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Causes of Crime: The Integrated Approach for the 21st Century

By Jason K Jensen, Private Investigator

Jason Jensen and Jensen Investigations private investigators are experienced criminal defense investigators. Contact Jensen Investigations if you or someone you love has been accused of a crime.


This article discusses the different theories for the causes of criminal behavior. It focuses on six specific theories: biological, psychoanalytical, and four social theories (strain, labeling, social disorganization, and rational choice). Following the discussion on theories, the author makes recommendations to policy makers for the use of evidence-based intervention techniques including cognitive behavioral therapy and restorative justice programs.


Today’s criminal justice system is complex. There are many theories addressing causes of criminal behavior, with many overlapping concepts and no single theory seeming standing alone as providing an explanation for crime in every instance. With run-a-way numbers of inmates already in correctional facilities, criminologists and other criminal justice professionals are desperate to find preventative solutions for the additional adolescents being introduced to the system, as well as identifying effective approaches to reducing adult offender recidivism. In this article, six of the modern theories are discussed and some suggestions to the courts and corrections officials are provided.

Causes of Crime


Modern criminologists accept that all of the theories for crime can be placed into three categories: biological, psychological, and sociological theories (Roberson, 2011, p. 49). Biological theories revolve around the idea that individuals are predisposed to commit crime because the juvenile has inherited certain biochemical and genetic factors and is predisposed to commit crime (Roberson, 2011, p. 49). Although biological theories are more popular in Europe (Roberson, 2010, p. 63), its momentum is picking up in the United States. It is argued that the biological causes for crime may be the result contaminants introduced into the body through ingestion or otherwise, or is the fault of flawed genetics (Roberson, 2010, p. 63). Biological theorists believe one day they will provide concrete, simple, and cause-and-effect answers to the complicated crime problem (Roberson, 2010, p. 63). It would be amazing if one day crime could be eliminated by a pill. If that future is possible, the biological explanation is likely to play an increased role in the understanding of criminal behavior (Rafter, 2008, p. 240). It was predicted nearly a century ago that this century would become the "century of biology" (Rafter, 2008, p. 240). It can now be described as the century of biocriminology (Rafter, 2008, p. 240). Since the advent of DNA exploration the realization of identifying and curing possible biological causes for crime is more possible than ever previously conceived.


Psychological theories address the conditioning processes of individuals (Roberson, 2011, p. 49). There are two major types of psychological theories: psychoanalytic theory and the social learning theory (Roberson, 2011, p. 49). The psychoanalytic theory is based on Freud’s components: id, ego, and superego (Roberson, 2011, p. 49). The drive or impulse to fill immediate gratification comes from the id. Some cases of delinquency acts such as retail shoplifting or burglary can be blamed on the id (Roberson, 2011, p. 49). The psychoanalytical approach identifies traumatic experiences during the early stages of child development which prevents the ego and superego from developing properly (Roberson, 2011, p. 49). Left uncheck, the id commits crime that would otherwise be restrained.

Meanwhile, the social learning theory attempts to explain why some individuals cannot conform to the rules, laws, and mores imposed by society (Roberson, 2011, p. 49). Conceptually, juveniles learn positive ways to accomplish their goals through positive role models within their home and community (Roberson, 2011, p. 49). However, if the juvenile lacks positive role models, the juvenile may learn from his or her victimization that violence is the only effective method of coping with frustrations or dealing with people (Roberson, 2011, p. 49). Early intervention is the best approach to correcting the errors bad habits learned by these juvenile and violent offenders.


Sociological theories are the same for both juvenile delinquency and adult violent offenders. They include: strain theory, labeling theory, and many social control theories (Roberson, 2011, p. 55).

Strain Theory

The Strain theory developed from observations about offenders who indulged in excessive pleasures or was subjected to additional strain often times resulted in criminal conduct (Roberson, 2011, p. 55). An example of that might be one with a gambling addiction, who resorts to theft to obtain funds needed for additional gambling. According to strain theorists, most people are good (Roberson, 2011, p. 55). However, excessive pressures placed on them by society causes some of them to commit criminal acts (Roberson, 2011, p. 55).

Labeling Theory

Considerable evidence suggests that social sanctions can lead to self-labeling causing amplified deviance (Siegel, 2012, p. 254). Some children negatively labeled by their parents can grow up suffering from a variety of antisocial problems, including school failure and criminal behavior (Siegel, 2012, p. 254). Empirical evidence further supports the belief that "labeling" can play a significant role in persistent offending later in life (Siegel, 2012, p. 254). Although labels may not cause adolescents to initiate criminal behaviors, experienced criminals are significantly more likely to continue offending if they believe they are viewed in negative light: they now identity themselves as damaged needing to live-out a damaged existence (Siegel, 2012, p. 254). Maintaining a damaged identity after official labeling may, along with other negative social reactions from society, produce a "cumulative disadvantage," provoking some repeating their negative behaviors on and on (Siegel, 2012, p. 254). Some people accept the label and then become deviant matching the behavior of their given label (Roberson, 2010, p. 63). For example, if we consider a child a bad influence he may subconsciously accept the label, and thereafter act as a bad influence on others. The labeling theory deals not with crime causation, but with the effects of labels, or stigmas, on offender behavior (Roberson, 2010, p. 63). The theorists contend that society, when it places a label on its members the members become stigmatized leading to negative self-image (Roberson, 2010, p. 63). The most common source of these stigmas comes from actions taken by the courts of law, some agencies, family and supervisors, and/or the youth’s peers (Roberson, 2010, p. 63). For instance, once an offender is sent to prison for a felony, he receives a label of being a felon, a con (short for convict), or an ex-con after released. It is common for released offenders to feel stigmatized by their records, which may prevent good employment or housing opportunities.

Social Disorganization Theory

The social disorganization theory was first popularized by the work of two sociologists in the 1920s, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay (Siegel, 2012, p. 196). They are credited with linking life in disorganized, transitional urban areas to neighborhood crime rates (Siegel, 2012, p. 196). They believed foreign-born immigrants and relocated Southern families who moved to Chicago occupying older sections of the city were to blame for Chicago’s crime problem (Siegel, 2012, p. 196). As the older sections of the city started deteriorating physically the conditions and the crime problems worsened (Siegel, 2012, p. 196). The belief intensified as the city’s wealthy and affluent also perceived (whether correct or not) that people from Europe and the rural South were morally dissolute and prone to crime (Siegel, 2012, p. 196). At that time, crime and delinquency were effectively tied to changing urban environment and ecological development of the city (Siegel, 2012, p. 196). They saw that Chicago had divided into distinct neighborhoods of the classes, some affluent, and others suffered with extreme poverty (Siegel, 2012, p. 196). These poverty-ridden, transitional neighborhoods suffered high rates of population turnover, and therefore lacked long-term residents willing to remain and fend off crime groups from their neighborhoods (Siegel, 2012, p. 196). These urban areas were believed to be the spawning ground of young criminals (Siegel, 2012, p. 196). Because the continuity of conventional neighborhood traditions and institutions became broken, it was argued that the children would feel displaced, without a strong set of values (Siegel, 2012, p. 196). Much of Shaw and McKay’s findings still hold up today.

Modern theorists believe:

(Siegel, 2012, p. 196)

Effective tools used to reverse the crime rates associated with eroding neighborhoods in the past involved informal surveillance and direct intervention (Warner, Beck & Ohmer, 2010, pp. 356-357). Today, Warner, Beck and Ohmer (2010) recommend restorative justice among the traditional approaches. They believe restorative justice, peacemaking criminology are better because they build communities through fostering cooperative solutions to crime and justice problems when both parties are willing to participate (Warner, Beck & Ohmer, 2010, pp. 357).

Rational Choice Theory

In another social theory, the rational choice theory was identified by Cornish and Clarke (1986) proposing that offenders weigh the opportunities, costs and benefits of particular crimes (Hagan, 2011, p. 101). They argued individuals operating under the rational choice theory are not purely rational in their decision making, but rather that they do consider the costs and benefits (Hagan, 2011, p. 101). The rationale was predicated upon the same concepts taught by Cesare Beccaria that man sought pleasure and avoided pain (Hayward, 2007, p. 234).

To prevent crimes from occurring in these situations, policy makers and the criminal justice system must make the commission of crime rationalized by offenders less rewarding by increasing the certainty and severity of punishment (Hagan, 2011, p. 101). In the past, decreasing the opportunity to commit crime has been viewed an important means to deterring crime and increasing prevention (Hagan, 2011, p. 101). During the 1990s, themes such as "just deserts", "three strikes and you’re out", and mandatory sentencing policies reflected the deterrent principles former policy makers acclaimed – that tougher laws were needed to deter criminal activity (Hagan, 2011, p. 101). However, due to increasing crime rates and growing recidivism many criminologists are returning to many of classical schools of criminology (Hayward, 2007, p. 235). Examples of a crime where rational choice may have been applied can be DVD piracy and illegal trade of counterfeit auto components (Hayward, 2007, p. 238).

Evidence-based intervention for offenders

Juvenile status offenses

Juvenile status offenses are those which made illegal to the offender simply because of the offender’s age (Elrod & Ryder, 2011). For instance, both the purchase and consumption of alcohol and cigarettes are prohibited by juveniles and young adults. In many states the legal drinking age for alcohol is 21. For cigarettes, that can vary from state to state but in most instances one must to 18 or older to purchase them. There is argument for and empirical evidence has shown a connection exists between status offenses more serious offenses (Elrod & Ryder, 2011, p. 370).

Juvenile delinquency and criminal acts

It has been shown that chronic juvenile offenders become chronic adult offenders (Siegel & Welsh, 2012, p. 66). This concept is known among criminologists as the continuity of crime (Siegel & Welsh, 2012, p. 66). For instance, the Pennsylvania cohort study followed a ten percentage sample to the age of 30. Seventy percent of those sampled who had chronic problems in their adulthood also had experienced chronic problems during their adolescence (Siegel & Welsh, 2012, p. 66). As the adult offender’s life deteriorates, the theory is that the behavior grows more severe leading to violent crimes. It is better to deal with offenders while their activities are as minor as status offenses than it is to deal with the offender who has become labeled a career criminal. Intervention by the courts, juvenile probation officers and adult probation and parole officials at the earliest stages possible is the best prevention strategy against the commission of future crimes.


Whether a youth status offender or an adult violent offender, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective at reducing recidivism among both categories (Clark, 2011, p. 62). The engineers of the CBT approach believe that most people can learn about their own erred thoughts and behaviors, and can change their lives for the better (Clark, 2011, p. 62). Every person’s thoughts are said to be the product of their own experiences (Clark, 2011, p. 62). These experiences often influence and trigger a person’s behavior, both positive and negative (Clark, 2011, p. 62).

Where research has shown laws enacted to levy severe punishment or to serve as a deterrent has had little positive impact at lowering recidivism, therapeutic approaches using skill building, counseling, and other services are more effective – as high as 13% (Clark, 2011, 62). In order to do such it is important that respectful interactions are modeled during training sessions, and participants learn skills such as reflective listening, re-framing, nonviolent communication and balancing negative statements with positive statements to promote such interaction (Warner et al, 2010, p. 362).

Another approach to reducing recidivism is the restorative justice model instead of punishment. Restorative justice can include the payment of restitution, community service and the like. Offenders should take responsibility for their behavior by making restitution, and by being reintegrated into the community to serve (Warner et al, 2010, p. 362). This approach in lieu of punishment teaches respect. "Respect for all," as Howard Zehr states, "even those who are different from us, even those who seem to be our enemies. Respect reassures us of our interconnectedness but also our differences. Respect insists that we balance concern for all parties" (Warner et al, 2010, p. 362). If victims and offenders feel good about the restoration process, the sense of justice for both is appreciated. Moreover, the offender can learn from the experience and avoid the behavior in the future.


  1. Clark, P M. (2011). "An Evidenced-Based Intervention for Offenders" Corrections Today Feb 2011 73(1): 62-63.
  2. Elrod, P., & Ryder, R. S. (2011). Juvenile justice: a social, historical and legal perspective (3rd ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Barletts Publishers, LLC.
  3. Hagan, F. E. (2011). Introduction to criminology: theories, methods and criminal behavior. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  4. Hayward, K. (2007). "Situational Crime Prevention and its Discontents: Rational Choice Theory Versus the ‘Culture of Now’" Social policy & administration June 2007 41(3): 232-250.
  5. Rafter, N. H. (2008). The criminal brain: understanding biological theories of crime. New York: New York University Press.
  6. Roberson, C. (2011). Juvenile justice: theory & practice. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
  7. Siegel, L. J. (2012). Criminology (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth – Cengage Learning.
  8. Warner, B. D., Beck, E., & Ohmer, M. L. (2010). "Linking Informal Social Control and Restorative Justice: Moving Social Disorganization Theory Beyond Community Policing" Contemporary justice review Dec 2010 13(4): 355-369.
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