Crime: Causes and Responses

on Wednesday, 30 July 2003. Posted in Issue 31 Do Poor Children Deserve Perfect Teeth?, 1998

Bill Toner, SJ and Tom Giblin, SJ

March, 1998


Why Did Gavin Do It?

Gavin, a twenty-one year old who normally lives in a flat complex in the inner city, is currently serving a one year sentence for burglary. On temporary release for Christmas, he is persuaded by a young neighbour to join him in a stolen car. The two drive out to the suburbs, where they spend some time in high-speed \'joy-riding\' and then ram-raid an off-licence and steal spirits and cigarettes. On the way home they are followed by a police car, which they ram. They are arrested and Gavin arrives back in prison, where he will face further charges.


Gavin will probably go to prison for the new offences. This is particularly likely in Ireland, where we incarcerate the highest proportion of 18-25 year old offenders in Europe. But why does society think that, say, prison is a proper response to Gavin\'s behaviour? Does our response to crime properly reflect what we believe to be the reasons for Gavin\'s wrong-doing? Are there alternatives to sending Gavin to prison that would be a more rational response by society?

If asked to comment on why Gavin did what he did, people will give a variety of responses.

1. Some people will see Gavin as simply undisciplined, and will think of prison as an appropriate way to instill discipline in Gavin, in the same way as they might slap a dog that soils the carpet.

2. Others will be less moralistic, but will interpret Gavin\'s behaviour as a rational choice to get some free drink and cigarette, and the \'buzz\' of breaking limits. To protect itself society has to impose costs on this kind of behaviour, rather like giving someone a parking ticket to make the benefit of convenient but illegal parking less attractive.

3. Others again will feel that Gavin lacks \'socialization\' and education, and their aim will be to correct this, through rehabilitation programmes inside or outside prison.

4. Another group will note that Gavin has been in trouble from an early age and has been \'labeled\' as deviant by society. Gavin has internalised this labeling, and believes himself to be \'bad\'. The important thing is to try to undo the effect of this labeling, and to deal with the issue outside the criminal system.

5. Another view will see Gavin as having missed out on the chances that most children in society get, and to be alienated from a society that puts a whole lot of goals (cars, big houses etc.) beyond his reach. In this view what Gavin needs is training in employable skills, and a \'leg up\' into a job.

6. Finally, some people will see Gavin as a victim of a \'system\' that needs to exclude failed outsiders in order to define successful insiders. There is no point in punishing Gavin, what is needed is to reform the \'system\'.

Different Interpretations of Crime

Thus a key issue that arises in dealing with crime is the divergence in interpretations of crime. Why is this important? Because the way that society decides to tackle crime and to punish it depends to a large extent on what they believe to be the causes. If a society is wrong in the way it interprets crime, then it is likely to put in place measures that will not tackle it at its roots, and may even make the crime problem worse.

The interpretations of Gavin\'s case reflect some of the most common theories to explain crime. They fall into two rough categories, psychological and sociological:


Psychological Theories


The Causes of Crime



How to

Combat Crime



How to

Deal with Criminals


Model One :





The criminal lacks the self-discipline necessary to control the impulses to wrong-doing that exist within us all. We need law and authority to place controls on our behaviour and thus gain such self-discipline.



We need more legislation to act as a control mechanism since traditional moral and social controls are breaking down.




There is clearly a need to impose a severe punishment on the offender. This will serve to teach them self-discipline.


Model Two :

Self Interest – Incentives




People generally behave in a way that balances the costs and benefits of their actions.




The most important way to tackle crime is to ensure the costs outweigh the benefits.  Early detection and an efficient conviction system are seen as key.


Punishment should be strict, regular, sufficient to deter offending but not more severe that is required.



Model Three :





Each society has a shared set of values.   Some individuals have failed to integrate these values into their lives because of poor family background,  social milieu  etc.  Peer influences act as reinforcers.



Rehabilitative and educational policies are far more effective than criminal justice policies.




The emphasis in prison should be on education and rehabilitation.  Offenders should only be released when they are sufficiently rehabilitated.

Sociological Theories


The Causes of Crime

How to

Combat Crime

How to

Deal with Criminals

Model Four:





The dominant group in society tries to impose its set of values on everyone else. Those who do not conform to these values are labeled deviant.


The key to controlling crime lies in controlling how we label individuals, areas and social groups.




Those who commit crimes should be dealt with outside the criminal justice system as prison only stigmatizes them and labels them as deviant thus making future employment more difficult.

Model Five :




Modern society proclaims certain goals as important, success, a good job and affluence.  People who absorb these goals but do not have the means to achieve them due to unemployment, poverty and lack of education experience alienation..  Crime then is a meaningful response to a lack of hope.

The key to reducing criminal activity is  social reform and creating opportunities for those who are disadvantaged within our competitive culture

In such a situation punishment is clearly an inappropriate response.  Education and teaching of skills that will be useful in seeking employment are more adequate responses.

Model Six :




Our society is dominated by economic relationships. It is the need to find employment and keep it that is the major social control in western society.

Those who fail are dangerous to the system however as they have little to lose.  The prison system serves to coerce those who fail and deflect attention from  the unjust system that excludes them.

To eliminate crime, nothing less than a radical restructuring of our society is required in which social inequality is eliminated.


This also requires a redefinition of what is counted as success and failure in our society.



The “traditional” criminal is the  one on  whom society focuses most attention.  But since his (or her)  crime is a response to the position of failure that the economic system has imposed upon him, punishment is totally inappropriate.


White-collar criminals use their position and power to exploit others. Such criminals should be punished as a lesson to others.

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Interpretations both True and False

Each of the ways of interpreting the causes of crime above is incomplete and biased in some way. Each however, contains at least a grain of truth that is vital in considering the cause of crime.

The Discipline-Law model contains the grain of truth that ethical responsibility should never be lost sight of when addressing the cause of crime. However, it is based on a faulty psychology. Human persons do not learn self-discipline simply by the experience of constraint, laws and sacrifice. The only way we can accept constraint is against a fundamental background of secure acceptance and love. If our context is very insecure and we feel fundamentally unloved it will be very difficult for us as individuals to be properly self-disciplined. Most offending behaviour is an attempt to gain a short-term advantage. Delaying gratification involves a fundamental confidence in the future and a positive self-image.

Furthermore, the sanctions proposed by proponents of this model have the effect of undermining the self-worth of offenders. They emerge from prison further disadvantaged, and further convinced that they live in a world that treats them harshly. It is no surprise then that the results from \'short sharp shock\' imprisonment in the UK indicate that there is little or no reduction in recidivism (the tendency to reoffend) when the prison regime is made harsher. Any effect is temporary. We also need to consider how prison insulates the offender from the consequences of his actions. Offenders never meet their victims (with mediation) or experience the damage they have caused. Instead they are locked up under a highly artificial regime, among other offenders, isolated from normal society. This further encourages irresponsibility.

The Incentives Model helps us to focus on the rationality of offenders. It makes the evident point that crime should not pay because if it does pay then more people will be encouraged to become criminals. Effective policing leading to good detection rates, and efficient and fair courts leading to adequate sanctions are necessary in responding to crime.

The problems with this model however are twofold. Firstly, it tends only to look at the costs of crime for the criminal. An offender may accurately perceive the costs of criminal behaviour but yet have no sense of any benefits of non-criminal behaviour. This immediately points up the lack of opportunity facing many offenders.

Secondly, the model tends to take a narrow view of the free rationality of individuals. Many factors can diminish rationality. Drug addiction is one such factor. Similarly intense frustration at the lack of opportunity, or psychological difficulties due to traumatic family life also radically affect the effective freedom of individuals. Freedom is only totally diminished when an act is purely accidental. Yet it is important to remember that while many offenders act with damaged freedom, their dignity and their future requires that they be helped to become more and more responsible.

The Under-Socialization Model focuses on the educational upbringing of the individual. Many offenders come from backgrounds where educational and family problems predominate. On the critical side, however, this model suggests a paternalistic attitude to offenders. They are to be re-integrated into our set of values. This is problematic on two counts.

Firstly, it makes offenders pure victims and in a fundamental sense undermines their dignity in so doing. They are lacking a social quality that must be supplied to them through education and rehabilitative programs. Yet the very acquisition of education and of values presupposes that the individual participates freely. The (admittedly extreme) implication of indeterminate educational sentences brings out the paternalistic nature of the model. The only effective type of education, however, will be one that respects and elicits the responsibility and freedom of offenders and, acknowledges that everything in their past cannot be repaired but still can be assumed responsibly by them with the support and friendship of others.

Secondly, the model uncritically assumes that the set of values, held by the majority, is good and therefore all in society should conform to them. The sociological models make it clear however that this is a massive assumption. Our own view is that our society which so praises economic success and accumulation of possessions will have to face the consequences of the effects of this set of values, with its exclusion of many people.

The Labeling Model is strong in suggesting how labeling can reinforce criminal behaviour. Yet it is weak in explaining what causes criminal behaviour in the first instance. To do that, we need a more adequate psychology and a fuller sociology. The theory however does serve to highlight one factor that can reinforce a pattern of offending. But labeling is not the only element that reinforces offending. Association with and integration into a peer group of offenders also contributes. Media sensationalizing elevates young offenders to the status of local heroes and helps to construct such groups. The relative attractiveness of criminal as against non-criminal behaviour is also a factor.

Another weakness of this model is that it is totally uncritical of the values both in the dominant culture and in the criminal sub-culture. Both cultures need to be critiqued. In a democracy the majority of citizens do have some rights to expression of their values. All cultures are not equal either politically or ethically as the labeling model suggests. On the other hand what the labeling model does highlight, however, is that the rights of the majority in a democracy are always qualified by the rights of minorities. They are not absolute.

The Alienation model focuses on social exclusion as the cause of crime. This is very persuasive. Yet like the under-socialization model this model is weak in addressing the responsibility issue. It does not explain why many from similar backgrounds do not offend, nor does it explain the brutality of some offending.

Yet as we mentioned already the responsibility of offenders cannot be taken as an absolute. We must take into account the broad sense in which many offenders have diminished freedom. Moreover the alienation model is strong in providing non-criminal opport…ÐNYGET HTTP/1.0 Accept: */* Referer: Accept-Language: en-ie Proxy-Connetion: Keep-Alive User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows 98) Host: www.iich criminal behaviour becomes more probable. When society becomes more acquisitive, competitive, and individualistic, then the bonds that connect people weaken and the sense of crime as a real offence against another person diminishes. This deeper structural and cultural level is perhaps the hardest of the contributory causes of crime to address..

So What About Gavin?

In the case of most crime, it is not a case of choosing one interpretation over another. All are true to some extent. Thus:

· The issue of Gavin\'s lack of self-discipline needs to be tackled.

· It is important that Gavin be persuaded that crime does not pay.

· Unless Gavin is brought to internalise the general norms of society he is likely to reoffend.

· If Gavin continues to be \'labeled\' as a deviant he is likely to conform to that role.

· Gavin needs employable skills if he is ever to break free from a life of crime.

· If our society continues to be polarised into rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, many more Gavin\'s will emerge.

In the short term, the interpretation of under-socialization deserves particular attention, particularly in relation to the use of imprisonment as a response to crime. Because whichever of the above interpretations we choose to emphasise one thing is clear. Whether someone engages in a criminal act or comes to be regarded as a criminal is influenced fundamentally by social learning and social surroundings. The probability is that if Gavin had associated with a different set of people, both inside and outside prison, he would probably neither have embarked on, nor remained wedded to, a life of crime. It is not just a trivial detail that he was persuaded by one of his peers to go on a joy-riding escapade. Becoming involved with criminal groups influences people\'s outlooks, just as much as particular outlooks actually produce criminal behaviour in the first place.

Nevertheless it is not easy to recommend that Gavin should be separated from his family, even though he may have learned some anti-social attitudes from them in the first place, nor do we want to leave him without friends. Yet there may be hard choices to be made here by Gavin. There are many former criminals who will attest that they never succeeding in \'kicking the habit\' until they moved away, sometimes to England, where former friends could not draw them back to old ways. Perhaps in many cases people released from prison should be encouraged and even helped to move away from their old haunts.

There is no doubt too that current housing policy greatly facilitates the gathering together in one area of people with anti-social tendencies, so that as long as Gavin lives where he does, he has little chance of escaping from the treadmill of crime.

But whatever about ordinary friends, there seems to be something slightly crazy about locking criminals up with other like-minded people, and there is little doubt that future generations will look back in wonder at the nineteenth/twentieth century custom of building \'schools for scoundrels\'. What is needed is a system of alternatives to prison which include a coherent continuum of options. An example of one programme on this continuum comes from Germany. This is a rehabilitation programme for certain types of offenders where, instead of going to prison, participants are required to go on something approaching a series of week-end \'retreats\', where they have contact only with a tutor, eat meals in their room, are required to do reading, and must also write a report about their progress to date.

It may also be necessary to make alternative sanctions to prison non-optional, if we are to avoid the ludicrous situation where people choose prison over other options, because they know that, due to lack of prison space, they will be released in a few weeks or even days.


Material in this article, along with material in the article \'Zero Tolerance - an Adequate Crime Policy?\' (Working Notes, Issue 29) formed the basis of the submission made by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice to the Crime Forum. Acknowledgements also to Tony O\'Riordan SJ, Peter McVerry SJ and many others for contributions to this discussion.

We tend to think that law defines what crime is. This makes sense because contemporary legal codes are concerned with marking out the territory where conduct is permissible by specifying the conduct that is outlawed. Yet the earliest bodies of law – consider for example, the Torah or Hammurabi’s Code – are at least as committed to articulating the good as proscribing the bad... Read full editorial

Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.