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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Week 1 Paper - Criminological Theory

A central focus of criminology theory is the question of how do we deal with the criminal? Do we deter him from crime with punishment, or do we rehabilitate him so that he goes and sins no more? We will be considering the argument of a police chief advocating deterrence and a prison warden advocating rehabilitation. It can be further seen that these policies derive their philosophic basis from two different theories of criminology. The concept of deterrence is derived primarily from the classical school, while the method of rehabilitation is based primarily on positivist thought.
There are three major difference between the positivist and classical schools of criminology theory. These difference can be better illustrated by a closer look at each school in turn.
The classical school is the oldest school, and it's development was driven more by concepts of lawmaking then the understanding of criminals. It's earliest theorists, Beccaria and Bentham “proposed that both the law and the administration of justice should be based on rationality and human rights” (Williams & McShane, 2014 p15). Perhaps the central tenant of the classical school is the concept of free will, as “classical law emphasized moral responsibility “ (Williams & McShane, 2014, p18). Deterrence, or using the fear of punishment to force people to make rational decisions was based on the idea that “people were basically self-interested and, without restraint, would act in ways that conflict with the interests of others. Prop” (Williams & McShane, 2014, p20)
There are several lines of positivist thought, but the common denominator of the school is the search for scientific bases to describe criminal behavior. Some sub-schools of positivist thought are based on biological, psychological, and social studies. These can be generalized into environmental and/or genetic factors.”Many criminologists use the term 'positivism' to mean an approach that studies human behavior through the use of the traditional scientific method. (Williams & McShane, 2014, p.29). However, the positivism movement can be criticized for reducing the causes of crime to checkmarks in a lab notebook, and ignoring the moral questions that free will as a criminal cause; “Embracing the scientific method, positivists took a deterministic stance toward behavior and left behind the Classical School’s insistence that humans are rational beings with free will” (Williams & McShane, 2014, p.35
The following chart summarized the three major differences in the two schools' approach to crime:
Legal basis
Scientific or empirical basis
Free Will
Factors based on genetics and/or environment
Concerned with stopping criminal behavior
Focused on explaining criminal behavior

There are certainly positivist attempts to assign criminal behavior to any factors other then free will. Sheldon posited that men with athletic and aggressive personalties were more prone to crime. (Rpi.edu, Para 22). And yet it would be reasonable to counter that a man with the physical ability to take what he wanted would make a rational decision to use that physical ability as opposed to relying on legal solutions with less certain probabilities of success.. But it would be a mistake to ignore completely the effects that environment and biology can have on the moral world view in which free will choices are made. The Khmer Rouge, for example, created an environment in which young people were trained to commit all sorts of atrocious crimes. Mentally handicapped people can not be expected to know right from wrong.
This presents two questions;whether all criminal behavior is rational, and does the lack of a rational decision to commit crime limit the ability of punishment . No, much of crime is emotional, a lack of self control and the failure to exercise free will . "Criminality is a time invariant personality trait, namely self-control" (Engel, 2012, p.15) In the case of extremes we can see where insane criminals are “driven” to commit murder, yet still exhibit free will by making rational choices with the goal to avoid detection and capture. The semantics of whether a criminal “can not” or “will not” make free will decisions that do not hurt other members of society does not matter,; the point is that he will make the criminal decision, and he must be dealt with on that basis to prevent him from committing further crimes.
The debate between the chief and the warden are limited by the “either/or” assumptions made by both the classical and positivist positions. Free will can not exist in situations where there is no legal responsibility, i.e., juveniles, nor in people without the mental capacity to make rational decisions, such as mentally handicapped people. Positivist assumptions ignore that people are different; where the Chicago school excuses away the free will choices of an inner-city criminal, it ignores the man that grows up in the exact same conditions and yet manages to hold down three jobs with the goal of getting his children out of that environment. The chief relies on deterrence, based on the concept that “People will engage in criminal and deviant activities if they do not fear apprehension and punishment. (Keel, 2005, para 6). The chief's reliance on deterrence may not work as well as well as he would like: “it should be noted the vast majority of deterrence research has failed to find any substantial deterrent effect for legal sanctions. “(Williams & McShane, 2014, p22 ). Unfortunately, the warden's reliance on rehabilitation is also not a cure-all. Juvenile programs designed around rehabilitative theory have shown significant rates of failure. A New York State Office of Children and Family Services [OFCS] study of recidivism showed that 49% of program participants were re-arrested within 1 year of release, and that 66% were re-arrested within two years of release (2013, p.2) .
Traditionally, classical methods of dealing with criminals have been in the United States due to the guiding myth of American as an individualist society reaping the benefits of free will solutions. Mead presents the idea that much of American political identification is based on what he terms “the Jacksonian Tradition” , in which individuals are held responsible for their own behavior. (Mead, 1999). However, there has been no shortage of policies based upon positivist theory, and this too, has a long history in America. “Appalled by the brutality that had defined European dungeons and jails, the Quakers envisioned a true penitentiary- a peaceful (if compulsory) sanctum where offenders could study the scriptures, repent, and reenter society as rescued, reformed, and pious citizens “ (PBS, 2007, para 3).
However, we can not simply decide that both the chief and the warden are wrong, and leave it at that. Both are dedicated to the security of the community, and both have careers full of training and experience to draw from. So let us look to possible solutions to the recidivist question: within the concept of deterrence lies general deterrence and specific deterrence. McShane and Williams have already contended that deterrence does not work, so let us look at specific deterrence, and specifically within specific deterrence at the idea of incapacitation. Incapacitation in the form of incarceration “ reduces the threat they constitute to the general population” (Keel, 2005, para 6). Finally, the ultimate form of incapacitation is the death penalty, which guarantees the offender will not commit another crime. Incarceration and execution also serve the needs of society for retribution, which is a classical school consideration In defense of the warden, we must return to our own earlier assertion that not all people are the same, as well as return to the figures that OFCS presents, and admit that rehabilitation does work for some people. Instead of making this an “either/or” judgment, we can look to the idea that each method of crime control has applicability in certain situations. It makes no sense to apply the death sentence to a petty thief, and it makes no sense to put a multiple offense child molester back on the streets in the hopes that treatment will control him “this time”


Criminology : the study of crime and behavior Retrieved April 10, 2014 from


Engel, C. (2012, February). Low self-control as a source of crime: a meta-study. Preprints of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods. Bonn. Retrieved February 4, 2014 from http://www.coll.mpg.de/pdf_dat/2012_04online.pdf

Keel, R. (2005). Rational Choice and Deterrence Theory. Retrieved April 10, 2014 from http://www.umsl.edu/~keelr/200/ratchoc.html

Mead, W. (1999). The Jacksonian Tradition. The National Interest Winter 1999-2000. Retrieved April 8, 2014 from http://nationalinterest.org/article/the-jacksonian-tradition-939

OFCS Fact Sheet: Recidivism among juvenile delinquents and offenders released from residential care in 2008. (2011). New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Retrieved February 11, 2014 from http://www.ocfs.state.ny.us/main/detention_reform/Recidivism%20fact%20sheet.pdf

PBS.org. (2007, December 28). A Brief History of America's Penal Philosophy. Bill Moyer's Journal. Retrieved April 10, 2014 from http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/12282007/penalphilosophy.html

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