Causes of Crime

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Causes of Crime

How do some people decide to commit a crime? Do they think about the benefits and the risks? Why do some people commit crimes regardless of the consequences? Why do others never commit a crime, no matter how desperate their circumstances? Criminology is the study of crime and criminals by specialists called criminologists. Criminologists study what causes crime and how it might be prevented.

Throughout history people have tried to explain what causes abnormal social behavior, including crime. Efforts to control "bad" behavior go back to ancient Babylon's Code of Hammurabi some 3,700 years ago. Later in the seventeenth century European colonists in North America considered crime and sin the same thing. They believed evil spirits possessed those who did not conform to social norms or follow rules. To maintain social order in the settlements, persons who exhibited antisocial behavior had to be dealt with swiftly and often harshly.

By the twenty-first century criminologists looked to a wide range of factors to explain why a person would commit crimes. These included biological, psychological, social, and economic factors. Usually a combination of these factors is behind a person who commits a crime.

Reasons for committing a crime include greed, anger, jealously, revenge, or pride. Some people decide to commit a crime and carefully plan everything in advance to increase gain and decrease risk. These people are making choices about their behavior; some even consider a life of crime better than a regular job—believing crime brings in greater rewards, admiration, and excitement—at least until they are caught. Others get an adrenaline rush when successfully carrying out a dangerous crime. Others commit crimes on impulse, out of rage or fear.

The desire for material gain (money or expensive belongings) leads to property crimes such as robberies, burglaries, white-collar crimes, and auto thefts. The desire for control, revenge, or power leads to violent crimes such as murders, assaults, and rapes. These violent crimes usually occur on impulse or the spur of the moment when emotions run high. Property crimes are usually planned in advance.

Explaining crime

Modern criminology began in Europe and America in the late eighteenth century. During this time people began to accept scientific explanations for occurrences in the world around them and rule out supernatural influences. People increasingly believed individuals had control over their own actions. The idea that people were driven by reason and influenced by their social environment began to dominate explanations about why people behaved the way they did. Naturally, such ideas changed how people thought about criminal behavior as well.

The belief that individuals could be rehabilitated or treated gained more acceptance since crime involved weaknesses in the individual and not mysterious supernatural forces. In addition, special treatment was given to children, the insane, and the mentally disabled in the judicial system since they were less capable of understanding right and wrong.

Explanations about how people became criminals varied for the next two centuries. In the nineteenth century it was believed that people with certain physical abnormalities, insanity, or the excessively poor were considered more likely to be criminals. Late in the twentieth century other factors such as peer pressure, substance abuse, family or school problems, lack of money, and body chemistry figured into the mix.

Throughout time various explanations for criminal behavior fell into two basic categories—individual abnormalities, both physical and psychological; and social environment, which included financial matters, such as whether a person was rich, poor, or in between.

Physical abnormalities

In the nineteenth century criminologists focused on the physical characteristics and sanity of an individual. They believed it was "predetermined" or that people had no control over whether they would lead a life of crime. For example, criminologists believed people with smaller heads, sloping foreheads, large jaws and ears, and certain heights and weights had a greater chance to be criminals. Race was also a determining factor. Some criminologists believed criminals were more like savages or primitive humans, and somehow less human than law-abiding citizens.

Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), who believed some people were simply born criminals, published a book in 1906 called Crime: Its Causes and Remedies. Though many of his theories about visible physical traits were not supported by other criminologists, Lombroso did identify some traits still considered important in the twenty-first century such as the occurrence of head injuries. Later research showed head injuries often limited a person's ability to control violent outbursts.

Psychological disorders

As late as the 1950s researchers continued to investigate the relationship of body types to delinquency and crime. Aside from biological traits indicating a natural tendency toward criminal activity by some individuals, Lombroso and other early twentieth century researchers also reasoned that criminal behavior could be a direct result of psychological disorders. They believed these mental disorders could be diagnosed and possibly cured. If this was true, then criminal activity could be considered a disease and the offender could be "cured" through psychiatric treatment. Research by Lombroso and others also led to the use of expert medical witnesses in the courtroom during criminal trials.

In 1941 American psychiatrist Herve Cleckley (1903–1984) used the term psychopathy, or sociopathy, in the book The Mask of Sanity to describe a form of mental illness. People showing sociopathic traits were antisocial, often destructive, and showed little emotion. Such personality disturbances, he believed, could lead to criminal behavior.

Social and economic factors

In addition to studying the biological and psychological causes of criminal behavior, others looked toward society in general for possible causes. In the early 1900s researchers believed social changes occurring in the United States, such as an industrial economy replacing the earlier agricultural economy (industrialization) and the growth of cities (urbanization), as well as the steady flow of immigrants from eastern Europe affected crime levels. A reform movement, known as the Progressive Movement, attempted to solve increasing crime stemming from social causes.

As part of the growing concern, the University of Chicago's Department of Sociology, the first of its kind formed in 1892, focused on how city problems could lead to criminal behavior. By the 1930s and 1940s its pioneering research efforts became known as the "Chicago School" of thought, and influenced research across the nation and abroad. The researchers claimed criminals were ordinary people of all racial backgrounds who were profoundly influenced by the poverty and the social instability of their neighborhoods. They claimed such a poor social and economic environment could produce all types of crime.

Other researchers looked at various ways society can influence crime. Criminologist Edwin Sutherland (1883–1950), influenced by the Chicago School, first published Principles of Criminology in 1939. Sutherland argued that criminal behavior was learned, not an inherited trait. Exposure to crime, either through relatives or peers, gave a youth frustrated with his or her social status a choice to pursue crime. These bad influences could be lessened by good relationships with parents, teachers, an employer, or the community.

Broken Windows

In the 1990s a new idea spread through the criminal justice field concerning the influence of a person's social environment on crime rates. The idea was that general disorder in the neighborhood leads to increased antisocial behavior and eventually to serious crime. For most of the twentieth century, police primarily reacted to serious crimes such as rape, murder, and robbery often with little overall success in curbing crime rates. "Broken Windows," referring to a neighborhood of abandoned vehicles, vacant buildings with actual broken windows, and litter scattered around, is an idea that contends much of serious crime comes from civil disorder. So, the thinking went, if authorities eliminated disorder, then serious crimes would drop.

Disorder creates fear among citizens of unsafe streets; they avoid public areas allowing criminals to gain a foothold. The neighborhood goes into a downward spiral because as crime increases, then disorder increases further. Back and forth the spiralgoes. During the 1990s New York police commissioner William Bratton aggressively applied Broken Windows theory to New York City neighborhoods. His department attacked minor crimes such as public drinking, panhandling (begging for money), prostitution (selling sex for money), and various other kinds of disorderly conduct.

Once minor offenses were significantly reduced in an area, the number of serious crimes decreased as well. Felonies decreased by 27 percent after only two years. One factor they found was that many people committing minor crimes were also the ones committing more serious offenses. For example, by cracking down on people evading subway fares, police found many offenders carried illegal weapons and had outstanding arrest warrants. Subway crimes of all types dropped dramatically after enforcing collection of fares.

Police found Broken Windows a convenient way to control serious crime at less cost. As some critics also pointed out, it was simpler for the city to crack down on minor crimes than address social problems like poverty and limited education opportunities —which probably caused much of the criminal behavior in the Broken Window communities in the first place.

Income and education

Another theory from 1930s criminologists was that unemployment could be a major cause of crime. In the United States, employment opportunities have been directly related to education. In 1938 sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910–) offered a social theory that crime occurs when society sets goals for its members, such as making money to buy a variety of material goods, but creates barriers to these achievements. Society teaches that persistence and hard work lead to personal financial rewards; however, educational opportunities are often limited to those who can afford to attend college. People who do not receive higher education or college degrees are often forced to take lower paying jobs. Some attempt to achieve material success through illegal means; in this sense social forces can lead a person into crime.

The belief that education plays an enormous role in deterring crime led to educational programs and job training in prisons. Many correctional systems require inmates to attend classes to gain a basic education. Education and job training not only provide a way to find a job and make a legal living, but potentially places the person into a better social environment once he or she is back in society.

Criminologists believe a good job creates social and personal attachments to a person's community that in turn influence whether or not to commit a crime. A person is less likely to commit a crime, even if there will be substantial rewards, if he or she is tied to the community and is respected by its members.

A matter of choice

In the 1960s some criminologists decided their studies and the U.S. judicial system were biased against minorities, the poor, and women. As a result they broadened their focus from the poor and working classes to other crime settings, such as white-collar crime in corporations and governments. Street crime, they asserted, cost society $15 billion annually while white-collar crime could reach over $200 billion annually. Researchers believed it was time to look at why someone who already had a good job and comfortable life might choose a life of crime.

Just as Sutherland believed criminal behavior was learned like other social behavior, some researchers believed the process a person went through in deciding to commit a crime was not much different than how someone made other decisions. Like Merton and Sutherland, they claimed it was not personal inborn traits causing crime but social influences affecting the decision to commit a crime. A person weighed the possible penalty against the anticipated benefits or gains of performing a crime. This is particularly true for white-collar crimes where wealth is the basis for the criminal act.

People vary in how much risk they are willing to accept, in general life or in the commission of a crime; so certain biological and psychological personal factors do enter into the decision. One major factor influencing the willingness of a person to accept the risk of committing a crime is the stability of their employment. People who lose their jobs are often faced with desperate financial situations. Historical research clearly shows that as unemployment increases, so does crime.

People who are unemployed or working for minimum wage obviously feel a greater need to take risks to support themselves and their families. Studies have shown, however, that once a person begins criminal activity, they may still continue to commit crimes even after getting a good job. Past criminal behavior, it seems, especially if the person was never caught or punished, also influences whether someone will commit more crimes.

In the late twentieth century criminologists studied various factors that may influence a person's decision to commit a crime. These included the risk of arrest and punishment (deterrence), parental relations, peer pressure, education, brain function, body chemistry, substance abuse, and the availability of weapons.

Discouraging the choice of crime

The purpose of punishment is to discourage a person from committing a crime. Punishment is supposed to make criminal behavior less attractive and more risky. Imprisonment and loss of income is a major hardship to many people. Another way of influencing choice is to make crime more difficult or to reduce the opportunities. This can be as simple as better lighting, locking bars on auto steering wheels, the presence of guard dogs, or high technology improvements such as security systems and photographs on credit cards.

A person weighing the risks of crime considers factors like how many police officers are in sight where the crime will take place. Studies of New York City records between 1970 and 1999 showed that as the police force in the city grew, less crime was committed. A change in a city's police force, however, is usually tied to its economic health. Normally as unemployment rises, city revenues decrease because fewer people are paying taxes. This causes cutbacks in city services including the police force. So a rise in criminal activity may not be due to fewer police, but rather rising unemployment.

Another means of discouraging people from choosing criminal activity is the length of imprisonment. After the 1960s many believed more prisons and longer sentences would deter crime. Despite the dramatic increase in number of prisons and imposing mandatory lengthy sentences, however, the number of crimes continued to rise. The number of violent crimes doubled from 1970 to 1998. Property crimes rose from 7.4 million to 11 million, while the number of people placed in state and federal prisons grew from 290,000 in 1977 to over 1.2 million in 1998. Apparently longer prison sentences had little effect on discouraging criminal behavior.

Parental relations

Cleckley's ideas on sociopathy were adopted in the 1980s to describe a "cycle of violence" or pattern found in family histories. A "cycle of violence" is where people who grow up with abuse or antisocial behavior in the home will be much more likely to mistreat their own children, who in turn will often follow the same pattern.

Children who are neglected or abused are more likely to commit crimes later in life than others. Similarly, sexual abuse in childhood often leads these victims to become sexual predators as adults. Many inmates on death row have histories of some kind of severe abuse. The neglect and abuse of children often progresses through several generations. The cycle of abuse, crime, and sociopathy keeps repeating itself.

The cycle of violence concept, based on the quality of early life relationships, has its positive counterpart. Supportive and loving parents who respond to the basic needs of their child instill self-confidence and an interest in social environments. These children are generally well-adjusted in relating to others and are far less likely to commit crimes.

By the late twentieth century the general public had not accepted that criminal behavior is a psychological disorder but rather a willful action. The public cry for more prisons and tougher sentences outweighed rehabilitation and the treatment of criminals. Researchers in the twenty-first century, however, continued to look at psychological stress as a driving force behind some crimes.

Heredity and brain activity

Searching for the origins of antisocial personality disorders and their influence over crime led to studies of twins and adopted children in the 1980s. Identical twins have the exact same genetic makeup. Researchers found that identical twins were twice as likely to have similar criminal behavior than fraternal twins who have similar but not identical genes, just like any two siblings. Other research indicated that adopted children had greater similarities of crime rates to their biological parents than to their adoptive parents. These studies suggested a genetic basis for some criminal behavior.

With new advances in medical technology, the search for biological causes of criminal behavior became more sophisticated. In 1986 psychologist Robert Hare identified a connection between certain brain activity and antisocial behavior. He found that criminals experienced less brain reaction to dangerous situations than most people. Such a brain function, he believed, could lead to greater risk-taking in life, with some criminals not fearing punishment as much as others.

Studies related to brain activity and crime continued into the early twenty-first century. Testing with advanced instruments probed the inner workings of the brain. With techniques called computerized tomography (CT scans), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET), researchers searched for links between brain activity and a tendency to commit crime. Each of these tests can reveal brain activity.

Research on brain activity investigated the role of neurochemicals, substances the brain releases to trigger body activity, and hormones in influencing criminal behavior. Studies indicated that increased levels of some neurochemicals, such as serotonin, decreases aggression. Serotonin is a substance produced by the central nervous system that has broad sweeping effects on the emotional state of the individual. In contrast higher levels of others, such as dopamine, increased aggression. Dopamine is produced by the brain and affects heart rate and blood pressure. Researchers expected to find that persons who committed violent crimes have reduced levels of serotonin and higher levels of dopamine. This condition would have led to periods of greater activity including aggression if the person is prone towards aggression.

In the early twenty-first century researchers continued investigating the relationship between neurochemicals and antisocial behavior, yet connections proved complicated. Studies showed, for example, that even body size could influence the effects of neurochemicals and behavior.


Hormones are bodily substances that affect how organs in the body function. Researchers also looked at the relationship between hormones, such as testosterone and cortisol, and criminal behavior. Testosterone is a sex hormone produced by male sexual organs that cause development of masculine body traits. Cortisol is a hormone produced by adrenal glands located next to the kidneys that effects how quickly food is processed by the digestive system. Higher cortisol levels leads to more glucose to the brain for greater energy, such as in times of stress or danger. Animal studies showed a strong link between high levels of testosterone and aggressive behavior. Testosterone measurements in prison populations also showed relatively high levels in the inmates as compared to the U.S. adult male population in general.

Studies of sex offenders in Germany showed that those who were treated to remove testosterone as part of their sentencing became repeat offenders only 3 percent of the time. This rate was in stark contrast to the usual 46 percent repeat rate. These and similar studies indicate testosterone can have a strong bearing on criminal behavior.

Cortisol is another hormone linked to criminal behavior. Research suggested that when the cortisol level is high a person's attention is sharp and he or she is physically active. In contrast, researchers found low levels of cortisol were associated with short attention spans, lower activity levels, and often linked to antisocial behavior including crime. Studies of violent adults have shown lower levels of cortisol; some believe this low level serves to numb an offender to the usual fear associated with committing a crime and possibly getting caught.

It is difficult to isolate brain activity from social and psychological factors, as well as the effects of substance abuse, parental relations, and education. Yet since some criminals are driven by factors largely out of their control, punishment will not be an effective deterrent. Help and treatment become the primary responses.


Conforming to Merton's earlier sociological theories, a survey of inmates in state prisons in the late 1990s showed very low education levels. Many could not read or write above elementary school levels, if at all. The most common crimes committed by these inmates were robbery, burglary, automobile theft, drug trafficking, and shoplifting. Because of their poor educational backgrounds, their employment histories consisted of mostly low wage jobs with frequent periods of unemployment.

Employment at minimum wage or below living wage does not help deter criminal activity. Even with government social services, such as public housing, food stamps, and medical care, the income of a minimum wage household still falls short of providing basic needs. People must make a choice between continued long-term low income and the prospect of profitable crime. Gaining further education, of course, is another option, but classes can be expensive and time consuming. While education can provide the chance to get a better job, it does not always overcome the effects of abuse, poverty, or other limiting factors.

Peer influence

A person's peer group strongly influences a decision to commit crime. For example, young boys and girls who do not fit into expected standards of academic achievement or participate in sports or social programs can sometimes become lost in the competition. Children of families who cannot afford adequate clothing or school supplies can also fall into the same trap. Researchers believe these youth may abandon schoolmates in favor of criminal gangs, since membership in a gang earns respect and status in a different manner. In gangs, antisocial behavior and criminal activity earns respect and street credibility.

Like society in general, criminal gangs are usually focused on material gain. Gangs, however, resort to extortion, fraud, and theft as a means of achieving it. The fear of young people, mostly boys, joining gangs influenced many government projects in the last half of the twentieth century including President Lyndon Johnson's (1908–1973; served 1963–69) "War on Crime" programs.

Drugs and alcohol

Some social factors pose an especially strong influence over a person's ability to make choices. Drug and alcohol abuse is one such factor. The urge to commit crime to support a drug habit definitely influences the decision process. Both drugs and alcohol impair judgment and reduce inhibitions (socially defined rules of behavior), giving a person greater courage to commit a crime. Deterrents such as long prison sentences have little meaning when a person is high or drunk.

Substance abuse, commonly involving alcohol, triggers "stranger violence," a crime in which the victim has no relationship whatsoever with his or her attacker. Such an occurrence could involve a confrontation in a bar or some other public place where the attacker and victim happen to be at the same time. Criminologists estimate that alcohol or drug use by the attacker is behind 30 to 50 percent of violent crime, such as murder, sexual assault, and robbery. In addition drugs or alcohol may make the victim a more vulnerable target for a criminal by being less attentive to activities around and perhaps visiting a poorly lighted or secluded area not normally frequented perhaps to purchase drugs.

The idea that drug and alcohol abuse can be a major factor in a person's life is why there are numerous treatment programs for young people addicted to these substances. Treatment focuses on positive support to influence a person's future decision making and to reduce the tendency for antisocial and criminal behavior.

Easy access

Another factor many criminologists consider key to making a life of crime easier is the availability of handguns in U.S. society. Many firearms used in crimes are stolen or purchased illegally (bought on what is called the "black market"). Firearms provide a simple means of committing a crime while allowing offenders some distance or detachment from their victims. Of the 400,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 1998, over 330,000 involved handguns. By the beginning of the twenty-first century firearm use was the eighth leading cause of death in the United States.

Similarly, the increased availability of free information on the Internet also makes it easy to commit certain kinds of crime. Web sites provide instructions on how to make bombs and buy poisons; all this information is easily available from the comfort of a person's home. Easy access, however, will not be the primary factor in a person's decision to commit a crime. Other factors—biological, psychological, or social—will also come into play.

The complexities of crime

Explaining the cause of crime is difficult; two people living in the same circumstances—such as poverty, family problems, or unemployment—may take entirely different paths in life. A related question to what leads people to commit crimes, is what causes some criminals to quit? Some juvenile delinquents stop committing crimes when they become adults; others stop later in adulthood. Leading factors may include changing body chemistry such as lowering of testosterone, improved employment, or growing family responsibilities like becoming a parent.

Aging is definitely a factor in crime trends. Some attribute the crime drop in the 1990s not just to more prisons or lower unemployment rates, but to the aging of the population. Statistics show most criminals are males between seventeen and thirty-four years of age. In the 1970s, this segment of society was quite large; by the 1990s it had substantially declined.

Despite aging some people commit criminal acts throughout their lives, sometimes becoming even more violent. Others do not turn to crime until their later years. Both of these patterns argue against internal causes of crime. Some criminologists insist the tendency to commit a crime remains constant in a person throughout his or her life, that only the opportunities change with time.

By the early twenty-first century the prevailing thought among criminologists was that criminal behavior comes from a combination of factors. People are complex and influenced by social, biological, psychological, and economic conditions in different ways. The links between crime and employment, education, and family life remain extremely hard to predict and difficult to define.

For More Information


Arrigo, Bruce A., ed. Social Justice, Criminal Justice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999.

Bowlby, John. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy HumanDevelopment. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Cleckely, Hervey. The Mask of Sanity. New York: New American Library, 1982.

Cohen, Albert K. Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. New York: Free Press, 1955.

Curran, Daniel J., and Claire M. Renzetti. Theories of Crime. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.

Fleisher, Mark S. Beggars and Thieves: Lives of Urban Street Criminals. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

Karr-Morse, Robin, and Meredith S. Wiley. Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.

Lombroso, Cesare. Crime: Its Causes and Remedies. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1968.

Renzetti, Claire M., and Lynne Goodstein, eds. Women, Crime, and Criminal Justice. Los Angeles: Roxbury, 2001.

Web Site

Criminal Justice. (accessed on August 19, 2004).