Understanding a Criminal Essay

Crime is an activity that societies around the globe have had to experience from close to the beginning of manhood. Crime is nothing new to us but the extent of criminal behavior has evolved over the centuries. We will probably never live in a world that is free of crime, but learning more about the criminal aspects in our society may one day make our world a much better place to live. To help resolve criminal behavior becoming more familiar with the biological and psychological explanations of crime, the way criminals learn to commit crimes and the criminal justice system in place to deal with criminals must be understood.

Understanding the explanations of crime is a controversial issue by many researchers. What is understood is that the crime rate over the last century has increased and that this is largely due to the criminals in our society. If the criminal could be understood then perhaps that would be a large step in the combat against crime. Criminologists study factors to explain why and individual would commit crimes. Although one explanation does not supersede the other when considering the causes of crime, research has shown evidence of biological and psychological factors resulting in the criminal characteristics.

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Often people experience both contributing factors that drive them into the world of criminal behavior. Biological causation of crimes used to be an instrumental tool for criminologists interested in the structure of a criminal. Biological theories of crime were a way that physiognomists and phrenologist differentiated criminals and prospective criminals by their physical and inherited traits. Biological theories are not conclusive to the causation of crime and are often discredited because of their lack of scientific evidence.

However, biological theories were examined along with other theories when trying to reason with the existence of explaining why people commit crimes. Biological explanations of crimes were “first studied by Dr. Cesare Lombroso, the first professor of mental disease studies” (Carra & Barale, 2004). Lombroso, also “known as the founder of modern criminology” (Carra & Barale, 2004) believed that his “theories were evidence of the biological predisposed to commit crimes” (Carra & Barale, 2004).

In theory, he believed that criminals were born with certain characteristics that were found to be in all peoples that committed crime and that if born with these certain characteristics they were destined to a life of crime. After studying criminals he proclaimed that the distinct features shared among criminals were that of primitive humans, thus he theorized to be atavisms. The shared features that Lombroso noted were “enormous jaws, high cheek bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, and handled shaped ears” (Conklin, 2010).

After the mark of Lombroso other researchers constructed other theories based on his theories. The most notable biological theorist after the work of Lombroso was “psychologist and physician, William Sheldon. Sheldon’s theory to the biological causation of crime was that a classification of body types determined a person’s temperament” (Carra & Barale, 2004). The body types that Sheldon created were developed to differentiate which body type is more apt to criminal behavior. The three body types devised were the endomorphs described as slow and loving, the least likely to commit crimes.

Next, the ectomorphs, also unlikely to be criminals are lean and delicate individuals. Finally, the mesomorhps are the muscular aggressive individuals that are the most likely to become involved in the criminal world. These biological studies of the past may not be the explanation solving the causation to crime but they have played a major part in the contemporary biological study of crime. Biological theories of crime argue the perception that crimes are a result of a biological factor.

Researchers today have expanded on the notions from past researchers and have enhanced their knowledge to study twins, adoptions, sexual orientation, and neurological defects. The study of twins and adopted children showed some proof that there is a link to our biological make up and crime. Researchers determined that identical twins were more likely to share criminal behavior than fraternal twins were. Their study also showed that adopted children whose biological parents were criminals had a similar criminal history unlike their non-criminal adoptive parents.

It is a biological fact that there are more men criminals in our society than there are women. Studies have shown that “young male children are more aggressive than young female children” (Conklin, 2010). One possible explanation of males being more aggressive than females is the hormone testosterone, which is higher in males that in females. Another hormonal explanation can be that the level of MAOA, which males produce much less than females. The less MAOA one produces the less likely they are to control impulsiveness and other risks that have been associated with criminal behavior.

The hormonal and enzyme imbalances may be the contributing factors that cause certain neurological dysfunctions that seem to be a correlation to many criminals that have been studied. Among some of the defects that criminals share are Attention Deficient Hyperactivity, learning disabilities, and brain disorders. Other explanations of crime may be attributed to psychological abnormalities. Researchers believe that the psychologically normal person can function in our society without committing crimes. Psychological disorders do not mean that a person affected with one will be a criminal or practice in criminal behavior.

However, the “likelihood of committing violence is greater for people with a major mental disorder than those without” (Silver, 2006). The psychological disorders that lead to criminal behavior lead researchers to study the personalities of many criminals finding that “several personality dimensions were moderately associated with anti social behavior” (Conklin, 2010). There are many personality disorders that may be linked to criminal behavior like anti-social disorders, paranoid disorders such as schizophrenia and other mood disorders that alter the perception of one’s thoughts and emotions.

Conklin notes that “one study found that 82 percent of a sample of boys in a correctional school who had engaged in serious violence such as murder or rape exhibited symptoms of paranoia” (2010). While these disorders can be controlled with the proper treatment from a physician and or psychologist they can be become more of a threat to society with the abuse of drugs or alcohol. Whether a criminal has a biological or psychological explanation for committing crimes the behavior had to be learned from a particular source.

Learning to commit crimes comes from many sources in our intimate social groups over the span of our lives. Just as we are taught good behavior we are also taught bad behavior from what we see and hear from our social interactions with others. We learn from our earliest memories of what reinforcements or rewards were received as a result of the deviant behavior noted. The most impactful illustrations in deviant behavior are initiated from our families then on to peers, the media and our exposure to our environment.

Researchers have developed many theories to try to explain ways that people learn to commit crimes the most recognized theories are the differential- association theory, control theory, and the labeling theory. Differential association theory was named by the sociologist Edwin Sutherland in 1939. In this theory he devised nine statements that demonstrate his main point that crime is a behavior that is learned by different techniques by which we associate ourselves with. This theory has been an instrumental tool for researchers and criminologist studying the causation of deviant behavior.

Though it is not specific to scientific studies many argue that “it might explain how some people initially become involved in crime better than it explains why people continue in a criminal career” (Conklin, 2010). This along with other argument is why other researchers have an exact opposite reasoning that people learn criminal behavior in other ways. Sociologist Walter Reckless believed that people always want to act in deviant ways but rather than act so, they control the behavior with their inner controls learned in childhood.

This control to not perform in deviant acts is called the control theory. This theory holds that we are guided by our beliefs and morals of maintaining ourselves to be good people of society, which are considered our inner controls. Our outer controls that help restrain from becoming deviant are our parents, churches, police and others that provide a positive influence. The control theory agrees that those who commit crimes lack self control and that lack of control is because of improper socialization and opportunities especially as a child, becoming deviants of society.

Sociologist Edwin Lemert studied deviants of society. According to Lemert, his theory was that once a person is labeled a deviant member in society, society would always see them as deviant. Upon the person being named a deviant they learn to accept themselves as deviant in turn playing out the role living a life of criminal behavior. However, according to the text, “cohort studies have shown that labeling a person that has done a criminal act a deviant does not necessarily mean that they had a future as a deviant” (Conklin, 2010).

People are more likely to accept themselves as deviant and live the life of a deviant once they are labeled deviant by the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is made of three divisions, the police, courts, and corrections. This system is in place to maintain and enforce societal laws by controlling crime and assuring criminals are reprimanded for their criminal actions. The criminal justice system does not stop crime in societies, but was implemented to deter people from committing crimes with the fear of becoming part of the system.

Its main purpose is to protect people and their communities from those that are not deterred by the system. Each division is independent in their working against crimes but they are not independent of one another. The police arrest criminals, the courts represent, prosecute and sentence them to a term in corrections. The origin of policing in America was derived from the English law enforcement. The first law enforcers were the common people maintaining laws in their neighbor hoods.

Again, following the English, as American cities grew they developed police officers to maintain the laws and apprehending criminals. “By the 1870’s all large cities in America had their own police” (Conklin, 2010). The early history of police is not as favorable as the enforcement is today. Early police were accused of large accounts of racial discrimination and corruption in the departments. Entering the twentieth century the police force was reformed with the enforcement of policemen being professionals.

This reform did not rid the department of its faults but decreased the amount of corruption and enforced the law that behavior would not be tolerated by professional policemen. However, not until the riots in the 1960’s were endured and civil rights laws were passed did the discrimination in the department minimize. Today our police force may have some corrupted officers, but there are few because their main intent is to serve and protect our communities capturing criminals sending them on to the next division of the system, the courts.

Criminal courts were devised as a formal meeting place to dispute and settle a criminal accusation that a defendant is being charged with. In the United States a suspect of a crime is not guilty until they are proven guilty in a court of law. The courts are composed of the suspect’s attorney, called the defense attorney, the prosecutor which represents the state, and the judge that makes the final decision based on facts presented during trial. Most defendants have the right to have a bail set where they can pay the court a certain amount of money, decided by the court, to remain free until their trial starts.

Those who cannot pay or are high risk for fleeing remain in police custody while they await their trial date. Once trial is finished and the defendant is found guilty they may have to pay fines, be put on probation, or be sentenced to serve time at a correctional facility. Correctional facilities or prisons have been around since the 1700’s. Prisons were initially called penitentiaries which the first one was built in Philadelphia used to house people awaiting their reprimand.

The name penitentiary came about because the convicts were sentenced to solitary confinement in hopes that they would reform themselves though penitence. Today our criminals are sentenced to prison based on the severity of their crime and the criminal history. Convicts are sentenced to months, years, and life sentences. The criminals that do greater crimes are often sentenced to death and have to wait years in prison on death row. The United States “to date harbors the highest amount of prisoners per capita of any of the more than 200 nations providing data” (Conklin, 2010).

Our criminal justice system is being pushed to its limits with the actions of deviant behavior. As we will never rid our globe of the criminal, we cannot allow their actions to take over our population. Learning more about deviant behavior and their causes can allow us to teach others the norms of our society with hopes that they can pass on the knowledge as well. Understanding the criminal and teaching good behaviors may just save the life of one that could have been deterred by negative influences and turned into a criminal of our society.


Carra, G., & Barale, F. (2004). Cesare Lombroso, M.D., 1853-1909. The American Journal of psychiatry. Retrieved July 2, 2012, from ProQuest Direct database Conklin, J. E. (2010). Criminology (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall Silver, E. (2006). Understanding the relationship between mental disorder and violence: The Need for a Criminological Perspective. Law and Human Behavior. Retrieved July 1, 2012, from ProQuest Direct database