Crime is a social construction. It only occurs because humans create laws. Without laws there are no crimes. Therefore, the most obvious way to reduce crime is to reduce the number of laws we have. This is the simplest solution.

The other way is to understand the reasons why people break the laws that exist and address the causes. This one is much more complicated.

To be successful with the latter solution requires us to fully understand why people commit crimes and then to construct societies… that ensure that those reasons have been addressed. However, this is even further complicated by the fact that we cannot be certain that any one explanation is definitive. Once laws are in place the reasons for transgression may be multiple and in many, if not all, cases may not actually be known to those committing the crimes.

If we decide to go with the former then we will still be left with laws and those laws will be broken and therefore many will still want to find out why they are being broken. However, crime will be reduced depending on how many laws are removed.

If we decide upon the latter solution then we have a long intellectual road to travel and we will have to be prepared for a radical overhaul of the organisation of our lives.

Let us start by briefly looking at the main explanations as to why people commit crimes. They range from the individual making entirely personal decisions to those that explain how wider influences determine our decision making.

Choice Theory – Choice theory is the belief that individuals choose to commit a crime, looking at the opportunities before them, weighing the benefit versus the punishment, and deciding whether to proceed or not. This cost-benefit analysis primarily focuses on the idea that we all have the choice to proceed with our actions. Because of the punishment involved, we are deterred from committing the crime.

Classical Theory – Similar to the choice theory, this theory suggests that people think before they proceed with criminal actions; that when one commits a crime, it is because the individual decided that it was advantageous to commit the crime.  The individual commits the crime from their own free will being well aware of the punishment.

This theory, along with choice theory, derived its basis from what John Locke penned “The Social Contract.” Locke proposed that all citizens are equal, and that there is an unwritten but voluntary contract between the state and its citizens, giving power to those in government and defining a framework of mutual rights and duties. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes wrote, “the right of all sovereigns is derived from the consent of every one of those who are to be governed.” This way of thinking enforces the idea that we, as citizens, agree to follow the laws of the government in return for our protection and sustenance which is very different from early European authoritarianism.

Conflict Theory – On a different spin, conflict theory holds that crime results from the conflicts in society among the different social classes, and that laws actually arise from necessity as a result of conflict, rather than a general consensus. The fundamental causes of crime are the social and economic forces operating within society. The criminal justice system and criminal law are thought to be operating on behalf of rich and powerful social elites, with resulting policies aimed at controlling the poor. The criminal justice establishment aims at imposing standards of morality and good behavior created by the powerful on the whole of society. Focus is on separating the powerful from the have-nots who would steal from others and protecting themselves from physical attacks. In the process the legal rights of poor folks might be ignored. The middle class are also co-opted; they side with the elites rather the poor, thinking they might themselves rise to the top by supporting the status quo.

Thus, street crimes, even minor monetary ones are routinely punished quite severely, while large scale financial and business crimes are treated much more leniently. Theft of a television might receive a longer sentence than stealing millions through illegal business practices.

Critical Theory: Critical theory upholds the belief that a small few, the elite of the society, decide laws and the definition of crime; those who commit crimes disagree with the laws that were created to keep control of them.

Critical criminology sees crime as a product of the oppression of workers, (particularly, the poorer sections) and less advantaged groups within society, such as women and ethnic minorities, are seen to be the most likely to suffer oppressive social relations based upon class division, sexism and racism.

Labelling Theory: Those who follow the labelling theory of criminology ascribe to the fact that an individual will become what they are labeled or what others expect them to become; the danger comes from calling a crime a crime and a criminal a criminal.

This explanations provide merely a brief overview and of course there are numerous sources online and in texts… that provide a much more detailed analysis and evaluation. What we have to do though is decide the following:

  1. Do we want to reduce long term crime?
  2. if yes what are we all prepared to do to achieve it?

Once we have decided then we can proceed but it will not happen by magic and will depend upon us investing ourselves in the pursuit.

Jason Cridland


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