Evaluating the Positivist Lens
The positivists’ concluded that deterrence would not, alone, solve the problems of crime, partly due to the irrational thinking argument mentioned above. Through numerous research studies and scholarly writings, they began to see causal links between those who commit crimes as a majority and the environments surrounding those individuals. Patterns emerged: poverty, lack of education, class and ethnic correlations, negative parental and familial units, and more. It was theorized that the existence of these and other factors caused an individual to behave in a less than rational manner in order to deal with these negative stimuli.
Strain theory is one positivist theory that addresses the effects of environment on an individual’s behavior, and the ability of this individual to make rational, good free will decisions. It is believed that the strain caused by living in poor conditions with limited future opportunities to change these conditions causes a mental and emotional strain on the individual which causes them to react in irrational, antisocial ways in order to deal with this strain. This strain limits their rational ability to make good decisions.
Biological factors can also hinder an individual’s ability to make rational decisions. Mental illness, hereditary predispositions to anger, violent behavior, mood swings and more can directly limit an individual’s ability to properly, and rationally, weigh risk vs. reward. With faulty thinking and flawed internalizations, it is difficult to see these individuals as fully culpable for their bad choices.
With these realizations, the positivist’s posit that deterring crime can only be accomplished by treating the physical, sociological and psychological reasons for its existence. This means providing rehabilitation and treatment to the offender in order to correct the faulty behavior or thinking that is leading to the offender’s criminality. Again, research is inconclusive as to the success of rehabilitation and treatment programs. Some research shows little or no effect while other research has shown clear improvements in recidivism for offender’s who are treated as opposed to those who are simply punished without treatment.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Proponents of “get tough on crime” laws see many advancements made in our judicial system based on the Positivist school as a weakness. While I disagree, they argue that focusing on rehabilitation and treatment “coddles” criminals and that they should be punished instead of treated. Many have also argued that rehabilitation programs do not work and that we are too lenient on offenders. While this certainly can be considered a weakness, if the statement was valid, there is not any conclusive evidence to state that rehabilitation and treatment does not work. Much research has shown that certain rehabilitation and treatment programs with some types of offenders can have very positive results on recidivism. There is also much evidence to support that many rehabilitation programs can remove negative factors that have been shown to positively correlate with criminal behavior. Therefore, we should see rehabilitation and treatment programs as a strength of positivist ideals and a benefit to our current justice system. As stated earlier, every individual is unique and expecting every individual to respond the same to a type of rehabilitation program or treatment is not logical; in cases where research shows that a particular rehabilitation program failed for a majority of offenders, we should not see that as a failure in rehabilitation and treatment itself. Instead, we should see that as the simple fact that the wrong rehabilitation or treatment was used in that incident with that/those particular offender(s). We simply need to try something else. We also have to take into consideration the fact that much research is funded by those who may have an interest in the research producing a particular result and often this can sway the results of the research. For example, if proponents of the classical school of thought were to fund research into the effectiveness of rehabilitation and treatment for offenders, there is a good chance that the research would show no benefit since the classical school does not believe in rehabilitation and would prefer to deter by punishment; negative results from this research would further support their viewpoints. That is not to say that research always has “an agenda” and is never to be trusted; however, it is prudent to recognize the possibility of bias.
While understanding the need for rehabilitation and treatment in offenders is laudable, a weakness of the positivist school of thought is that this remains its sole focus. Positivism is not concerned with civil or due process rights and concentrates all its efforts on the biological, social and psychological causes of crime. (Williams & McShane, 2010). Additionally, its sole focus on rehabilitation and treatment leaves no room for deterrence or punishment in the agenda.
Enrico Ferri, who was a tremendous influence to the success of the Positivist school of thought, stated in 1901 at a lecture given in Italy: “the historical rule [is] that the most barbarian conditions of humanity show a prevalence of a criminal code which punishes without healing; . . . the gradual progress of civilization will give rise to the opposite conception of healing without punishing.” (Ferri, 1901). Mr. Ferri was right. We are now in a social climate where we argue between two extremes: punishment or treatment–or if you prefer, deterrence vs. rehabilitation. It is important that we do not lose sight of the final goal of the laws and policies that make up our judicial system: to solve the crime problem. Why have scholars and philosophers debated for hundreds of years on what causes crime? Because we want to find a cure. A simple answer to be sure, but one I believe our justice system is losing sight of. We want to find a cure; we want to fix it. We do not want to contain it, or deter it, or punish it–we want to stop it, heal it, fix it–take your pick.
There is a middle ground here and I think it needs to be tended. Deterrence, for some individuals is probably necessary, not only for the safety and treatment (forced, if necessary) of the offender but for the safety of society against violent offenders. However, deterrence only will not cure crime. Crime is not a concrete object that we can send military troops after to find and blow up in order to solve the problem; “crime” would prove to be as elusive as Bin Laden. Instead, crime is a name that we have given to a side-effect of an illness that has been plaguing humanity for centuries–much as, liver disease is a side-effect of alcoholism, or biological growths are a side-effect of cancer. Perhaps you’d rather use “symptom” than side-effect but either way the point remains clear: to cure crime we have to treat the host of the illness, which to be sure is the emotionally and socially deprived, psychologically damaged individual. Often, a complex illness requires complex and multiple treatments–removing a tumor alone does not cure cancer; it must be removed and then the host must undergo radiation treatment as well. Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be for scholars of medicine to argue over a surgery vs. radiation treatment debate? The cure is not one or the other; it is a combination of both. Criminologists would be wise to start looking in this direction for a solution to crime.
Ferri, E. (1901). The Positive School of Criminology. Naples: Project Gutenberg.
Williams, F. P., & McShane, M. D. (2010). Criminological Theory. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education.