5 Important Criminology Theories and How They Affect Policing

How can crime be prevented? Can rehabilitation be effective? At first glance, these questions may seem straightforward, but coming up with accurate answers is a complicated task.

Law enforcement and policymakers must figure out which theories and methods are best suited to address these inquiries.

Why is Theory Important in Criminology?

Criminology theories drive criminal justice practice. They’re developed to help law enforcement officials navigate crime, sentencing processes and policy making.

The theories try to determine the factors surrounding criminal acts as well as the broader impact crimes have on people and society. Moreover, most criminology theories can try to explain crime at a macro-level for a large social group (state, nation, etc.) or micro-level (individual, neighborhood).

Five Criminology Theories Explained

According to an official U.S. Court report on criminology theories, law and policymakers categorize theories as four types: classical criminology, biologically based criminology, psychological criminology and socially based criminology. Categorizing theories helps people understand the roots of some theories that try to make sense of complex factors about violence and human behavior. These types include some of the following:

  1. Broken Window Policing
  2. This theory assumes people are more likely to vandalize and commit a crime if something looks neglected. According to the researchers who took notice of a smaller version of the theory in 1969, once disorder begins at a neighborhood, things can get out of control, leading to more crime. Broken windows policing assumes that not addressing signs of decay like “broken windows” can cause communities to spiral downward.

    Example in practice: The city of New York implemented the idea in the 1990s and reported a drop in crime, with the police focusing on smaller crimes like smoking marijuana publicly. Many cities use data to drive strategy, like Detroit where the Manhattan Institute is funding a broken windows approach to law enforcement.

  3. Social Learning Theory
  4. The Social Learning Theory proposes that we can engage in violent behavior if we’re exposed to people who are criminally involved, receive more rewards than punishment for the crimes they commit and have reasons to favor crime. Based on this idea, criminal behavior can be unlearned by creating social environments that don’t normalize criminal acts and instead offer rewards for good behavior.

    Examples in practice: Juvenile treatment programs base their model on this theory. They take less punitive measures and offer rewards to juveniles as they learn appropriate behaviors. For example, the San Diego Repeat Offender Program identifies juveniles ages 12 through 17 and offers them support through community activities to keep them away from violent peers.

  5. Biological and Biosocial Theory
  6. Like the name implies, this theory tries to explain the role that biology plays with respect to crime. According to the book The Nurture Versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology, some criminologists think that genetics, hormones and cognitive development influence people to commit crimes. While some biological criminologist suggest that crime is “inherited”, there’s evidence that risks of violent behavior can decrease by early adulthood.

    Examples in practice: Policies based on this theory promote early anti-violent prevention education for children to avoid circumstances that might affect their outcomes in their adult life.

  7. Labeling and Shaming Theory
  8. According to the Labeling theory, applying labels or names to people can have long-term effects on them. Research has shown that someone’s education and employment opportunities can be affected if the person has been labeled or called a “troublemaker” or merely a “bad person.” The repercussions, according to one study, can lead to continued criminal behavior and a likelier chance of falling victim to recidivism, or a relapse into criminal behavior or reincarceration.

    Examples in practice: Current HR policy guidelines don’t encourage employers to ask candidates about their criminal backgrounds. Some state laws even prohibit asking about records on employment applications all together. According to one major study, the policy, coined “Ban-the-box,” can increase the probability of public employment for people with criminal records by 30%.

  9. Social Control Theory

    This theory asserts that ties to family, schools or religious communities can help people deviate from the idea of committing criminal behavior. Researchers that study social control ask why is a personal not a criminal, instead of asking why they break the law. According to this theory, the lack of social bonds makes crime an inevitable outcome in someone’s future. Factors like commitment, attachment and involvement, under this theory, are believed to deter criminal acts.

    Examples in practice: Social control theory is used to explain school cohesion programs, as well as social programs aimed to help young people during early developmental stages.

    Probation officers can also use this theoretical approach to help communities push local, state, or federally funded programs designated to improve family relationships, parenting skills and school performance, according to the U.S. Courts report.

How Are the Theories Applied?

Despite the serious approach to understanding crime, the report outlines that the criminal justice system deals with theories that are different and can contradict each other at times.

For example, legislative policymakers might support criminal justice policies based on specific theories that might not see the likes of opposing political parties or ideologies.

Countries can differ entirely on what it means to reprimand someone for committing a crime. In Norway, a country that reached a low recidivism rate of 20% in 2014, prisoners have the right to a seamless sentence. Under the law, they’re seen as regular citizens.

Incarcerated Norwegians are often designated to a prison close to their community to provide them the same “welfare organizations as other citizens” as well as peacefulness behind bars.

In places like England and Wales, however, violent incidents in jail, and harsher sentences raise public debates about punishment tactics behind bars, according to an article published in the Guardian.

Interested in Criminology?

Criminology theories help professionals in fields like psychology and law enforcement to collaborate in creating a safer society. If you work as a criminal justice professional or are interested in entering the field, learn more about how Florida Tech’s online criminal justice degrees can prepare you to make a difference through policies, research and security.

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