Theoretical Views on Criminal Behavior

Crime is as old as mankind. Ever since the times of the Old Testament, individuals have never ceased to commit criminal activities despite knowing about the real consequences, benefits, or risks of the said activity. In the same vein, other individuals under similar circumstances never seem to commit any kind of crime. This scenario has occasioned the study of criminology, which is basically the study of criminals and criminal activities by a specialist group known as criminologists (“Causes of Crime,” 2009). Criminologists have come up with various sources or origins of crime and ways of controlling the behavior through using the available criminological theories. This paper attempts to look at the divergent criminological theories in relation to some different types of crimes.

Throughout the history of mankind, individuals have tried to narrate details about the causes of abnormal social behavior such as crime. Indeed, endeavors to check on criminal activities dates back to prehistoric Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi, which happened some 3,700years ago (“Causes of Crime,” 2009). Later on, crime and sin were considered the same thing by European colonists in North America in the seventeenth century. These ancestors believed that possession of evil spirits that led people to criminal activities arose from a failure to follow the legal rules and social norms set by society. During this era, those who defaulted from the set procedures to exhibit a perceived antisocial behavior had to be dealt with harshly and swiftly. But by the beginning of the 21st century, various theories were advanced to answer the basic questions of why an individual would engage in criminal activities. The theories looked into the psychological, biological, economic, and social aspects of the wrongdoer.

Various criminologists and law experts have attempted to formulate the reasons behind the widespread criminal activities committed in the world today. The most basic reasons that have been advanced include revenge, greed, pride, anger, and jealousy (“Causes of Crime,’ 2009). Specialists involved in criminal activities have more often than not found out that some individuals care plan and commit criminal activities to decrease their own risks and increase gain. Some individuals even believe that engaging in criminal activities like white-collar crimes, rape, and homicide brings in greater excitement, admiration, and rewards. Other criminals feel practically excited when they carry out such activities as murder and terrorism. Others commit such felonies and misdemeanors out of fear, rage, or an active impulse to commit criminal activity. Criminal justice systems the world over, therefore, believe that such culprits make renowned choices about their own behaviors.

In the classical theory of crime, criminal activity is viewed as a free-willed choice, such as engaging in white-collar criminal activity (Collen & Agnew, 2002). The theory derives its roots from the Italian economist and nobleman Cesare Beccaria and an English philosopher, Jeremy nobleman, in the 18th Century (“Classical theory,” 2009). This theory believes that punishment can act as a restraint to criminal activities if the fundamental cost of the crime far outweighs the perceived benefits. In addition, this theory denotes that individuals chase their self-interests in the nonexistence of an effective judicial system that can punish them for their own sins. This type of criminological theory is widely followed in many countries, especially in developing countries where politicians view themselves to be above the law. For example, politicians in Africa continue to loot public resources while in office since the benefits of the looting far outweigh the costs of being in office.

When the theory was advanced, punishment preferred upon criminal activities was severe to the extreme (“Classical theory,” 2009). As a direct result of the severity of the punishment meted upon criminal offenders, scientific explanation of deviant behavior had to be looked into to explain the causes of such delinquent and criminal behavior. Theories of demonology and naturalism were indeed rejected as vivid explanations of criminal activity. According to the formulators of this theory of crime, the rationale for punishing a committed crime was to be followed under any circumstance. The rationale behind punishing criminal activities was to depend on the number of times a criminal had been charged on previous occasions and the seriousness of the committed criminal activity. This clause has offered a leeway for white-collar criminals, especially politicians in third-world countries. They steal public resources with impunity, knowing that their records are clean. Under the theory, the sentence to be imposed must depend on the harshness of the criminal activity but not on the degree of involvement in the action or the actual act committed. This leaves a lot of space for white-collar criminals, especially those with resources, to maneuver their way out of the criminal justice system.

Under the theory, individuals are viewed as capable of understanding their own selves to necessitate their own self-interest behaviors. A white-collar criminal is an individual who understands his or her own self instincts, is the rationale and is intelligent enough to make independent decisions. These are essential human characteristics covered under the theory. It is under such circumstances that these individuals connive to steal public resources in the full knowledge that they are in control of their own fates (Jesoft enterprises, 2009). The white-collar criminals understand too well that being imprisoned is a broader ingredient of their business. They know all the risks that are involved. Such is the fate that also befalls an individual who gets involved in the illicit trade of drug trafficking. These are the type of individuals who reason that engaging in criminal activities is not basically a question of morality but that of consequence and risk.

The second theory is the differential theory of Criminological activity. Developed by Edwin Sutherland, the theory proposes that people discover the methods, values, motivations, and attitudes for criminal activity through their association with others. It was formulated in the 1930s as a direct rejoinder to the mainstream multi-factorial approaches to the causes of crime that had been developed by Sheldon Glueck and Eleanor Glueck (Marshall, 1998). This theory is also referred to as sub-cultural or Sub-learning theory. The basic tenet of the theory is that criminal activity is learned through interacting with criminal elements (Cullen & Agnew, 2002). These criminal elements in society might be neutralizations of criminal activities under particular instances or approving of criminal demeanor. A fitting example in this type of theory could be theft and burglary. It is in public knowledge that many thieves and house breakers learn their criminal activities through relating with their antisocial friends. Criminal subcultures all over the world have been associated with the rise of crime as many people learn the means to commit criminal activity through such criminal gangs. Around three-quarters of the thieves around the world learn the trade from their counterparts, which reinforces their antisocial behavior.

The differential association theory is the most debated theory of all theories of crime dealing with interactions. In the case of the criminal activity of stealing, the theory concerns itself with how an individual learns to steal but fails to look at the reasons behind his or her criminal activity. According to the theory, an individual will choose to follow a criminal conduit when the definitions of being a law-abiding citizen are far outweighed by those of being a lawbreaker. This conduit is overly strengthened if that particular individual chooses to associate with individuals of questionable character. However, this theory admits that there exist some practical motivations for criminal activity. For example, an individual may be tempted to steal if he is hungry and has no money to feed on. But such a need is further exaggerated if this particular individual deals or associates with criminal elements (Matsueda, 1988).

To Sutherland and others advocating the theory, criminal activity is a learned phenomenon. To date, this theory can be described as one of the best in describing the causes of crime in society. The theory has largely been used in research work for deviant and delinquent activities since it underscores the fact that crime does not arise from individual biological predisposition but rather results from normal learning processes (Marshall, 1998). For an individual to turn out to be a thief, he or she must learn the procedures from other acclaimed thieves in society. This is the most practical approach. However, the theory has been accused of failing to address some personal crimes such as embezzlement.

The policy implications for justice institutions and governments practicing this type of theory are simple. Young people must be kept away from associating or relating with criminal elements if they will turn to criminal activities through their association with these people. To protect young people from turning into thieves, all efforts must be aimed at preventing them from socializing with known thieves in society (Marshall, 1998). The second policy implication that can be learned from this theory is that resocialization must be done on all the individuals that have been implicated in criminal behavior. Community and family-based initiatives may be needed in such a scenario where the interaction between a child and parent may be a contributing factor to such an individual joining criminal activity. The help of such individuals can be derived from training in personal and social skills, resistance skills, and peer-led interventions.

The third criminological theories under discussion are the developmental theory, also known as the life course theory. These theories are clearly linked to perpetrators of serious criminal activities such as homicide. Deriving their origins from scholars such as Moffit, Sampson, and Laub, developmental theories argue that criminal activity in an individual is a continuous developmental process that is initiated before birth and extends to cover the life course of a criminal element (Cullen & Agnew, 2002). Other developmental theories of crime suggest that social factors interrelate with individual factors to establish the commencement, length, and the types of criminal behaviors undertaken by an individual.

Developmental theories to criminal activity derive their strengths from a number of theoretical perspectives that have been developed from several disciplines, including developmental psychology, early childhood development, social control, social learning, strain, differential association, and labeling theories (“Developmental Theories,” 2004). This multi-disciplinary strategy established by these theories has been crucial in insinuating that home environments, erratic monitoring, neglect, abuse, coercion, non-extent or inconsistent disciplining, and authoritarianism indeed put the children at risk of developing criminal behavior during their developmental phase.

The vital theoretical issues under developmental theories involve change and continuity in crime (Cullen & Agnew, 2002). For instance, some developmental theories insist that criminal elements born with this predisposition will continue to be criminals and delinquents across their full life course. This is the case with some murderers and perpetrators of homicidal activities. Cases have been reported of criminals who perpetrate such heinous crimes while there are in their adolescence and continue to undertake them until the law catches up with them. However, other developmental theories predict that some offenders are able to change their wayward behaviors in the course of their development through life. Indeed, this is true as stories have been reported of murderers who have been able to change their ways to become church pastors and choir men.

Criminologists inclined to developmental theories of crime are of the view that criminal behavior is not a manifestation of unique prehistoric or underlying factors, but it is rather a developmental process. In this perspective, criminal characteristics develop from individuals’ life experiences that mold them into criminal pathways or courses. According to Raymond Paternoster and Daniel Wagin, “observed correlation between past and future behavior is not based on the predictive power of the initial distribution of criminal propensity or conventional opportunities and characteristics of the population. It is instead based upon the fact that some actions have dynamically increased the subsequent probability of crime by weakening previous inhibitions or strengthening previous incentives for criminal activity” (“Developmental Theories,” 2004, p.52). This means that an action such as being sacked from active employment can simply turn a law-abiding individual into a murderer since his or her inhibitions for undertaking such criminal activity have been weakened. Such cases have been reported the world over.

According to developmental theorists, early childhood and family life is fundamental in influencing the path of behaviors taken by an individual. Researches conducted over the years seem to reveal that social or antisocial behaviors within an individual are determined very early in the life of that particular person. Studies have also shown that chronic criminality stems more from a dysfunctional family than a functional one (“Developmental theories,” 2004). A murderer or a perpetrator of homicidal criminal activities is more likely to come from a large family where there is no parental affection towards that individual or where the level of monitoring and supervision from parents is at its minimum. In most cases, the parents are indeed deviants in their own right, or they have wide-ranging mental problems. Children born out of aggressive and hot-tempered parents are also more likely to follow the same route.

Career criminals such as murderers are individuals who have undergone trying moments in their childhood, often associated with neglectful, excessively lax, harsh, and punitive parenting. These developmental processes decrease the individual inhibitions to criminal activity. Childhood abuse, parental rejection, and maltreatment are also vital candidates for criminal activity, according to developmental theorists. In a previous study carried in New York jail houses, 68 percent of all convicted male felons stated that they had indeed undergone painful childhood experiences during their developmental process (“Developmental Theories,” 2004). This indeed strengthens the developmental theories as viable procedures of explaining the criminal activity.


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Matsueda, R.L. “The Current State of Differential Association Theory.” Crime and Delinquency Vol. 34, no. 3. 277-306 (1988).

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