Deterrence vs. Rehabilitation (Part II of V)


What Causes Crime?

As can be seen by the above discussions, the answer to what causes crime is not definitive and depends on which “lens” an individual is more inclined to look through: from behind the classical lens, crime is caused by the punishment associated with crime being outweighed by the reward and is strictly an individual’s choice; from behind the positivist lens, crime is caused by external factors such as poverty, lack of education, etc. and internal factors such as biological predispositions toward criminal behavior, mental illness, inadequate behavioral training, etc..

One might question at this point why there still exists two schools of thought on crime causation when research on crime and its causes has been abundant.  The answer is that research has been inconclusive.  There is evidence that supports the classical thinking and yet there is evidence that supports positivist ideologies.  Similarly, there is evidence that puts classical thinking into doubt, and the same for positivist theories.  Put simply, there has not been enough consistency in research results throughout the years to be able to definitively state that one is wrong and the other is right, or even to definitively state what causes crime, in general.  These facts have led to several theories on crime causation that take a middle ground between the classical and positivist extremes, compiling elements of both into one theory, which creates yet another new “lens” to look through.  Research done on these newer theories, however, much like the research done on classical and positivist theories, is inconclusive; there is evidence to support many of these theories but in general, any sociological research conducted can never be truly “proven” as it does not consist of scientifically accurate measurements.

Evaluating the Classical Lens

The classical school of thought, as stated previously, believes that humans are in control of their “free will” and make rational decisions to commit or abstain from crime.  They focus on deterrence as being the “end all” to crime believing that a rational human being, if faced with a serious enough punishment, will make the rational, free will choice to abstain from crime that they otherwise would commit if the threat of punishment was absent.

I see an obvious problem to this belief.  This train of thought is based on an assumption that all human beings always make rational decisions based on free will.  Is it not possible for a rational being to, at least at some point in their lifetime, make an irrational or illogical decision based on some negative external stimuli or internal emotional conflict? Speak with any experienced doctor or scholar of psychology and I believe the answer to this question would be an adamant “yes!”.  Psychiatrist William Healy conducted a study in which he found that “emotional trauma is responsible for creating psychological conflicts that lead to delinquent behavior.” (Williams & McShane, 2010, p. 33).  It is illogical to think that humans, as fragile and emotional as our psyches can be, are always completely rational, especially when in emotionally charged or traumatizing situations.  Many crimes are committed at the height of an emotional trauma and the individual committing the crime, although perhaps rational usually, is not rational at that moment–therefore, they will act on their emotionality without any consideration toward possible consequences or punishment of their actions.

On a different wave length, another assumption made is that non-criminal thinking is the same as criminal thinking.  Just because scholars within the classical school of thought are able to make free will rational choices, they cannot just assume that every human is capable of the same type of decision making and rationality.  If criminal thinking is different than non-criminal thinking than we cannot begin to assume that what would deter us from crime would also deter the criminal from crime, as their thinking process is not the same as ours–if this is the case, the ability to deter crime based on punishment would be severely limited.  Assuming that would-be offenders will properly rationalize risk vs. reward is a risky assumption when putting all our eggs into the deterrence basket only.

(… to be cont)

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