There are many theories on the causes of crime. However it is first important to determine what is crime? And what people perceive to be criminal behaviour. The views and concerns of the public also influence the way that the professionals in the criminal justice process think about crime, whether probation officer, police officer or judge. Legally, a crime is any act or omission proscribed by the law and punishable by the state through the criminal justice process.
The criminal law is used against a wide range of behaviour- from murder, rape and assault to driving with excess alcohol, parking on a yellow line and failing to comply with health and safety regulations. Although not many people would dispute that murder should be an offence, not all members of the public would think of someone who drives with excess alcohol in their blood as a criminal. The public have a commonsense view of what they regard as crime. Behaviour which people disapprove of would be described as criminal to emphasise its seriousness and unacceptability.
These commonsense images tend to be associated with intentional physical harm, often involving confrontation between offender and victim, also dishonesty, cheating and theft are a key part of the commonsense view of crime. However not all activities proscribed by the criminal law are regarded as crimes and their perpetrators as criminal. For example, petty pilfering at work by employees and members of the public may inflate insurance claims or fail to disclose their full earnings to the Inland Revenue without seeing themselves as criminals, or being viewed as such by others.
Drivers may regularly infringe road traffic laws without considering their behaviour as deviant. Different groups therefore may have different conceptions of where to draw the line between acceptable behaviour and crime. Some injuries and deaths in the workplace are caused by neglect of health and safety regulations. Yet these are regularly dealt with as accidents rather than as crimes, and those responsible are rarely sanctioned as criminals (Wells 1998; Croall 2001). This may be because there is no immediate confrontation between offender and victim and because those responsible intended no harm.
Domestic violence was also not widely perceived as being as serious as other violent crimes for many years- partly because it takes place in private sphere of the home. Public tolerance of different activities changes over time and legal categories subject to change. The criminal law in our society shifts according to the changes in public attitudes. Thus over the last 50 years the way in which the law has dealt with drunk driving, homosexuality, prostitution, martial rape and criminal damage has changed.
Changes in the public's tolerance of activities lead to campaigns to criminalise some behaviours and decriminalise others. If the criminal law didn't reflect public morality and concerns, the public would have little regard for the law- it would lose its legitimacy. It would also be seen as oppressive- as an instrument of social control and political domination. Illegality covers a multitude of actions, responsibilities, circumstances and statuses thus the diversity of acts that may be characterised as criminal is considerable. Therefore it is impossible to offer simple explanation of why someone acts criminally.
Also people do not act in the same fashion. Some people act more prone to self-indulgence, others are more violent in character. The causes of criminal behaviour are complex and multiple. They are multiple because crime does not relate to only one form of action, e. g. the causes of domestic violence by a woman may not be same as when committed by a man. The causes that lead a teenager to commit arson may be very different from those that lead an old-age pensioner to fraud. Therefore we should not expect to find a single cause for all types of criminality.
The complexity is apparent when the range of factors used to explain delinquency are taken into consideration. The potential list of causes is long: biological predisposition, lack of bonding between parent and child, inconsistent parenting, irresponsible parenting, failure at school, truancy, labeling, violent videos, hyperactivity, over stimulating foods, drugs, glue, alcohol, masculinity, testosterone, repressed sexuality, under developed super ego, lack of discipline, peer influence, television, lack of moral training, racism, lack of legitimate opportunities and too many illegal opportunities.
There are many theories of the causes and research carried out to support them. Crime prevention policies are implicitly or explicitly based on theories about why crime occurs. These can focus on different elements of crime. Some theories focus on offenders- seeking to establish, for example, if there are any characteristics for example which distinguish offenders from the rest of the population and whether offenders are 'predisposed' to commit crime.
Crime can also be related to a variety of social factors such as social deprivation, high rates of unemployment, or the effects of social change. A different approach is to explore the situations in which crime occurs, e. g. it is easier to commit a crime successfully in situations where there is less change of being observed or being caught. Some of the main theories on the causes of crime are, the classical and positivist theories, radical criminology labeling theory, constitutional theories, genetic explanations and environmental explanations.