What causes criminal behavior?

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What causes criminal behavior?
(hands in meeting image by timur1970 from Fotolia.com)

Crime is something that impacts everyone, whether directly as a victim or indirectly through societal and economic costs. By understanding the causes of criminal behaviour, it may be possible to change some of the factors and eliminate some criminal behaviour. However, it is not simple, and understanding the behaviour of the criminal does not necessarily eliminate criminal behaviour.


The roots of criminal behaviour have been heavily debated. Efforts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century tried to link physiological factors such as skull size (or skin colour) to criminal behaviours. In Soviet Russia and China, studies emphasised the capitalist roots of crime - linking the concept of individual wealth to crime. Modern Western models focus on various demographic factors and have gained acceptance. These revolve around differences in age, gender, and socio-economic status and integrate multiple sciences to better understand what cause crime.

Time Frame

Age is often a large determinant of criminal behaviour. Most initial offenders tend to be younger, often in their teens or early twenties. Criminal activity then decreases as age increases. This may be a result of other societal responsibilities taking precedence, such as taking care of a family. Not all crimes fit this pattern, however. Fraud and other crimes that require more thought and planning (and often white-collar crimes) are often committed by older individuals who act less impulsively than their younger counterparts.


Criminal behaviour also breaks down along gender lines. Males are more likely, both historically and sociologically, to be responsible for a majority of criminal behaviour. In part this may be explained by hormonal differences, with testosterone being a hormone linked to more violent and risky behaviour. Certain aspects of male social behaviour may also encourage this, such as the need to appear "tougher" which helps legitimise violence. There are crimes that are more commonly linked to women, such as prostitution, and in recent years the number of women committing violent crimes has been on the rise.


The neighbourhood where a person grows up also influences the likelihood of criminal behaviour. Although studies of convicted criminals indicate a more frequent occurrence among blue collar, lower economic status neighbourhoods, these are skewed by capture and conviction rates. Studies that rely on self-reporting indicate that white collar citizens are just as likely to engage in criminal behaviour, but often of a different nature. Gang members recruit within the local area, leading to a higher incidence of violent crime, whereas substance abuse--particularly certain drugs--may be higher in the suburbs.


Just as their are multiple theories for the causes of criminal behaviour, the theories on how to prevent it are also numerous. In recent years an emphasis has been placed on providing potential offenders more and better economic/academic opportunities. Current social and criminology theories stress that when given a viable alternative, such as a decent job or education, people are less likely to turn to crime. Education and rehabilitation, often involving the teaching of a job skill, have been shown to reduce the chances that a first-time offender will return to a life of crime once they are released from prison.

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