Psychology and the Legal System 5 Edition
Adapted from Wrightsman, S. L., Greene, E., Nietzel, T. M., & Fortune, H. W. (2002). Psychology and
the Legal System, 5 Edition. (pp.105-137). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group.
Chapter 5: Theories of Crime
- it is important to realize that despite the continuous decline in crime in the United States, American’s
continue to list crime as a serious concern. So why do so many individuals continue to perceive crime as a
1) Because crime is still high to a certain degree; 51 out of 1000 residents 12 and older in urban areas
have been victimized by violent crimes in 1998, a rate higher than most countries in Western Europe.
2) Fear of crime is additionally heightened by the publicized crimes of a few individuals, creating images
of seeming epidemics of random violence that goes beyond the control of society. Mark Burton (killed his
wife and two children in Atlanta), Burton Furrow (a white supremacist that wounded several children in
Granada Hills, California), and Allan Miller (killed three coworkers at two Alabama offices where he
once worked), are all examples of headlines that America’s newspapers covered.
3) The public becomes fearful when they perceive crime to be occurring in environments they considered
safe such as schools and the workplace. Highly publicized acts of violence schools or the workplace
impend on fundamental assumptions of personal security and the safety of our children, and in turn affect
an individual’s quality of life. For this reason, policy makers have begun to pay particular attention to
school and workplace violence.
- The best means for crime control remains a social and political issue in the United States. Issue such as
hiring more police, the execution of prisoners, increase the number of courts, the imposition of curfews,
have all been areas of debate on social and political levels.
- Congress continues to pass anti-crime bills that increase capital punishment to a wider spectrum of
crimes. In addition, many states have enacted a “three strikes” legislation, which aims to keep repeat
felons in prison for longer periods of time. Special anti-crime measures have also been implemented,
where, for example, communities are notified whenever a former sex offender moves into the area.
- To ease the crime problem, psychologists argue that we must understand underlying causes. Why does
crime happen? What motivates people to commit illegal acts? Is it Bad genes, twisted impulses drug
addiction, or a combination of factors? These questions are the concern of criminology, which the study
of criminal behaviour.
Theories of Crime as Explanations of Criminal Behaviour
Classical School of Criminology (Ancient theories)
- ancient explanations of crime took a religious tone throughout the middle ages; crime was equivalent or
due to sin, and today still lives on in many belief systems. - In the 17 century, Sir Francis Bacon argues that “opportunity makes a thief.” Philosophers such as
Voltaire and Rousseau emphasized concepts such as free will, hedonism and flaws in social contract to
explain criminal conduct. These opinions ultimately bred the classical school of criminology.
- Two leading proponents of classical criminology were the Italian intellectual Cesare Beccaria, and the
British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. They believed that law breaking occurred when people, if faced
with a choice between right and wrong, they would ultimately choose to behave erroneously. In addition,
they believed that people made pro-crime decisions when they believed the gains of the crime outweighed
- Classical theorists were interested in reforming harsh administrations of justice, and they believed that
punishment of criminals should be proportionate to the crime committed. Classical theory influenced
several principles of justice in Western societies such as the U.S. constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban
against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Positivist School of Criminology
- These individual’s emphasized factors they believed determined criminal behaviour. They sought to
understand crime through scientific method and analysis of empirical data including; sociological
biological, psychological, or environmental factors.
- Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri, and Raffaelo Garofalo were three early positivists. Lombroso (1876)
and Garofalo (1914) highlighted the physical characteristics of criminals, proposing a strong biological
predisposition to crime. Ferri (1917) also acknowledged physical causes but stressed social and
environmental factors as well.
- Most modern theories, including those of biology, genetics, psychology, sociology, economics,
anthropology, and religion, are a legacy of the positivist tradition.
-For the most part, criminologists have focused on the violent crimes that frighten the public (e.g.
robbery, rape, assault, and murder) or other aggressive behaviours against property such as burglary,
theft, and arson.
- In addition, most theories of crime have concentrated on men, given that about three quarters of all
arrests are of males. Furthermore, 85% of violent crimes are committed by men. However, factors
influencing female criminality need further attention, in part because female crime has increased relative
to male crime over the past decade. Females are most often arrested for larceny and theft, and in most
cases are collaborating with a male partner. One implication of this pattern is to consider the role of
coercion in female crime, especially as it is exerted in close relationships.
Common Theories of Crime: Four Categories
Sociological Theories of Crime
- Sociological theories explain crime as the result of social or cultural forces that are extended to any
- Sociological theories can be subdivided into subcultural and structural explanations. Structural Explanations
- A key concept of structural approaches is that certain groups of people suffer fundamental inequalities in
opportunities to achieve the goals valued by society. Living in an affluent society in-stills hopes for
wealth, success, and education. Not everyone can obtain these outcomes through legally acceptable
means. Some individuals, through good fortunes of education, or family affluence, have greater
opportunities to achieve such goals that society prescribes. Other individuals may not be so fortunate, and
may turn to illegal means to reach these goals.
- Differential opportunity is the cornerstone of the structural theory of crime proposed by Cloward and
Ohlin (1960) in their book Delinquency and Opportunity. The theory can be traced to Emile Durkheim’s
ideas about maintaining moral bonds between individuals and society. Durkheim believed that life
without moral or social obligations becomes unbearable and results in anomie, a feeling of normlessness
that often leads to suicide and crime. An implication of anomie theory was that unlimited aspirations
pressure individuals to deviate from social norms.
- According to Cloward and Ohlin, people of lower socioeconomic subcultures want to succeed through
legal means, but society denies them opportunities to do so. Consider a person from Nicaragua who
immigrates to the United States in hopes of creating a better life for his family. The individual will face
cultural and language differences, financial hardships, and limited access to resources crucial for
advancement. Individuals with modest financial means, cannot, for example, afford advanced education.
Furthermore, crowding large cities makes class distinctions more apparent, and when legal means of goal
achievement are blocked, frustration increases and crime is more likely to surface. Youth crime,
especially in gangs, is one extension of this sequence.
-Differential opportunity assumes that people who grown up in crowded and impoverished areas sanction
middle-class goals. Thus, crime becomes an illicit means to gain an understandable end. Consistent with
this view, Gottfredson (1986) and Gordon (1986), a sociologist team, endeavoured to explain higher
crime rates of lower-class African American youth by their less satisfactory academic performance.
Denied legitimate job opportunities due to low aptitude scores, these youth discover they can make decent
money selling crack cocaine. With the arrival of this drug, arrests of juveniles in New York City, Detroit,
Washington, and other cities tripled in the mid to late 80’s.
- The theory of differential opportunity has several limitations. Research indicates that delinquent youth
display differences from their law abiding counterparts other than differing educational opportunities,
showing these variances as early as elementary school. In addition, there is no evidence that lower-class
youth find partial success in school to be any more frustrating than middle class youth. Also, the
assumption that lower-class juveniles aspire to middle class membership is also unproved.
-In addition, terms used in theory such as aspiration, frustration, and opportunity are loosely defined, as
they do not explicitly explain what determines how deprived individuals adapt to limited opportunities.
-Lastly, crimes are often committed by those whom were not denied opportunities. The head of a local
charity who pockets donations for personal gain or a pharmacist who deals drugs under the counter, a
politician who accepts bribes for votes, are all examples of individuals who have likely had an abundance
of fortunes in opportunities. - Albert Cohen’s (1955) Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gangs suggests a structural hypothesis
emphasizing the reaction of lower-class youth to the goals of middle class, which being judged as
unattainable, are repudiated through destructive vandal type crime. According to Cohen, the less
fortunate youth are evaluated by the “middle-class measuring rod,” particularly in schools and jobs that
are often controlled by middle class individuals insistent on acceptance of their standards. Lower class
juveniles lack the prior socialization necessary for successful middle class achievement. They have been
reared in an environment that values immediate gratification and physical aggression. They have been
trained to support middle class values, but are not well prepared to translate these aspirations into
-Cohen explains delinquent subcultures using the psychoanalysis concept of reaction formation – the
norms of previously accepted middle class orientation are defied and replaced with their most offensive
-Cohen’s theory agrees with differential opportunity theory, in that social stratification and loss of status
for lower-class individuals, causes crime. However, Cohen describes crime that is gratuitous and
expressive (e.g. graffiti, knocking over of mailboxes) rather than the “rational” crime described by the
-Cohen’s theory also (as with differential theory) lacks empirical support. The biggest issue surrounds the
assumption that lower-class members adhere to middle class values. In addition, Cohen’s descriptions of
typical gang-affiliated crime are not accurate. Most lower class delinquency has a functional quality to it
(goods stolen, drugs are sold, and property is defended). By contrast, it is middle class crime that more
often than not, involves random destruction of property and vandalism.
-The last form of structural theory involves the term rational crime, which involves illegal behaviour that
seemingly “makes sense.” The person is rewarded for it and can be committed with a relatively low
detection risk and has a feel as though it is a type of “golden opportunity.” Rational crime is likely in one
of four contexts; situations where money and objects are easy targets like theft by employees, shoplifting,
and embezzlement as examples. Second, are circumstances such as fraud, price fixing, and business type
crime. Third, are crimes as a preferred livelihood; examples include theft rings or organized crime. The
Fourth comes in the context where crime is organized as a business to offer legal products: pornography,
drugs, prostitution, and gambling.
- Similar to other structural theories, rational crime only applies to certain offences, in particular those
deemed profitable. However, the “rationalist” sees crime as an understandable reaction to advantages of
particular social arrangements. Two significant problems emerge with rational crime. First, it does not
explain repeated violent crimes; second, it does not explain why, when given the same “golden
opportunities,” some individuals offend while many do not.
The subcultural version of sociological theory claims that a conflict of norms held by different groups
causes criminal behaviour. The conflict arises when certain groups (such as gangs) endorse subcultural
norms that pressure its members to digress from the norms underlying criminal law. For many youths, the gang replaces the person’s parents as the source of norms despite the parental attempt to instil their own
Walter Miller’s theory of focal concerns, illustrates the theme of cultural conflict. He explains the
criminal activities of lower-class youth gangs as an attempt to obtain the ends valued in their culture
through behaviours that best appear to achieve those ends. Miller lists six basic values characteristic to
lower-class traditions. These include: trouble, toughness, smartness, autonomy, excitement, and fate. For
example, lower-class boys may start fights to prove their toughness, and steal to exemplify their daring
Biological Theories of Crime
-Biological theories of crime look for genetic vulnerabilities, physiological excesses, or constitutional
deficits that predispose individuals to criminal behaviour. In turn, these dispositions are translated into
specific criminal behaviour through environments and social interaction that span over time.
Atavism is a concept championed by Lombroso, which buttressed the notion that the criminal was a
congenital throwback to the primitive type of man.
-Ernest A. Hooton in this book Crime and Man (1939) searched for anatomical distinctions between
different types of criminals and civilians. He took physical measurements of 14, 00 criminals and 3000
civilians, and reported an array of differences between these groups. For example, burglars were found to
possess short heads, golden hair and undershot jaws. Robbers were said to have high heads, short ears and
broad faces. Horton’s theory has been ridiculed by modern behavioural scientists, and justly so. The
major objection concerns the inadequacies and biases of his sampling procedures.
-Psychologist and physician William A. Sheldon (1942, 1949) proposed a somatic typology composed of
three dimensions of physique and corresponding temperaments. He believes there were three body types:
the endomorph (tends to be obese and soft and rounded), the mesomorph (muscular, athletic, and
strong), and the ectomorph (tall, thin and a well developed brain). The personality differences of these
somatoform categories led Sheldon to conclude that the mesomorph’s aggressive nature and lack of
inhibitory controls produced a prime candidate for criminality. He did not believe that all mesomorphs
became criminals; only those exposed to the wrong influences did. He did believe environmental
influences to be important, though he held the conviction that physical characteristics had to be
considered when assessing aggressive crime. His ideas today are largely dismissed as his definition of
delinquency was too vague. The largest critique involves the notion that somatoforms are stereotypes not
deserving of scientific attention.
-Recent data do suggest that physique might be related to aggressive behaviour. Dan Olweus, a
psychologist from Norway, studied factors turning elementary schoolboys into bullies. This area of study
is important as bullies in grades 6-9 are four times as likely to be arrested as adults than boys not
classified as such. Olweus discovered the typical bully was 1) physically stronger than other boys the
same age, 2) raised in a family where physical punishment was used, and was permissive about
aggression, and 3) someone with an active, hot-headed temperament. -In summary physical typologies have limitations. First, it ignores hundreds of other attributes by
selecting only a few for use of categorization of an individual. Second, it assumes two people in the same
category have all the same attributes, when almost always, the human disposition is filled with gray areas.
Furthermore, even if a correlation exists between physique and criminal behaviour, this does not imply
causation. It is likely that boys with mesomorphic physique have found aggressive ways such as
intimidation for success. Being rewarded for this bullying may induce the motivation to continue using
the behaviour. Hence, it may be a social learning explanation rather than a constitutional one.
-The earliest methodology for studying genetic contributions to criminality was the genealogy (family
study). This method traces the ancestry of an individual.
-Two famous genealogies in criminology are Henry Goddard’s study (1916) of the Kallilak family and
Richard Dugdale’s (1877) examination of the Jukes. Both families contained a large number of
scoundrels, leading the investigators to suspect hereditary influences. The suspicion was especially strong
for Goddard, who believed “feeblemindedness” could be inherited 50% of the time with eventual
-The genealogical method suffers limitations as it does not permit a clear conclusion about what the
family transmits; is it environmental or genetic influences playing a part.
-Adoption studies are an effective strategy for separating environmental from genetic influences.
Signardsson, Cloninger, Bohman and von Knorring (1982) studied the arrest records of adult males who
had been adopted as children. They found that men whose biological parents had a criminal record were
four times as likely to be criminal themselves compared to those who had no adoptive or biological
criminal background. In addition, these men were twice as likely to be criminal adoptees whose adoptive
parents were criminal but whose biological parents were not. Adoptees with both biological and adoptive
criminal parents were 14 times more likely to be criminal then men with no criminality in their
-The research evidence suggests that genetic factors influence criminal behaviour. How much of an
influence is not yet clear, but is significant enough to gain our attention. However, when genetic claims
are made in regards to problem behaviour, controversy seems to follow. The attempt to study genetics is
often blocked due to concerns that merely asking questions about genes and abnormality is improper. The
issue surrounds the fear that if we attribute crime to genetic factors, then social and environmental causes
will be neglected. The misconception that genes and environment compete rather than interact is reflected
in this concern. A person who is genetically prone to diabetes for example, may need to watch their diet
as a result. This exemplifies the way in which genes and environment interact with each other.
-A second concern surrounds the issue that certain people will be deemed genetically inferior, and may
create abuses as a result; being hired for a job, being assumed to be dangerous or stigmatized in any way
can result in such abuses or forms of unfairness. The study of behavioural genetics can only estimate the
average influence that genes and environment exert over differences amongst a large group of people. The
extent to which any behaviour – crime, intelligence, athletic ability – is inheritable within one group of
people, does not explain differences between groups of people. For example, height is inheritable, and on average, tall parents will have taller children. However, the children in one culture may be shorter than
those in another where food is plentiful. It becomes apparent that although height is influenced genetically
in both cultures, the difference in height between the cultures is not genetically based. Similarly with
crime, evidence points to an influence of genes on crime, but does not minimize the importance of
-So what then is inherited if crime is even partially determined by genetics? Five possibilities are
1) Constitutional predisposition. The data are inconclusive here and so do not take us any farther
than the previous finding that athletic, muscular youth are deemed better bullies. Physicality is clearly
influences by genetic factors. The extent to which a strong physique interacts with other variables is
important to bear in mind. Genetics contribute some risk of anti social conduct.
2) Neuropsychological abnormalities. EEG (electroencephalogram) patterns have been reported
in prison populations and violent juvenile delinquents. These EEG irregularities may indicate
neurological deficits that result in poor impulse control and impaired judgement, though some studies
have not found a significant relationship between EEG pathology and delinquent behaviour. Better results
have shown that subcortical regions of the brain – the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus and midbrain –
specifically in the right hemisphere are linked to negative emotions. Upon v