Criminal Justice Theories

Most criminological theorizing focuses attention either on explaining crime or on justice systems and processing. In general, criminological theory and research attempt to explain crime in order to offer policies to reduce it. The practice of criminal justice is based upon theories about the causes of crime and how to respond to them. A theory is a generalization or conceptualization about the phenomenon being studied. Theory deals with “what is,” not “what should be. ” Criminal justice practice “should” be, but unfortunately “is” not, grounded in criminological theory that is tested by observation.

Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory of Delinquency Sociologists have used control theory to explain deviant behavior. Control theory is really more about conformity than deviance. It is formed upon a Hobbesian premise that people need to be constrained in order to conform to society because living in antisocial lawlessness is a natural state for human beings. For example, control theories would not question, “why do some people steal,” but would ask, “why do not all people steal? ” They assert that most delinquent behavior is the result of insufficient control.

Social control theory is based on the idea that conformity is held in place by social connectedness and sanctions. In his version of social control theory, called the social bond theory, criminologist Travis Hirschi states, “Delinquent acts result when an individual’s bond to society is weak or broken. ” Hirschi’s theory focuses on four elements that bond individuals to others in conventional conformity or law abidingness. They are 1) attachment to conforming others, 2) commitment to conformity, 3) involvement in conventional activities, and 4) belief in moral validity of conventional values (Siegel 2006).

Attachement: Hirschi argues that people conform to the norms of their communities because they care about what other people think of them. French sociologist Emile Durkheim stated, “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings. ” Extending upon this observation, Hirschi notes that we are moral beings to the extent we have internalized the norms of society. Because we are attached to others’ opinions of us, we develop morals and conform to the norms of our cultures.

These social bonds of attachment are constructed emotionally and have an emotional character. Our values are based on our emotions. Commitment: According to Hirschi, commitment is the rational component to conformity. Social bond contains the commitment to pursue conventional means and goals. Hirschi postulates that people enjoy their pursuit of a conventional goal and, thus, weigh out the risks and assess the possible losses of committing a deviant act. If attachment can be equated to conscience, then commitment can be associated with logic and common sense.

Involvement and Belief: Hirschi’s concept of involvement is that if people spend their time and energy involved in socially acceptable normative behaviors, such as family activities, work, and school, then it will be difficult for them to find time or energy to participate in deviant or delinquent behavior. Further, individuals who have strong social bonds to the institutions in society share “conventional and similarly-held beliefs” with other conforming members. When a person’s belief in the moral validity of norms are weakened, the probability that he will commit a delinquent act is increased.

Social bonds are our connectedness to social structures through the norms, values, morals, and expectations that guide our behavior. They are our emotional and moral motivation to meet those norms. Yet social bonds are not automatic or static. Rather, through interactions, people derive, create, and destroy social bonds. These bonds fluctuate, build and weaken, strengthen and heal, or at time rupture, perhaps even beyond repair. Hirschi himself developed empirical measures of his major concepts and then systematically tested the theory, using the data from the Richmond Youth Project, a self-report survey of more than 4,000 youths.

Hirschi’s empirical analysis attempted to assess how different measures of elements of the social bond are related to delinquent behavior. Hirschi’s theorizing finds support in a study conducted by Kruttschnitt, Heath, and Ward in 1986, which identified concordance between weak attachments at both home and school and a rising rate of violent criminality. In another study conducted by Poole and Regoli in 1979, adolescents who were poorly bonded to their parents seemed more susceptible to delinquent peer influence than more strongly bonded adolescents. Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory Edwin H.

Sutherland (1883 – 1950) is considered to be one of the fathers of modern day criminology. He presented his differential association theory in his work Criminology first published in 1924. In Sutherland’s theory, crime and delinquency are caused by associating with other people who transmit “definitions” that favor violations of the law. Sutherland’s scheme emphasizes on attachments with others who are delinquent. The differential association theory states that, “when persons become criminal, they do so because of contacts with criminal patterns and also because of isolation from anticriminal patterns.

” These contacts take place within deviant subcultures — groups that are part of the larger society but whose members adhere to norms and values that favor violations of the larger society’s laws. People learn techniques of committing crime from close association and interaction with those who engage in and approve of criminal behaviors (Warr 2002). Criminal behavior is learned, and criminals constitute a special type of conformist. They conform to the norms of the group with which they associate.

Once a person makes an initial contact with a deviant subculture, the individual learns the subculture’s rules for behavior in the same way that all behavior is learned. Criminality arises from two factors, learned attitude and imitation of specific acts. Criminal behavior is an expression of needs and values, for example, the need for money. However, the need for money cannot be used to explain criminal behaviors, for these are learned from the group a person socializes with. If a person comes to acquire more favorable attitudes towards crime than unfavorable ones, then they may become criminal.

They may also acquire from their social groups specific techniques for breaking the law. However, a person does not necessarily learn favorable attitudes towards all forms of crime, for example, some one who think that burglary is wrong may nonetheless feel that it is acceptable to steal books from a library. Research testing this theory has mostly tended to focus on the explanation of juvenile delinquency rather than on the explanation of adult criminality. In general, this is because delinquency is largely a group phenomenon, as juveniles are likely to commit crime and delinquency in the company of other juveniles.

In 1988, Matsueda asserted that differential association theory can be tested and that a considerable amount of research supports it. He argued that a variety of studies have found that juveniles who report having more delinquent friends also report committing more delinquent acts, and that these studies provide general support for the theory. Durkheim’s Anomie and Merton’s Strain Theories At the end of the nineteenth century, the social theorist Emile Durkheim postulated that for societies to exist and work effectively there had to be a strong sense of social order.

That is to say, there has to be agreement among the members of society about values and rules or norms. Most people, most of the time, abide by the rules of society but some people break the rules and become criminals. Durkheim argued that in times of rapid social change, for example, as has been witnessed during the twentieth century, the shared values of a community become less important and people may be without clear norms, rules or guidelines on how they should behave. This is a state called “anomie. ” When controls society puts on people break down, it ultimately leads them into crime and deviant behavior.

Heavily influenced by Durkheim, Robert Merton, in the late 1930’s, worked on and developed the concept of anomie further. He called this development ‘strain’ theory. Although Merton built upon the work of Durkheim, there is a fundamental difference in both their approaches. Durkheim argued that anomie was caused by rapid social change leading to social disorganization and a state of normlessness. For Merton, anomie was caused by a social structure which encourages all people to strive for the same cultural goals, such as wealth, but does not provide individuals with equal means to achieve them.

The goals that people strive for in Merton’s analysis are things such as economic affluence, a nice home, a car or a rewarding job. Since Merton’s view was predominantly US-based, it focused around the goal of the pursuit of wealth popularly known as “The American Dream. ” According to society these goals can only be achieved via socially acceptable means such as dedication and hard work. However, Merton argues that the system does not operate a level playing field and some individuals will achieve the goal with very little effort while some never achieve it no matter how hard they try.

Merton sought to understand how people coped with being given these culturally defined goals, but not the means to achieve them — he called this cultural imbalance ‘strain’ (Samaha 2006). To Merton, the high level of crime in American society is explained in terms such imbalance between the strong cultural forces that valued the goal of monetary success and the much weaker forces that valued the institutionalized means of hard work, honesty, and education. This weakness inspires certain groups of people other means, including illegitimate means, to achieve the valuable monetary success.

Interestingly, according to Merton, most crimes are likely to be committed by innovators who accept the cultural goals given to them by society but reject the traditional ways of achieving them. Instead, they may resort to illegitimate means of acquiring wealth such as crime or deviant behavior. Cohen’s work in 1955 with juvenile delinquency was based on Merton’s strain explanation of crime. Merton described people as seeking the cultural goal of success, Cohen saw youths as seeking the goal of status among their peers.

Youths who have no ascribed status by virtue of their birth in lower class families, and who cannot compete or not able to compete for achieved status, are place under severe strain. This gives rise to delinquent gangs that use non-normative means to achieve social status and self-prestige. Communities contribute to strain in many ways. Much research was done to investigate the ways in which community-level variables condition strain. The general strain theory was found to easily explain the strong association between economic deprivation at the community level and crime.

The commonality between the theories All the theories discussed above consider social relations to be central to criminal and deviant behavior. Social relations are very crucial in determining both motivation and control. The cultural goals that people set for themselves, which become prominent factors in Merton’s strain theory, are influenced by social relations. At the same time, social relations are instruments of social control, upon which Hirschi’s social bond theory is based. Social relations limit action and restrain impulses, bringing about a harmonious coherence in the society.

Finally, social learning theories originating Sutherland’s Differential association theory, are based on the notion that social relations with delinquent peers motivate and perpetuate delinquent behavior. The overarching implications for criminal justice practice The various theories we have examined so far emphasize the decisive role of society in the formation of criminals. These criminal justice theories and the empirical research associated with them augment our ability to manage and understand individual criminal offenders. Offenders are capable of change. Intervention is one of the foundations of criminal science.

Prevention and rehabilitation are worthy goals of criminal justice system. By and large, criminals are not born, they are made. But if they are made, they can be “unmade” too. Criminal justice theories collectively help us to see beyond the strong retribution and incapacitation aspects of the prevailing penal system. In 1967, the President’s Commission On Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice Report concluded the following about the state of prisons in America: In sum, America’s system of criminal justice is overcrowded and overworked, undermanned, underfinanced, and very often misunderstood.

It needs more information and more knowledge. it needs more technical resources. It needs more coordination among its many parts. It needs more public support. It needs the help of community programs and institutions in dealing with offenders and potential offenders. It needs, above all, the willingness to reexamine old ways of doing things, to reform itself, to experiment, to run risks, to date. It needs vision. (1967) This recommendation is perhaps more valid today than at any other time in the past. Currently the U. S.

has a prison inmate rate of 724 for every 100,000 people of general population — up from 505 in 1992 (Walmsley 2005). The U. S. prisons are already overcrowded, there would be no place left to bind and incapacitate criminals if the present trend of surge in prison population continues unabated. Further, lack of any provision for effective rehabilitation is an important cause for creating the overcrowding conditions inside the prison, and this overcrowding is in turn making it very difficult to effect rehabilitation schemes. Thus the situation is developing into a vicious circle, which is only likely to worsen in the future (Tombs 2005).

We should be seeking out possible ways for the cure and prevention of crime by strongly addressing the underlying causes of criminal and anti-social behavior. In the long term, we need drastic changes in our society at a fundamental level in order to uproot crime. References: Samaha, J. (2006). Criminal Justice. Belmont, CA : Thomson Wadsworth Siegel, L. J. (2006). Criminology. Belmont, CA : Thomson Wadsworth The President’s Commission On Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. (1967). The Challenge of Crime in Free Society. February 1967. Retrieved 18 April 2007 http://www.

law. ua. edu/colquitt/crimmain/crimmisc/crime. htm. Tombs, J. (2005). Reducing the Prison Population: Penal Policy and Social Choices. Edinburgh : Scottish Consortium on Crime & Criminal Justice Walmsley, Roy. (2005). World Prison Population List. Sixth edition. International Centre for Prison Studies. King’s College, London. Retrieved 18 April 2007 from http://www. kcl. ac. uk/depsta/rel/icps/world-prison-population-list-2005. pdf. Warr, M. (2002). Companions in Crime: The Social Aspects of Criminal Conduct. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.