Many factors determine why a person decides to commit a crime. Some people believe that the benefit outweighs the risks involved. Others seem to have no fear of the consequences of their actions should they get caught. There are also many reasons why another person in a similar situation chooses not to commit a crime. Criminologists have been studying these factors for years, hoping to learn what causes people to commit crimes so they can hopefully prevent them from happening again. So why do criminals commit crimes?
Some of the things that could factor into a person’s decision to commit a crime are greed, rage, jealousy, revenge, substance abuse, or peer pressure. There could also be fear or reasons of self-defense due to a situation they got themselves into that got out of control. Below we will look at several factors that play into the decisions people make when deciding to commit a crime. After this, we will look at some relevant theories of criminal behavior studied by criminologists and criminal sociologists.
Factors That Can Cause Criminals to Commit a Crime
Economic deprivation can be a significant contributing factor in why a person commits a crime. In our world, three billion people are in the category of “poor” and living below the per capita income. More than 20,000 children die every day due to poverty. Poverty and lack of resources to provide for their families is one determining factor in a person’s decision to commit a crime. After being unemployed for a long time and not being able to obtain work, a person may feel so discouraged and become frustrated to the point where they consider criminal behavior as a way to support their family.
Case Example of Socioeconomic Status That Leads to Criminal Prostitution
In an autobiographical book by Dawn Annandale, “Call Me Elizabeth: Wife, Mother, Escort,” the author narrates how she resorted to prostitution to support her family. The author, who had six children between the ages of two and twelve, had a nice home, employment, and a working husband. However, as it became a struggle to maintain their middle-class existence, the family became seeped into debt. After seeing an advertisement in a magazine to engage in escort work for £300 per night (around $395 U.S. dollars today), she became interested.
As financial matters continued to worsen, she made the call. When asked why she was seeking this type of employment, she honestly replied that she had six kids to feed and educate and a mountain of debts to pay. As she continued to be successful as a personal escort, she ended up leaving her other job and pursued escort work part-time.
Inadequate and Unavailable Education
When unemployment causes frustrations over the ability to support one’s family, opportunities that could lead to gainful employment, such as higher education, can become a barrier for those with little to no resources. Sociologist Robert K. Merton had a theory about this. He says that crime happens when our society sets goals and then puts up barriers that limit a portion of the population from obtaining them.
Our world shows us that you can obtain financial rewards by working hard and persevering. Yet, in order to have access to the ability to earn the rewards, you need to have the funds to pay for college or a higher education. Thus, getting a higher education is a barrier for some. The inability to access higher education can lead to frustrations and a decision to commit a crime.
This plays an important role when determining if a criminal will commit a crime. Sometimes a high school or college student will succumb to doing something they see their peers do that they would never do on their own. The young mind does not possess much wisdom or reason when they see something that looks like fun. If their friends are doing it and it looks like fun, they don’t think about the consequences and sometimes don’t even realize that what they are doing is a crime, so they jump right in.
Case Example of Peer Pressure in Hazing That Resulted in Death
Penn State had a mandated discussion about hazing in the Greek society. During this meeting, they came to the realization that students were participating in hazing – initiation rites that are demeaning and occasionally hazardous – because they believed other fraternities and sororities were doing the same thing. According to Cornell University research, many students haze solely to “fit in.” It’s become such an issue that many students have difficulty speaking up.
One such case involving Penn State ended in death. Timothy John Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore, was pledging the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. On February 2, 2017, during a hazing incident, Piazza drank large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time as part of an obstacle course called “The Gauntlet.”
While heavily intoxicated, Piazza fell on the basement stairs and was knocked unconscious. He was brought to a couch by his fraternity brothers to recuperate. At one point, Piazza regained consciousness and fell off the couch. Three fraternity brothers picked him up and laid him back on the sofa. They poked him in the face to see if he was okay, but he remained unconscious. A newly initiated fraternity member tried to help Piazza and attempted to get his frat brothers to call 911, but he was shoved up against a wall and ignored.
Early the next morning, Piazza tried to get up again, but, once standing, he fell backward. This happened again. Another time he managed to stagger toward the lobby of the house but fell headfirst into an iron railing and landed on a stone floor. He got up and tried to reach the door but fell again and was knocked unconscious. His last attempt to climb up the basement stairs found him several hours later behind the bar in the basement, cold and breathing rapidly.
After several minutes of debate, the fraternity brothers finally decided he needed help and called 911. Piazza was rushed into surgery, where he was found to have a ruptured spleen, class IV hemorrhagic shock, and his brain was so swollen that half of his skull had to be removed to relieve the pressure. He was pronounced dead early the next morning, and 18 fraternity members were charged in connection with his death.
Alcohol and Drugs
Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs limits a person’s reasoning ability. They may find it easier to do something illegal when they are intoxicated or high. Also, being addicted to one or more substances causes all ability to reason to go out the window as their main focus in life becomes centered on how to get another fix to sustain their addiction, and they will resort to any means to obtain the drug.
Physical or Biological Factors
The way our bodies are made can vary. Biological factors that could influence criminal behavior would have to do with anything that impinges on a child from conception to birth. Some people can be predisposed to many different complications, such as depression or epilepsy. A person’s genes influence how parents bring their children up and also have the potential to sway the choices children make as they grow older.
Genes can define a person’s ability to control their disposition, impulsivity, and lack of empathy. Some criminologists believe that we can be predisposed to criminal behavior as well. This means that there could be biological factors, including variances in autonomic arousal, neurobiology, and neuroendocrine functioning, that can increase a person’s chance of committing a criminal act. Serious head injuries have also been known to limit a person’s ability to control violent blowups.
Family Conditions and Adverse Childhood Experiences
Children who have been abused and neglected are at an increased risk for criminal behavior.
In this instance, a person has criminal thinking. They rationalize their behavior and believe what they did, though against the law, was justified. People with this type of personality often place the blame for all of their problems on other people and show no remorse.
The self-control theory of crime says that people who were not parented effectively before the age of 10 have less self-control than those who were parented better. People with a low sense of self-control are also found to struggle with criminal and impulsive conduct.
Negative Social Community
How and where we live can influence who we become. If a person lives in a high-crime area, it is likely to affect how they behave, especially if it is where they grew up. Their surroundings tend to dictate what they feel is available to them in life.
Case Example of How A Negative Social Community Influenced a Teen To Commit Crimes
Sammy was a 17-year-old boy when he entered a maximum-security unit at a juvenile detention center in Alameda County, California. He was awaiting trial, where he would be tried as an adult for a spree of armed takeover robberies at several fast-food restaurants. The thing is, it was very hard for him to avoid this type of criminal life coming from a family with a lot of gang involvement.
His older brother was shot and killed, and his father was in jail. He also had a cousin he looked up to who was convicted of murder. He says he felt betrayed by the family, who would, on the one hand, try to keep him from getting involved in criminal behavior while simultaneously committing crimes themselves. The only way Sammy would be able to see his father within the next 18 years was if they were housed in the same prison.
Typically, these traits begin to exhibit themselves prior to the age of 15. Signs of the possibility of antisocial behavior can include running away, cutting school, fighting, carrying weapons, lying, stealing, damaging property, and hurting animals.
There are also many theories that criminologists have ascertained as a way to categorize individuals to determine what factors play into their decisions to commit a crime. Below is a list of theories that stretch across the board by most criminologists and is taught in schools.
Criminology Theories That Explain Why People Commit a Crime
This is the belief that people look at all the factors that weigh into whether or not they want to take a chance and commit a crime and then make a conscious choice to follow through or not. This theory was developed by an 18th-century Italian philosopher, Cesare Beccaria. He explains the basis of this theory as being a conscious decision made on purpose by the offender whereby he or she can obtain some personal gain. Once the decision is made, the offender then plans out the crime in detail and executes it with complete awareness that he or she is breaking the law but has made a decision to follow through regardless. This theory falls under the classical school of thought.
Case Example of the Choice Theory of Crime
Rational choice could be used in a typical white-collar crime. For example, an investment broker may decide to start skimming small amounts of money from his clients over a long period of time. He keeps the losses hidden from them and pockets his skimmings. He weighed his options beforehand and decided that his personal gain outweighed the risk of consequences should he get caught, so he just decided to go for it.
This theory was made popular by two statisticians, Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet and André-Michel Guerry. This theory says that the way people respond is determined by the influences set by society. This would include the criminal’s immediate family, peers, socioeconomic status, and level of education. It is assumed that the offender will become a product of his or her environment, and if the environment is a high crime area, criminality is inevitable due to the ongoing exposure and influences.
The theory behind this is the understanding that there is a small representation of society that decides what the laws should be. They generally disagree with laws that were created and thus, break them.
People who attribute the labeling theory to a criminal believe that a person will become what others label or expect him or her to become. Whatever label that has been applied to a person will bring along a set of prejudices and images that could lead to others seeing the labeled person in the same way. For example, if someone volunteers to stay late and finish up incomplete work, they would generally be thought of as an outstanding worker. However, if that person has been labeled a known thief, their volunteering to stay late will suddenly arouse suspicion among the other workers.
Case Example of the Effect of Labeling Long term
Let’s say you have a 16-year-old girl who was caught trying drugs. Her immediate social group labels her a troublemaker. Then her parents find out, and they reinforce her label by treating her like she is a criminal. Then she has problems in school, and when the school calls in her parents, they tell the school she has a problem with drugs, and the deviant behavior is now reinforced at school. At this point, the teen feels ostracized and possibly tries drugs again. The school decides to search her bag one day, and they find the drugs. They call the police, and she is expelled and put in juvenile detention.
While in detention, she misses state tests that she would need to attend college and ends up having to do menial work at a fast-food restaurant. While at work, she steals money from the register one day to buy more drugs because she feels so depressed and hopeless, and her job finds out and calls the police. Now she is arrested for theft, put in jail, and has a criminal record when she is released. This makes it hard for her to get a job when she gets out, so she delves further into drugs and now dealing to support her habit.
Eventually, she is given a deadly dose of drugs and overdoses and dies at the age of 21. This is a made-up example of how the labeling theory works. Because of the extensive labeling as a teenager, the child took on this label, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This theory involves the criminal behavior that results from material inequality involving a combination of social and political factors. The factors may share the commonality of gender, religion, race, class, and other similarities. Each sociopolitical cluster tends to view its own interests in completion with others. This means that the group members feel that others outside their group have gains which, in turn, mean a loss for themselves. When clusters of people find themselves on the opposite side of what they deem as privileged to those outside their group, they are more inclined to perform deviant behavior in order to effect change in their circumstances. According to the conflict theory, people will often defy social norms to communicate what they perceive as unfair.
A Real-Life Example of Conflict Theory – Black Lives Matter
The social movement that began with protests and violence after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin is an example of the conflict theory. Bands of people, the majority being African American, protested all over the nation in response to a wrong that is being systemically inflicted upon people of color.
Though protesting is not a crime, a lot of people are taking things a step further and committing criminal acts as a way to bring attention to the injustice that is happening against the black race and demanding that something be done to stop it. Looting and starting fires defies social norms yet, at the same time, communicates in a big way the injustice that is occurring in our country.
Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist who researched anthropology, evolution, and physiological distinctions between criminals and non-criminals, came up with this notion. He believes that certain people are biologically inclined to commit crimes rather than making a conscious decision to do so. He thinks that various factors, such as vitamin shortages, hormone imbalances, food, and brain function, have a role in a person’s decision to become a criminal.
He uses examples of studies done with twins and adoptees to prove his theory. Twins, he says, are more likely to have similar tendencies leaning toward criminal behavior if they are identical rather than fraternal. He attributes this to the fact that they have similar genetic makeup, more so than fraternal twins. This tendency suggests that their biological makeup had some influence over their criminality.
There have also been similar studies on adoptees. Adopted children born to at least one biological parent who is a criminal are more likely to become a criminal than one who had not been born to a criminal parent but was raised by an adoptive parent who was a criminal.
French criminologist Alexander Lacassagne theorizes that criminal behavior is rooted in a person’s mental health history or personality disorders they may have. Disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and others play a key role in whether a person chooses to commit a crime or not. The causes of the disorder can vary, be it biological or sociological. Things such as physical and sexual abuse or having parents who were criminals play a factor.
These are just some of the reasons scholars and criminologists have theorized as to what factors play into a person’s motivation to commit a crime. They all have valid points and could be plausible explanations for certain crimes committed.
Another factor in determining if someone will commit a crime is the internet age. A wealth of free information is available on the internet that makes it very easy to discover how to commit a crime. On the web, people can get access to instructions on how to make a bomb, how to make a plastic gun, and even have the ability to purchase various poisons. Though this is not the primary factor in determining if a person will commit a crime, it makes it a lot easier for those who are contemplating this way of life.
- What is Criminology All About?
- Criminology vs. Criminal Psychology – What’s the Difference?
- What are the Different Theories of Crime?
- What are Some Examples of Victimless Crimes?
Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.