effective manner.  Yet, while the two theories are rather different, they also contain similarities, and both influence the criminal systems of even today around the world.  In an attempt to compare and evaluate the two, a brief explanation is necessary, in order to understand exactly how they differ and combine on certain elements.

 The classical approach to criminal behaviour was the first to move away from the concept of classifying crime as a sin.  It thus brought the shift from unfettered power to punish criminal behaviour on a spiritual level to a reason-based approach, with checks on authority.  In contrast, the positivist approach adopts a statistical based approach, under which societal factors are assessed to determine which characteristics are more likely to cause crime.  At once, one can see the fundamentally different bases upon which each theory is propped.  Where the classical approach is more philosophical in its recognition of the social contract theory as a justification for punishing criminal behaviour, the positivist theory has an intense scientific flavour, based on social data and the study of human affairs.  The classical theory does however adopt the balancing of the benefit of a crime against its cost to determine punishment.  It promoted the bare minimum intervention of law to respect the freedom of others.  Yet it proposed to do exactly this, to protect the freedom of others, only so far as is necessary.  In contrast, the positivist theory sought to take the predictive approach - to use data and statistics to determine which social factors are the causes of crime, and to thus eliminate them to reduce criminal behaviour.  While the protection of human freedom is a running theme in the positivist theory, it is seems to be focused mainly on social reforms, conducted on the predictions resulting from societal characteristic studies.  So, from the start, one can notice that the classical approach sought to limit punishment, and pace punishing authorities within rather tight boundaries, whereas the positivist theory sought to remove or reduce the factors found to be causative of crime.

The emergent response to criminal behaviour and how to deal with it is also notably different between the two approaches.  The classical theory saw the function of the law as to 'furnish the requirements of a particular society',[1] and thus focused primarily on limiting the use of punishment.  It proposed a clear, concise code, with limited power of judicial discretion and interpretation, with proportionate punishment to deter rather than to 'may the criminal pay'.  The positivist theory was much less radical in its approach, despite the difference in period within which it emerged.  Primarily, the causes of crime were assessed, and thus the proposals were based on removing the societal characteristics to prevent crime rather than punish it effectively.  Regularities in data and crime rates were studied, and human affairs were seen as the key to discovering regularities, to find the causes of crime.  Inevitably it led to the prediction of the criminal, based on the certain characteristics and social concepts within which he was immersed.  The likelihood of committing crime was explored, and was thought predictable by researchers such as Guerry and Quetelet.  This of course led to the removal of the typical characteristics found to be causative of crime - a preventative exercise.    

 However, this is not to assume that the positivist approach completely disregards the concept of punishment, or even proposes to entirely diminish crime.  Indeed, it sees crime as a natural result of societal organisation, which still maintains individual freedom, but has now the ability to predict the causes of crime and thus reduce them.  Again one can see the preventative essence of the positivist approach in stark contrast to the somewhat retributive approach of the classicists.  And one can thus see how the former sought to focus on removing the causes of crime whereas the latter sought ways to punish criminals effectively yet fairly.  Yet this is not to say that the classical approach does not seek to prevent or reduce crime.  Indeed, punishment was seen as a deterrent; it merely proposed that the intensity of punishment was not necessarily a calculus of the intensity of deterrent effects.  Thus, theorists such as Bentham proposed that punishment should outweigh the pleasure deduced from crime, but still on a minimal level; only that which is enough to deter others.  Furthermore, concepts such as the speed with which punishment is administered and the publicity of it is seen as more productive of deterrence as the severity.

The differences between the two theories are somewhat reminiscent of the eras in which they emerged.  The classical theory occurred at a period of religious dominance, where corporal punishment was widely adopted, and the 'eye for an eye' concept allowed the torture of criminals based on the extent of their sinful behaviour.  But this proved to be difficult to monitor, and punishments simply depended on the subjective opinion of the authoritative figure administering sentences.  It was inevitable that the compassionate, more civilised traits of humankind would emerge, to recognise that such treatment of even criminals was becoming not only ineffective, but also cruel and inhumane.  Indeed, Beccaria promoted the concept of proportionate punishment and the protection of criminals, focusing on prevention rather than vengeful punishment.  Bentham's utilitarian approach still also led to reduced severity of punishment, as a minimal amount was recognised as being needed to restore the misbalance between the pleasure of crime and the pain of punishment.  Fundamentally, the classical approach was hailed as being 'prepared to apply notions of reason and free will'.[2]  The sheer simplicity of the classical approach does appear to outweigh the optimistic promises of the positivist.  No retrospective legislation, clear written codes and minimal judicial discretion coupled with minimal punishment, to deter future criminals appears much more realistic than the positivist concept. 

 Yet the positivist approach has strengths in its use of hard, indisputable societal statistics.  It is highly plausible that such an approach could be effective, to simply find the specific characteristics that are causative of crime and then seek to remove them.  This also resulted in some degree of limitation on the administration of punishment, and can be interpreted to protect the freedom of individuals as much as is possible.  It focuses on the causes of criminal behaviour, thus allowing concentration on those specific areas rather than the generality of the 'eye for an eye' punishment administration.       

 Each, because of its different propositions, failed to catch on entirely for different reasons.  While the classical approach was successful in establishing the adoption of criminal codification and checks on authority, its propositions were too radical for some countries. 

 Both were rather optimistic in their promises to reduce crime effectively.  They sought to reduce criminal behaviour to a simple set of criteria, which could be eliminated or dampened and thus result in the reduction of crime.  But each appeared to be rather blinkered in its narrow approach - while the classical approach failed to appreciate the criminal causes of behaviour beyond that of the pleasure gained, the positivist approach appeared to be too blaming of biological and statistical factors.  It seems that the most daunting characteristic of crime and punishment is its unpredictable element - it is clear or at least highly suggestible now that there cannot be a perfect catch-all approach, and this is where both theories seem to have failed.  While the classical approach succeeded in reducing punishment and moving away from the spiritualistic permission of God to punish criminals, which was easy to abuse, it set itself up for failure by promising the reduction of crime.  The reality appears to be that nothing with such a narrow approach can promise anything with certainty.  Similarly, the classical approach could not overcome the years of common law precedent built up in England at the time.  It was inevitably impossible that England would be willing or even able to overthrow centuries of custom to adopt a new, unproven concept of complete codification, although it did influence the codification of law in countries such as France and Germany. 

 The positivist approach was too simplistic also, but on a different plane than that of the classical approach.  Lombroso's attempt to classify criminal behaviour into four categories was helpful, but seemed too simplistic and rounded to lead to anything revolutionary.  Where the classical approach was arguably too philosophical, the positivist approach appeared to anthropological, thus overlooking factors such as the social contract and concepts of utilitarianism to understand how to administer punishment on a more effective level. 

 Having compared these two approaches to criminology, one can begin to understand their fundamental differences, yet also their similarities.  Of course, one has only scratched the surface on these rather complex theories and the concepts they encapsulate, but the overall basis of their approaches is accurate, and appropriately profound enough to understand.  Here we have two seemingly entirely different approaches, with some similarities and basic concepts.  It is easy to understand how they differ, yet difficult to envisage why they failed to be slightly more realistic in their propositions and promises.  However, only through these errors can one formulate different aspects of various theories and understand the different problems that emerged in the field of criminology throughout the decades.

When discussing how the UK government can utilise the economic theories of criminology to reduce the cost of crime in the UK, we must first show what constitutes the 'cost of crime'. We must then analyse how crime and the behaviour of criminals can then be influenced by policy decisions of the government.

The 'cost of crime' is the negative impact in monetary terms of a crime against individuals, and therefore against society as a whole. Generally 'costs' can be incurred in three separate ways, defined by Brand and Price in their Home Office Report (2000) as,

"Costs … incurred in anticipation of crimes occurring; as a consequence of criminal events; and responding to crime and tackling criminals."

 Costs incurred in anticipation of crimes occurring include the cost of security measures to prevent crime and costs associated with insurance. Costs incurred as a consequence of criminal events are such things as the cost incurred by the health service in order to treat victims of crime, the emotional impact on the victim in monetary terms, and the replacement cost of damaged or stolen property. Responding to crime and tackling criminals is then the cost of policing, judiciary and other associated costs incurred by the criminal justice system.

The costs of crime must also include the impacts on society that cannot be expressed in cash terms as violent crimes against individuals would not be given the true cost that the gravity of the crime would warrant.

Some studies do not recognise transfer payments as costs of crime, since money or property stolen can be seen to be redistributed within society rather than lost from society. The distinction between a transfer and loss from society is that an unwanted transfer is a loss from society as it transfers the property out of the legal economy and into the illegal economy.

The main ways the government can reduce crime, and in doing so reduce the cost of crime, are to increase the punishment in order to deter criminals, and to increase the detection rate of crime. Both of these require in input of resources that are part of an increase in the cost of crime, but if these increases lead to a greater reduction in the cost of crime by reducing crime, then the investment will have overall reduced the cost of crime, and would be worthwhile.

In order to decide where funds should be allocated the government must look at individual criminal behaviour and use economic models to show how criminals will react to perceived risk of detection and perceived risk through punishment.

D is positive which shows that the amount of damages increase with the number of offences, Cy is positive, so an increase in offences implies an increase in costs of apprehensions if p is to be maintained, and Yp and Yf are negative so an increase in the probability of apprehension or the level of punishment reduces offences.

Using this formula governments can calculate the elasticity of offences with respect to the severity of punishment, the elasticity of offences with respect to the probability of conviction and apprehension, and then the marginal cost of increasing the number of offences through both the reduction of the severity of punishment and the reduction of the probability of getting caught and the marginal revenue that they would then equal. Loss is minimised when marginal revenue equals marginal cost.

We see the result of Becker in countries increasing the severity of punishment and reducing the costs of apprehension, indicating that the probability of conviction costs more to increase. The cost of punishment, however, costs less to increase. This shows why governments might wish to keep expenditures on police low and compensate with stronger punishments.

The dynamic model of criminal participation by Sah took into account that criminals only live for a certain amount of time and that their perceptions of punishment are taken from criminals who they know have been detected.

Sah's results show that past crime breeds future crime, so that criminal participation is higher if criminal participation was higher in the past. This is because, with a fixed police budget, an increase in the crime rate leads to further increases as criminals see that more crimes are going undetected, increasing their likelihood of not getting caught. Due to this same hypothesis, two different societies can have different crime rates, even if they have identical policing.

Cameron in 1988 looked at explanations as to why punishment need not deter crime. These explanations included spill over and displacement effects, when increased efforts to deter crime may shift the criminal activity away to different places or different offences. This must be taken into account by governments when reducing the cost of crime, as regional differences may force crime to other regions, making wide-ranging government policy decisions less effective, since differing crime rates in different regions mean different equilibrium levels of cost reduction.

Deviance may be defined as non-conformity to a given set of norms that are accepted by a significant number of people in a community or society.  No society can be divided up between those who conform and those who deviate from social norms. (Giddens; 2006).  Most of us on some occasions transgress generally accepted rules of behaviour.  For example at some point in one's life one may have committed minor acts of theft, like shoplifting or taking small items from work such as pens, paper - for personal use, exceeded the national speed limit, made prank phone calls or even smoked marijuana. 

 Deviance and crime are not synonymous, although in many cases they overlap.  The concept of deviance is much broader than that of crime, which refers only to non-conformists conduct that breaks the law (Giddens; 2006).


The notion of anomie was first introduced by Emile Durkheim, who suggested that in modern societies traditional norms and standards become undermined without being replaced by new ones (Collins; 2006).  Anomie exists when there are no clear standards to guide behaviour in a given area of social life.  Under such circumstances, Durkheim believed, people feel disorientated and anxious anomie is therefore one of the social factors influencing dispositions to suicide which was regarded as a crime.  Durkheim saw crime and deviance as social facts, he believed both of them to be inevitable and necessary elements in modern societies.  According to Durkheim, people in the modern age are less constrained than they were in traditional societies, because there is more room for individual choice in the modern world, there will inevitably be some non-conformists.

Functionalists theories see crime and deviance resulting from structural tensions and a lack of moral regulation within society.  According to Merson, deviance is a by-product of economic inequalities and the lack of equal opportunities (Giddens; 2006).  Functionalists such as Merton can be criticised for presuming that middle-class values have been accepted throughout society.

 Interactionists reject the idea that are inherently 'deviant' rather, Interactionists ask how behaviours initially come to be defined as deviant and why certain groups and not others are labelled as deviant (Collins; 2006).

 To determine the extent of crime and the most common forms of criminal offence, one approach is to examine the official statistics on the number of crimes which the police actually record.  Since such statistics are published regularly, there would seem to be no difficulty in assessing crime rates, but this assumption is quite erroneous.  Statistics about crime and delinquency are probably the least reliable of all officially published figures on social issues.  Criminologists have emphasised that we cannot take statistics on crime at face value.

 The most basic limitation of statistics based on reported crime is that the majority of crimes never get passed on to the police at all.  Even in cases where a victim is wounded, studies have shown that cases are not reported to the police, for example, that it is a private affair or something they have dealt with themselves.  (www.home office.gov.uk)

 Factors that can influence crime are the types of crime committed. Some forms of criminal violence, for example, are more hidden than others and are therefore not recorded.  For example physical and sexual abuse often takes place behind closed doors in the home, prison or care institutions.  Victims may fear that the Police may not believe them, or that if they do report it the abuse will get worse.  Victims of domestic violence often do not report incidents as they believe that the crime is too trivial and that the Police wont be able to do anything about it.  A large proportion of car theft is reported but it can be argued that is due largely to the fact the car owner has to report the crime to their insurance company. (www.homeoffice.gov.uk)  Often people assume that if a crime seems minor or the damage can be repaired by insurance, they should not bother the police, but, underreporting crime can affect crime statistics.  Not reporting a crime gives the impression that it is acceptable to commit crimes such as petty theft as the perpetrator will then believe that there is a high chance he/she will not be prosecuted.  Another factor that may influence crime is drugs and alcohol.  Drugs and alcohol have an overpowering addicting affect on the user and some people resort to, burglary, theft and forgery to fulfil their addiction.  The overall effect of partial reporting of crimes is that the official crime statistics reflect only a portion of overall criminal offences. 

There is also the assumption that one criminal's behaviour will not affect another criminal's choices. When dealing with organised crime, there is competitive behaviour, so governments trying to deal with this might lead to another 'firm' of organised crime entering the market

The objective cannot be simply the elimination of crime, even though that may be desirable to society. There is a social optimum level of crime, which can be obtained in order to reduce costs of crime to a minimum. Relating costs to the incidence of crime can show this. As the expenditures on crime prevention and deterrence increase, the cost of crime to victims decreases. Only if indefinite funds are utilized can crime be removed, but since these funds constitute part of the cost of crime, overall costs will increase. At the other extreme no expenditure on crime prevention and deterrence will lead to no costs, yet the high level of crime will lead to very high costs. A minimal equilibrium level of cost of expenditure on prevention and deterrence and cost of crime to victims can be achieved, but must be adjusted to take into account social costs. The social optimum is then the point at which a maximum amount of resources can be available for other goods and services.

Some believe that governments could reduce the cost of crime by attempting to reduce unemployment, as opposed to trying to change detection rates and punishments. Machin and Meghir used a similar model to Ehrlich's state preference theory of crime in their paper "Crime and Economic Incentives" and concluded that

"Improvements in human capital accumulation through the education system or other means that can be showed to be effective for enhancing individual labour supply productivity, coupled with suitable deterrence measures would be important ingredients in reducing crime."

 The report also showed that crime rates tended to persist over time across areas where the incidence of crime was previously high. This shows that increased government spending on education has a positive effect on crime by giving more opportunities for people to acquire employment, thus reducing their need to resort to crime. Even if the costs associated with education exceeded the received cost benefits that the reduction in crime produced, it would not necessarily be increasing the cost of crime, since there would be immediate external benefits as well as future benefits to society from increased education.

When analysing criminal behaviour using cost and benefits to criminals in order to calculate whether or not they will commit crime, there is the problem of calculating the costs and benefits themselves. Welsh and Farrington came to the conclusion that cost/benefit analysis suffers due to limited or missing information in their report "Value for money? A review of the costs and benefits of situational crime prevention"

 " … there is the problem of non-comparable estimates of costs and benefits."

 This shows that even with substantial resources the government cannot gather all the information needed to make calculations on reducing the costs of crime to its minimum level. Unreported crime and black market activity are examples of crimes whose costs can only be estimated due to lack of information.

Some efforts to reduce the cost of crime are seen on our streets today. Ditton's report on how an effort to reduce crime in Glasgow by fitting CCTV cameras is one such example. In that case however, the cost of fitting and maintaining the CCTV camera was not exceeded by the reduction in the cost of crime that the CCTV caused. In fact, the CCTV cameras actually increased crime in the area! The conclusions made in the report were that the cameras were " … undermining the natural surveillance" within the community. Statements like these show that even well conceived and analytically devised schemes can run the risk of modifying peoples behaviour in a way that was maybe not anticipated. Perhaps another problem of lack of information.

Jost's report challenges that criminals commit crime if the benefits from the crime exceed the costs. He shows that an individual may commit a crime based on the behaviour of other individuals; therefore governments must also look at interactive behaviour when looking to reduce the costs of crime. His conclusion states that

 "It is optimal to concentrate resources in the first time period to forestall criminal behaviour, and do so in all subsequent periods as long as the budget allows."

 Reports by both Hale and Field show how reduction of the costs of crime is an ongoing problem faced by governments. Hale concludes his article "Crime and the Business Cycle in Post-War Britain" by saying

 "More resources are needed for crime prevention since targets will continue to increase with long-run economic growth."

 The costs of crime can be addressed now, but with economic growth, as well as population growth, the analysis is soon out of date. Increased resources will also be needed to combat crime and reduce the costs of crime, whether it be on the deterrent and prevention side in order to recruit more police officers and implement new technologies, or on the punishment side in order to build new prisons.

In conclusion, the UK government can utilise various theories of criminology to reduce the cost of crime, but due to lack of information and time taken to implement policies, mathematical and empirical studies can both lose accuracy. Crime is an ongoing problem that must be targeted in a long-term fashion, rather than using short-term fixes to reduce immediate costs of crime, a fact that governments sometimes fail to acknowledge due to their sometimes-short tenure. However, with increased availability of information and studies into crime, cost of crime reduction can be achieved with greater accuracy.


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