Psychological Factors Underlying Criminal Behavior

Throughout the course of history individuals have always been known to commit crimes. Of those crimes committed, some serve as a purpose for survival while others where done as senseless acts of hate or with malicious intentions. Criminal behavior is something that can be further understood through the discipline or course study of criminology. Criminology as defined by the text is, “The scientific study of the nature, extent, cause, and control of criminal behavior” (Siegel, 2011, p. 7). There are some things involved in criminology that even notable criminologist can’t explain.

While this statement is true in some instances, there are several notable facts that have been discovered that help to shape the field of criminology and aid individuals in gaining clarity as to why individuals do the things they do. There are also available opportunities afforded them to develop methodological ways to help prevent some of their actions. History is filled with acts of murder, rape, burglary, etc. dating back to biblical history. The first known act of murder is found in the story of Cain and Abel. Since those days, people have been interested in knowing what drives a person to commit a crime.

Classical criminology theory implicates the belief that crimes occur when there is more benefit to commit a crime over the response not to commit a crime (University of Wisconsin Eau Claire [UWEC], 2002). In other words, when the benefit of the crime outweighs the cost of punishment (UWEC, 2002). This theory of crime is tied in with deterrence and rational choice theory. In the rational choice/deterrence theory, it is believed that crime is a choice and that individuals commit crime based on the amount of benefit they will receive (UWEC, 2002). This is especially true if the cost of punishment is low or non-existent.

These two theories are similar in that they both refer to the likelihood of a person to commit crime based on their gain from the criminal behavior. If a person, for example, is homeless and they go into a store and steal some food and aren’t caught they are performing the crime based on need or the benefit they are receiving from the crime, which in this instance is food. If the person commits the crime on a daily basis and is not caught they are not concerned with the cost of punishment, because the means to survive and have a meal outweighs the consequence of being caught and facing jail time or even worse means of punishment.

The offender see their crime as a means of survival not a random criminal act that may be deemed punishable. If the crime is done in consistency and never punished the offender may never understand the relativity of deterrence and will most likely continue to carry out the behavior. Deterrence is needed because it helps a person to learn the rational of punishment and develops the cause and effect mentality that we as individuals must develop even at an early age. If this cause and effect relationship is never nurtured and individual will only be familiar with doing what they are enabled with no fear of punishment or correction.

It’s the same concept as with a child who is allowed to behave in a nonrestrained manner. If the parents allow the child to do what feels pleasing to them the child will be hard to control. This is due to the lack of deterrence and too much allowance of rational choice. The classical theory emerged in the 18th century and was first noted by an Italian liberal thinker, Cesare Beccaria and Englishman Jeremy Bentham (Brown, 2004). This movement of thinking took place in the period of time known as the Enlightenment that began in France (Brown, 2004).

Cesare Beccaria is known for being the most instrumental in the classical theory of criminology (Brown, 2004). It is from his work that we gain the information needed to understand the reasoning behind this theory. Beccaria wrote a book, On Crimes and Punishment, which was first published in 1764 (Brown, 2004). Brown (2004) explains of Beccaria’s book, “In his book, Beccaria noted, “For a punishment to attain its end, the evil which it inflicts has only to exceed the advantages derivable from the crime. In other words, punishment should not be excessive; it should fit the crime” (p. 1). The criminal justice system of today was built off the foundation of Beccaria’s book, which outlined what the system should be like (Brown, 2004).

Classical thinkers like Beccaria were instrumental in setting in place a system that would hand out punishment as well as establish laws for the people to abide by. Classical theorist believed that punishment that followed the commission of a crime was more just and useful (Brown, 2004, p. 1). This means that if an offender was punished following a crime hat he or she committed they would be less likely to commit a criminal act again. Classical theorist believed that swift and just punishment was the key to deterrence. A criminal would think hard before committing a crime because they would have to weigh out the benefit versus the cost of facing punishment. This would in many ways deter the criminal thought for a person’s fear of punishment. Bentham, one of Beccaria’s contemporaries, reasoned that crime was something that happened when a person was allowed to think rationally in free will (Brown, 2004).

Bentham felt that punishment must be greater than the criminal act. For instance, if a person steals they should be placed in jail for a fixed amount of time. This would make the individual realize that they shouldn’t repeat their actions in the future. In an essence, Bentham was more into the crime control method, which sought after stricter laws and more enforced methods of law enforcement that gave stricter punishment (Brown, 2004). While Beccaria was more favorable to the due process system. He believed that people should have the right to prove their innocence.

It is difficult to understand how two individuals under the same school of thought could have taken such opposing views. Their views branched from one basic theory and was understood in two different ways of reasoning. Even with the differences of their views, each of these classical thinkers was after one common goal, no more crime and ways to instill deterrence. These two philosophers are much like the individuals of today that are still after the idealistic society of less crime and more deterrence. Even in the 21st century we are still seeking methods and ideals of how to better control crime.

The legal system is well established and has implemented several measures that allow individual as well as group behavior to be punished. Even with such a well-established system, there still seems to be the high rate of recidivism plaguing our nation. It is hard to see the change in those who have been incarcerated mainly due to their mentality and how they view things. They have been conditioned to believe that there is nothing that they can do outside of the corrections system so they become habitual offenders and often times repeat the crimes that caused them to be entered in the penal system initially.

The programs available to the incarcerated population have shown to have little success in reducing recidivism (McKean & Ransford, 2004). This leads many to believe that maybe there is another way to crime prevention. Programs such as the GED program and other educational programs, rehabilitation services such as substance abuse programs and employment programs have been noted to bring a small percentage of change. Educational programs for example have been noted to reduce recidivism by 29 percent (McKean & Ransford, 2004).

Substance abuse was stated to reduce recidivism by 31 percent and employment programs by 17 percent (McKean & Ransford, 2004) When offenders were questioned about their drug use at the time a crime was committed 32 percent said they were using and under the influence in comparison with 41 percent of inmate that commit habitual crimes because they can’t find a job upon release from the penitentiary (McKean & Ransford, 2004).

With the available resources inside and outside the penitentiary and the availability of counselors and other professional help, individuals should be easily controlled and rehabilitated, but this is not always true. There has to be an understanding of an offender to further understand their reason for committing crime. As is stated in the classical and deterrence/ rational theories, some see crime as a necessity to life. They must commit the crimes they do to feed their families and stay alive.

Not all offenders seek to commit the crimes they do, but as the classical theory states their physical, mental, or emotional gain outweighs the fear of punishment. It is not something that can easily be forsaken or turned away from in a single attempt. For this type of criminal there must be an advanced psychological therapy and counseling to help the individual see the root of their issues. They have to have the support and backing from family and friends if they want to be successful in being introduced back into society.

For those individuals that are not in the penal system, but are tempted to commit a crime there has to be methods of prevention. There are programs that help youth such as D. A. R. E and mentoring programs that help to steer these youth in the right direction. There has to always be an open outlet that our youth or even older individuals can turn to when they feel tempted to do the unthinkable. If there are more outlets to prevent the nature of crime, the need for crime will decrease as well. There has to be a community effort to keep the rate of crime as low as possible.

Rational thinking is something that every individual has at the time of birth, but not all thoughts are rational. This is the reason that deterrence must be taught from a young age. Individuals need to know that our actions hold consequences. It is important to rationalize that what behavior and individual participates in will dictate what their outcome will be, if the individual is thoughtful that their actions may be found to be reckless they may turn from that reasoning due to fear of punishment.

There are those that will not fear the punishment of their actions, in this case there is some work to be done. It takes an individual and collective societal effort to stop the effects of crime in the world. There must be a call to action in every community, in every state, in every nation if there is to be a change. There has to be accountability for all the actions that one makes and there must be a realization that until one step is made the journey can’t begin.