Criminological Theory and Implications on Public Policy

by Elizabeth Hall

English: Deterrence theory model 1.
English: Deterrence theory model 1. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The role of criminologists in our society is to study data and form theories on how to deter crime, based on they find in that data.  They then advise criminal justice policy makers on how to implement these theories into a public (social) policy.  The concept of public policy is based on a series of theories constituted by criminologists and sociologist, and put into practice by lawmakers.  Each theory is group is comprised of its own subset of theories.  Choice theory, trait theory, social structure theory, social process theory, and developmental theory all contributed to the formation of social policy.  Choice theory has four base theories, which have separate policy implications: rational choice, general deterrence, specific deterrence, and incapacitation theories.  Trait theory is comprised of two major themes, with policy factors: primary prevention programs, and secondary prevention programs.  Social structure theory deals with concepts such as conventional rewards and values of American society, and dealing with the stratification that our capitalist society dictates.  Social process theory, which is concerned with the way people learn crime through each other, and argues that if criminal behavior is learned, then it can be unlearned as well.  Developmental theory policy involves multisystemic treatments aimed at children who are at risk for turning to criminality.  It is through understanding each of these theory groups and the subsets of theories that mold them that you will have an appreciation of how social policy is formed, and begin to see amendments needed in these policies to make them work efficiently.  (Siegel, 2010)
Choice Theory
Choice theory has four policy based theories which are established on the “just desert” concept that severe punishment deters crime.  These theories are rational choice, general deterrence, specific deterrence, and incapacitation theories.  Rational choice theory states that crime is based on a person weighing what they personally need or want against their own situation and whether or not the risks are worth the benefits of committing the crime.  General deterrence theory digs deeper into the risks versus benefits of committing the crime.  It also believes that if punishment for a crime is severe, certain, and swift that most people would deem the risks far greater than the benefits.  Specific Deterrence focuses in on sever punishments to make sure the offender learns their lesson and never commits the crime again.  Incapacitation theory states that by keeping criminals out of general population reduces the rates of crime.  In essence, choice theory plays a part in building social policy because it makes sure that society knows that crime is not acceptable to the society that we currently live in. (Siegel, 2008)
Trait Theory
Trait theory is based on the premise that crime is committed because criminals have either mental or physical defects.  The theories are composed of: biological trait theory which supposes that biochemical genetic, and neurophysiologic conditions cause crime, and psychological trait theory which assumes that mental issues are the causation of crime   Public policies developed from these theories include primary prevention programs which focus on the treatment of individual personal issues and defects before they display themselves through criminal activities, and secondary prevention programs which focus on psychological therapy to prevent people from violating laws, and tertiary programs which focus on helping criminals make their way back to operating under normal social rules and conventions. It is through these policies that programs such as mental health associations, family therapy groups, and substance abuse clinics have been opened.  It is also through these polices, that rehabilitation programs such as halfway houses, anger management classes, other programs have been implemented throughout our criminal justice system spanning the entire course of criminal development from preventing children from turning to crime in the first place, to rehabilitation of criminals already incarcerated in our prisons and jails.  (Siegel, 2008)
Social structure theorists believe that it is the socioeconomic structure of our society, which causes crime.  These theories focus on the social and economic structures of our society working together to cause lower class people to turn to crime to achieve goals and success because they do not have conventional means to do so.  These theories fall into three categories: social disorganization, which deals with the actual stratification of our society, strain theory that discusses the difference in classes, and the means they have to achieve success.  There is also cultural deviance, which argues that people who turn to criminality do so for relief of the strain caused by not having the means to attain conventional success.  This causes them to form their own subcultures, which accept and even condone criminal behavior.  Policy implementations on social structure theory have been important to the lower class society, with programs such as welfare, Aid to Dependent Children, food stamps, Head Start programs, neighborhood self help legal services, extra help with education, and job opportunities, and recreational programs to children who would not have access to these without federal help.  (Siegel, 2010)
These theories are based on the principle t people having adverse relationships with family, peers, and institutions they are around on a normal basis cause crime.  Family relationships play a large part in deciding criminality.  If the relationships are positive then anyone can succeed within the normal boundaries of law.  It is when these relationships are negative that the criminality is formed.  Since they cannot realistically expect to succeed in the acceptable ways of society, committing crimes may be their only practical way to achieve success sought after by most members of American society.  This subgroup of theories includes, social learning which denotes that criminals learn criminal behavior from other criminals.  Differential association theory proposes that people learn to commit crime through antisocial definitions.  Neutralization theory, where criminals drift between conventional acceptable behaviors and criminal behavior learning to rationalize crime and their behavior, by neutralizing moral restraints with ideas such as the victim had it coming to them.  Social reaction theory (Labeling Theory) states that people enter into criminality when labeled negatively for behavior committed or social groups one may belong in.  It goes on to assume that once labeled, always labeled, therefore people organize their personalities around the label.  Social control theorists follow the logic that we are all born potential criminals, and that it is our ties to conventional society, that keep most everyone from committing crime.  These ties are formed through family, peers, mentors, and institutions, and when these social bonds do not exist, it is easier for people to commit crime.  Implications of policy effects more young people than already hardened criminals, because after the age of eighteen, our impressionable years are over, and most people become set in their ways and are not prone to unlearn their behaviors.  These programs teach young offenders about the dangers associated with drug use and how to survive in society without resorting to criminality, coupled with how to achieve success in school.  Theories regarding labeling have caused criminologists to warn society about the dangers of negative labels, and diversion programs which attempt to rehabilitate people in respect to their crimes, such as alcohol and drug treatment programs.  (Siegel, 2010)
Developmental Theory
Developmental theory attempts to reach younger people throughout the course of their entire lives to prevent criminality from taking place.  These are made up of life course theories which argue that social and personal traits change throughout their lives, and Integrated Cognitive Antisocial Potential (ICAP), which assumes that anyone with antisocial tendencies are prone to commit antisocial acts.  The theories also include the general theory of crime and delinquency, which states that there are different life domains, which shape criminality, and latent trait theories, which follow the thought that we have master traits that influence our criminal behavior.  Another theory is the general theory of crime that supports the school of thought that the lack of self-control causes crime.  Still another theory called differential coercion theory, which denotes that individuals exposed to environments of intimidation and crime develop defects of a psychological and social nature; influencing the probability that a person will commit crime.  Policy implementations developed through developmental theory involve the attempt to reach children who are at risk as early as preschool, and certainly through their developmental years, including but not limited to: The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, substance abuse prevention programs, and Fast Track.  All of these programs are designed to deter criminality from becoming a factor in someone’s life at all.  (Siegel, 2010)
Political and Practical Implementation Problems Along with Possible Solutions
In our country, government, whether at the local, state, or national levels, is charged with the task of implementing policies to define the ideas that our society deems acceptable.  Because people and our society continue to evolve, our public policies constantly need updating to reflect on the times.  In doing this, our lawmakers have been increasingly challenged to implement policies that will become law that considers all people’s views.  Because of the differing views in Washington D.C.’s dog eat dog style of politics and differences in the views of our political parties, often policies are watered down, changed, or not passed at all because our lawmakers cannot seem to agree.  Another problem is in order to get anything done people operate on a quid pro quo basis, meaning that if you want your policy passed, you must also help me pass mine; even if it means adding mine to yours to get it done.  Issues with the problem of quid pro quo, cross over into the other issues of policy implementation.  This occurs at the time of allocating funds to projects.  Instead of focus revolving around the bill at hand, congress wastes millions of taxpayer dollars arguing over pork barrel spending programs that they intend to add discretely into these policies.  In order to change this situation, American people need to convey to our lawmakers that we have had enough.  That if these processes are not simplified, and pork barrel spending does not cease to be a problem in our policy making decisions, we will elect new candidates which will abandon their notions that their party has the only right way to proceed, and learn to work together.  This in effect will make our society less divided, more cohesive, and stronger in our beliefs.  Making sure that funding goes to the proper programs remains a problem for those involving the running of the programs.  When funding is allocated, often, it is wasted on extra projects instead of going only to the main premise of the program.  (Cannon, 2009)
While public policy plays an extremely important role in American society, and these policies have shown to be effective tools in deterring crime, problems still exist in the implementation of the policies.  These problems include narrow-minded policy makers, and making sure that there is enough funding, to actually support the program’s intended cause.  In order to change this, the American public will have to become more involved in the process of electing our public officials, thereby sending the message that you must be on our side, instead of big businesses and people serving their own interests, if you want to hold public office in our country.

Cannon, R. (2009).  Understanding Public Policy and Public Policy Advocates.  Retrieved from http://www.publicpolicyadvocates.org/
Siegel, L. J. (2008).  Criminology: The Core.  Third Edition.  Belmont, Ca. Cengage Learning
Siegel, L.J. (2010).  Criminology: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies.  Tenth Edition.  Belmont:    
             Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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