Why do people commit crimes?
Offending behavior is a complex area and one that is influenced by a number of factors. This includes:
In this short article, I will explore these factors as it is my view that developing our understanding in these areas will help us develop effective strategies to create new interventions to tackle offending behaviour, and prevent and reduce crime.
Thankfully, we have come a long way since Lombroso’s study in the 19th Century which suggested that offenders have physical and biological characteristics that resemble those of earlier stages of human evolution and that these traits predispose them to criminal behaviour. More recent studies have shown that biological factors such as genetics, brain chemistry, and hormonal imbalances can contribute to offending.
For example, a study commonly known as the “Twin Study” was conducted by Jari Tiihonen and colleagues in 2015. The study examined the role of genetic and environmental factors in violent behaviour by analysing the behaviour of 400 male twins who were separated at birth and raised in different environments. The study found that genetic factors accounted for over 50% of the variance in violent behaviour among the twins, highlighting the significant role of genetics in aggressive and antisocial behaviour.
It may seem obvious to some, but psychological factors such as mental health issues can also contribute to offending behaviour.
For example, someone who is suffering from psychosis may act in an impulsive and aggressive way. Or someone who is severely depressed may use negative coping mechanisms (e.g. drugs and alcohol) which could exacerbate emotional management and result in risky decisions and behaviour. The Centre of Mental Health highlights that over 90% of people in prison suffered from some form of mental health issue, this compares to around 1 in 4 (25%) of the general population who experience a mental health problem each year (Mind 2017). There are also variations in the levels of support offered by mental health services in prisons and the physical and psychological challenges that come with incarceration can also lead to deterioration of well-being.
Social factors such as low income/poverty, lack of education, and social isolation can also be a contributory factor to offending. For example, people may resort to acquisitive crime as they are not able to afford basic goods, sometimes they may face difficult choices between heating their homes or buying food, particularly at present in the cost of living crisis. The latest ONS figures for England and Wales show that Shoplifting rose by 22% in the year to September which suggests the economic climate is a driving factor for such offences. In my own experience as a former Probation Officer, I would regularly work with prolific offenders who simply needed to steal food to survive as they could not afford to eat.
Environmental factors such as family, peer relationships, and exposure to violence can also contribute.
For example, a parent who is one of the main influences in a child’s life may hold attitudes and beliefs that are supportive of offending and may offend themselves. The child then imitates those offending behaviours, believing that it is a normal way to behave. Over time those behaviours (and the same supportive attitudes and beliefs to offending) become ingrained, particularly if those around that individual positively reinforce it. Additionally, some people may be more susceptible to peer pressure by negative influences and resort to crime, e.g. those that are more vulnerable, lack confidence or crave acceptance from negative role models. This is the basic premise of Social Learning Theory (Bandura 1977)
Conclusively, we need to continue to develop our understanding of what causes offending behaviour. This is because by developing our understanding we will be able to understand its complexities. This helps us to develop interventions that target causation and helps us develop appropriate policies and processes to address offending and reduce crime.
If you would like to find out more about how RSMS uses its interventions to address offending, please contact Jonathan.firstname.lastname@example.org
Blog post was written by Jonathan Hussey.