What Social and Personal Factors Might Predict Whether People Become the Perpetrators of Crime? Essay

The following essay will consider those factors which help predict whether certain individuals will become perpetrators of crime. The essay will consider what these factors are, how they influence an individual’s development, beliefs, attitudes and ultimately their decision making process and whether they can be used to predict whether people will become perpetrators of crime.

When you hear about a crime, be it through word of mouth or via the media, it is normally mentioned or discussed in the context of a range of underlying but supporting reasons which seek to explain the nature of the crime and justify why the ‘criminal’ committed the crime in the first place. The ‘reasons’ or justifications given normally cover a wide range of associated influences such as those which might be related to the individuals financial difficulties, those which are of a cultural or social nature and those which have arisen as a direct reaction to events that may have occurred during the individuals life. Whilst each ‘reason’ or justification will be unique to the individual, when considered on a collective basis they assist Criminologists and Psychologists in determining whether specific sets of social and personal factors can influence an individual’s criminal decision making process.

The study of Criminology helps us to consider and understand why criminals commit these acts in the first place and what it is that drives certain people to become criminals. Criminology helps us understand whether or not people are born criminals, whether they choose to follow this path of their own free will or whether they evolve into criminals as a direct result of those social, cultural and personal factors and circumstances that they are exposed to throughout their personal lives. In 1764 a Norwegian criminologist called Nils Christie put forward several views within his book, “A Suitable Amount of Crime”, which included the view that “crime was an act undertaken by a rational being. Individuals possessed free will and the decision to commit crime was viewed as the consequence of a logical thought process” (taken from Newburn, 2007, p.9).

When you ask someone to think of a criminal, they usually imagine someone rather unpleasant that they would rather not personally encounter. If you asked them to then describe that individual, they would inevitably provide you with a very common, but generalised description of what that person or “criminal” would look like. Most commonly this individual would be male, would be in their teenage years, and would come from a deprived background. In 2006, the Office of National Statistics, (2006) released statistics showing that 1.42 million offenders were sentenced for criminal offences committed in England and Wales. The majority of these offenders, some 80 per cent, were male and of these 7% were under the age of 18. On the face of it, these statistics seem to confirm the perceived image of a “criminal” and that the common view expressed by the general public is generally correct or is, at least, possibly influenced by what is reported in the media, or has been discussed with their friends and peers.

One example of an individual who may have turned to crime as a direct result of their life experiences is the American serial killer, Arthur John Shawcross. Shawcross, who was also known as the Genesee River Killer, was convicted on the back of a wave of slayings which were discovered between 1988 and 1990 in the downtown Rochester (New York) area. Authorities have stated that he preyed primarily on prostitutes, raping and mutilating his victims before dumping their bodies in out-of-the-way locations throughout the city (taken from msnbc.com, 2010).

Christopher, BD (2003), the author of “Talking with Serial Killers”, was given the opportunity to talk to Shawcross in order that they may discuss his life story to the point when he committed his criminal activities. Arthur John Shawcross was a highly troubled youth who was bullied by his peers at school because he was known to have and to engage with imaginary friends. “I had to have these friends” he told the author, “because I wanted someone to play with. No one liked me”. Known as ‘Oddie’ to his classmates, young Arthur became the subject of ridicule and bullying. Christopher, BD (2003) stated that Shawcross ‘retreated into a twilight world of his own, often wandering from class to class in a dream. He was easy meat for stronger children who tormented him at every opportunity, and when they did so he screamed and shook his fists, or went home in a sulk to torment his younger brothers and sisters by way of revenge’. Christopher, BD (2003)’s description of Shawcross’ early years shows that when individuals are perceived to be different from their peers or do not fit the expected norm they are more likely to be the subject of bullying. In Shawcross’ case this will have inevitably influenced his development during his early years and may have been one of the many reasons as to why he ultimately became the criminal he was.

Not only was Shawcross bullied at school, he also had a very strange, but volatile relationship with his mother. She would constantly shower him with mixed messages, often on a daily basis ranging from praise through to criticism. Christopher, BD (2003) stated that Psychologists from Jefferson County Mental Health Clinic felt that Mrs Shawcross gave her ‘attractive’, well-dressed, neat child mixed emotional messages. It seemed that the mother-son relationship was very complex. While she would often treat her son like a little doll, she would also punish him at the drop of a hat for no apparent reason. This inevitably left the young Shawcross feeling very confused indeed. This analysis of Shawcross’ early years shows that throughout his life not only was he subjected to bullying by his school peers but he was also, to some extent, bullied by his mother through the inconsistent treatment she showed to him. This treatment, both at home and when he was at school, would have caused him to find it hard to distinguish between what was right and what was wrong which would have been frustrating, particularly to someone so young. As a result of this he may have found it hard to show his true emotions in fear of repercussions either from his mother, particularly if she was having a bad day or from a fear of ridicule by his school peers.

Arthur John Shawcross went on to kill 11 people. By considering his life experiences, in particular the level of bulling he suffered whilst at school and the emotional torment imposed on him by his Mother, you can see that this was no doubt a contributing factor which helped frame his state of mind and possibly triggered his thirst for vengeance through killing. At the start of his prison sentence Shawcross was subjected to a psychological evaluation. He was assessed as ‘an immature adolescent with a schizoid personality who decompensated in ego functioning under the influence of unemployed stress, employment stress and rejection by his wife’ Christopher, BD (2003). This evaluation shows that he found it hard to deal with stressful situations whether they were work related problems, or personal problems which no doubt began when he was a young child. These problems, and the general levels of stress caused by them, may have influenced his violent acts particularly if he felt that this was the only way for him to release his frustrations.

Whilst it is highly probable that Shawcross became a criminal as a direct result of the personal difficulties he had faced throughout his life, particular during his early informative years, there are other factors and circumstances which arise during an individual’s life which will influence whether an individual might develop into a criminal or not. For example as a result of the type of company that they may keep or those financial pressures placed upon them. In addition, whilst an individual’s personalities and traits will evolve as a direct result of their personal experiences other factors, such as the social and cultural environment within which they reside, will influence their development, beliefs and attitudes such that they may go on to commit criminal acts.

An individual’s development, beliefs and attitudes will be influenced by their surrounding society, particularly the area within which they live and the type of individual or group of individuals that they normally associate with. Social background and class, whilst not the only contributing factors, will often play a key role in whether an individual ultimately turns to crime. When you hear about crime the general view is that those people who live in a low income district are more likely to become a perpetrator of crime as there is a perception that there is more pressure on them to survive from day to day. Pearson (1994, pg. 1171) stated that the incidence of juvenile crime was closely linked to a variety of measures of social deprivation. Another social factor or influence which may cause someone to become a perpetrator of crime is the sphere of influence placed on them by their network of friends and peers and those people with whom they would normally align themselves with. For those individuals who surround themselves with friends and peers who constantly or actively look to break the law, there is a high chance that they will be influenced by their activities and therefore become law breakers themselves.

When considering the types of crime which would normally be associated with or come from those lower income or deprived areas you would normally associate this with gang based crimes. Spergel, A. (1995, p 90) stated that gang culture is an important life experience for a growing number of youths in low income, changing, and unstable minority communities. Spergel’s deliberations show that people living within deprived and low income areas are more likely to become gang members. Spergel, A. (1995, p 90) stated that people join gangs within these types of areas because gangs serve the interests and needs of certain vulnerable youths, particularly during the adolescent and young adult period, when existing social, economic, and even religious institutions do not function properly. Gangs provide a certain degree of physical protection, social support, solidarity, cultural identification, and moral education as well as opportunities for self-esteem, honour, and sometimes economic gain. As you can see from the statement above individuals who join gangs do so in order to experience a feeling of security, and the idea that if they do become a member of a gang that they are more likely to remove themselves from the low income life that they think that they will be stuck with for the rest of their lives. In addition, the sense of belonging which comes from being a gang member may replace something missing in their lives, particularly if they come from an abusive or unstable family or social background.

This aim of this essay was to explain whether social and personal factors might help predict whether people will become perpetrators of crime. Much of the evidence I have examined shows that there are many different factors that might cause someone to become a criminal. Whilst social or personal factors will heavily influence an individual’s development and attitude towards crime, it is not simply a case of using these factors only to predict whether people will become perpetrators of crime. Social and personal factors, together with cultural, financial and environmental to name but a few need to be considered on a collective basis when you are looking to predict whether people will become perpetrators of crime. Whilst not everyone turns to crime, it is inevitable that these factors will influence an individual’s development, particularly from a young age, their beliefs and attitudes. Situations will arise where factors of a personal nature, such as family, financial, health type issues, will be key factors in making such a prediction. There will be other occasions when factors may be of a social nature, such as the environment the individual grows up in or the company they keep. There will be times when social and personal factors may play a minor role, for example financial difficulties may drive an individual to commit a crime. Having considered the evidence above it seems reasonable, therefore, to conclude that different factors, each of which will influence individuals differently, occur throughout people’s lives effecting whether or not they will become criminals.

Reference List

Associated press. (2008). Serial killer Arthur Shawcross dead at 63. Retrieved December 30th 2010. From internet address http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27665929/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/

Bruinsma, G; Elffers, H; Keijser, J. (2004). Punishment, Places and Perpetrators.

Christopher, BD (2003). Talking with Serial Killers (1st edition). London: John Blake Publishing.

Developments in Criminology and Criminal Justice Research, Volume 1(issue 1), Page 260.

Newburn, T (2007). Criminology (1st edition). Devon: William Publishing.

Office of National Statistics. (2006). Majority of offenders, 80 per cent, are male. Retrieved October 25th, from http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1661

Pearson, G. (1994). Youth, Crime, and Society. M. Maguire, R. Morgan, R. Reiner, (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (pp. 1171-1171). United States: Oxford University Press.

Spergel, A. (1995). Youth Gang Problem : A Community Approach[Electronic Version]USA: Oxford University Press

Danielle Weaver – Understanding Criminal Justice