Microsoft word - strategic policy brief- theories on the causes of crime 0.5.doc

March 2009
Theories of the Causes of
There is a growing body of evidence about the factors that place
individuals at risk of criminal offending. The theoretical approaches discussed below attempt to explain the relationship between those risk factors and criminal behaviour. There is no consensus on the relative merit of these theories and it may be that the causal mechanisms proposed below are more or less significant for different Most crime prevention programmes are based, sometimes implicitly, on one or more of the theoretical understandings of crime. Therefore, even when focusing on practical responses, there is value in understanding the range of theoretical explanations of crime and the Biological
Biological theories about the causes of crime focus on the idea that Biological theories focus on
aspects of the physical body,

the physical body, through inherited genes, evolutionary factors, brain such as inherited genes,
structures, or the role of hormones, has an influence on an evolutionary factors, brain
individual’s involvement in criminal behaviour. Growing understanding structures, or the role of
hormones in influencing

of these mechanisms suggests that certain biological factors, such as behaviour.
particular genes, neurological deficits, low serotonin activity, malnutrition and environmental pollutants may all affect a person’s biological propensity for criminal or antisocial behaviour. The challenge for biological theories of crime is to adequately represent the complex interplay between inherited characteristics and Responses offered by the biological perspective include measures • maternal health initiatives to reduce the incidence of smoking and drinking amongst pregnant women, thereby reducing neurological Theories of the Causes of Crime
• public health initiatives and policy responses to reduce alcohol consumption and binge drinking by teenagers, as heavy alcohol use in adolescence is associated with serious neurological damage Developmental Life-Course
Developmental life-course explanations see crime as the result of a Developmental life-course
theories focus on human

developmental process that starts before birth and continues development and how
throughout a person’s life. It seeks to understand the interaction individual and social factors
between individual factors such as genetics and personality, and interact in different ways and at
different developmental stages

social factors such as family and community wellbeing. The theory to influence individual
argues that while biological factors tend to be more significant early in propensity for criminal
an individual’s life, the relative effect of social influences grows over behaviour.
time. A key aspect of the developmental-life course approach is the identification of key developmental junctures that can be used as points to intervene to promote positive development. Responses from the developmental-life course theory include: • a focus on pre- and post-natal care to ensure that babies are well cared for during this developmentally important period; and • analysing data about the change in offending over offenders’ lives Psychological
Psychology presents a number of perspectives on the causes of Psychological theories focus on
human cognition and its

crime. Of particular importance are theories exploring the relationship development, and how this
between crime and individual personality, social factors, cognition relates to criminal behaviour.
and developmental factors. These psychological theories have different degrees of focus on individual, family, group and societal Psychological literature shows that a key variable identified in the development of individual characteristics, and any criminal propensities, is the role played by parents, in terms of factors such as child-rearing practices, attachment, neglect, abuse, supervision, and the parents own anti-social or criminal behaviour. Responses based broadly in psychological theory span a wide range • early intervention programmes in health and education that support the healthy development of children; and Theories of the Causes of Crime
• supporting positive parenting practices, which research shows have a correlation with reductions in risk-taking, anti-social behaviour, and alcohol and other drug abuse by adolescents. Sociological
Sociology encompasses a very wide range of theoretical Sociological theories focus on
perspectives, but generally regards crime as a social phenomenon, the influence of the organisation
of society and social conditions.

and emphasises the cultural and social elements of criminal Some sociological theories emphasise the relationship between social structures, such as language, ethnicity and class, and criminal behaviour. Other theories emphasise the effect of social conditions on an individual’s propensity to become involved in crime. Theories of this type often focus on the relationship between crime and factors such as social inequality; the influence of peers; social disorganisation in a community; the consequences for an individual of being unable to achieve social success; and the role of criminal sub- Sociological theories are often criticised for not being able to provide strong evidence for the causal relationships they posit. Nevertheless, they are important because they complement the more individually- focused biological and psychological theories. • programmes to address multi-generational unemployment for a particular group or in a particular area; • programmes that build cultural identity and positive community values to lift self-esteem, and strengthen social connectedness; • anti-family violence programmes that try to change norms and behaviours in relation to family violence. Geographic
Geographic theories of crime focus on analysing data about the Geographic theories focus on the
geographic distribution of crime, modifying the physical environment location of crime and how
to reduce the likelihood of crime and targeting initiatives to physical environments promote
or discourage criminal

geographic areas with high rates of offending. Using data about the behaviour.
geographic distribution of crime, it is possible to find patterns that can be used to inform crime prevention projects. Theories of the Causes of Crime
Geographic theories of crime prevention that focus on the physical environment tend to focus on such things as how urban planning, building design and the design of public spaces affect crime, and also on how physical environments can be modified to make businesses and residences more resistant to crime (sometimes called “situational Responses from geographic theories of crime include: • using lighting and better design of pedestrian flow to minimise crime in an area at night or planning licensed premises so that patrons do not come in conflict as they leave; and • using information about the distribution of crime in a neighbourhood to develop a area-specific crime prevention plan Economic
The economic theory of crime is based on the notion that individuals Economic theories focus on
how offending is influenced by

respond rationally to the costs and benefits of criminal opportunities. incentives.
Thus, factors that increase the expected costs of crime (such as increasing the likelihood of apprehension or severity of punishment) or reduce the expected benefits (such as improved educational or job opportunities) can reduce the incidence of crime. The economic framework can also encompass other theories of crime that provide a richer understanding of rationality and decision-making (such as the biological basis of impulsivity), the costs of crime (such the social capital in anti-social peer networks) and the benefits of crime (such as local economic conditions). • improving engagement in education or employment so that the relative benefits of crime are reduced vis-à-vis legitimate • increasing or decreasing criminal sanctions to change the relative disincentive associated with particular criminal activities. Further reading:
Akers, RL, and Sellers CS (2008) Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application. 5th Edition. Los Angeles: Marsh, I (2006) Theories of Crime. Abingdon: Routledge


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