Why People Commit Crimes

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Crime and punishment in today’s society is highly centralized on the competing ideas of punishment versus rehabilitation for those who violate the law. However, understanding why people commit crimes requires a deeper understanding of the particular ways in which the modern correctional system helps to instigate instances of criminal behavior. Specifically, a modern trend towards humiliation over actual rehabilitation is responsible for the social alienation that drives individuals to commit a crime. 

The increase of state and federal prison populations can be tracked to the reliance of judges and the criminal system to use prison sentences as the default punishment for criminal behavior. Netter (2005) states that by relying on “jail time to punish serious offenses and fines to penalize fewer substantial misdeeds […] middle ground was hard to come by” (p. 187). The growth of prison populations for increasingly minor offenses, in particular the use of recreational amounts of marijuana, has caused the justice system to reevaluate the ways in which it approaches the matter of rehabilitation and punishment for criminals in modern society. The use of shaming penalties, in particular, are a method that both alleviates massive prison populations, but also contributes to the social alienation theory of criminal behavior, which stresses the importance of the “outcast” theme of criminal activity that defines much of criminal psychology. 

Public shaming, or “shaming penalties”, are sanctions against individuals that allow other members of society to become aware of the crimes they have committed (even white-collar crimes) while avoiding costly and taxing jail sentences and other forms of punishment. Netter (2005) argues that “shaming penalties go a step beyond the relative anonymity of isolated imprisonment or passive fine-paying by broadcasting to all who listen and seeking to provoke communal outrage” (p. 188). This method, however, while effective in its cost-efficient nature, is a major contributor to the reasons of why individuals commit crime in modern society. Praeger et. al. (1977) argue that, while public shaming can be effective as a replacement for costly prison sentences, it only contributes to the ways in which society rejects its criminal elements and pushes them away from mainstream culture as a whole. 

The modern correctional system, then, tends to focus on punishment and labeling over actual rehabilitation such as providing college education.  Praeger et. al. state that prison itself generates a “profound sense of alienation from mainstream society and to its institutions”, which is a causal factor with regards to why people commit crimes (p. 6). This sense of alienation creates a disconnect between society as a whole and the self-contained world that is prison. Indeed, compliance with laws decreases as elements of society feel less and less obligated to follow the rules of the mainstream. Instead of prison teaching the importance of social integration, the modern correctional system victimizes and punishes criminals for their actions and does not take into account the self-justification used by criminals to promote their own views. While the “voluntary acceptance of laws is an essential element in maintaining social order”, the modern form of prison contributes to increases in crime in that it only orients itself on creating a distance between criminals and law-abiding citizens (p. 8). While prison is inherently a system of division, designed to separate the criminal from the non-criminal, it unfortunately lacks the characteristics and resources needed to transform criminals into obedient members of society who feel they have a vested interest in maintaining the social order. 

The modern correctional system causes crime through the mechanism of social alienation. As punishments for crimes begin to fall away from traditional prison sentences and towards public shaming, prisons themselves create a disconnect between mainstream society and that of the criminal world. Instead of integrating criminals into the free world, modern correctional practices create a sense of alienation from their brothers and sisters outside the prison walls, thereby creating a causal factor that explains why individuals continue to commit crime. 

References

Netter, B. (2005). Avoiding the Shameful Backlash: Social Repercussions for The Increased Use of Alternative Sanctions. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 96(1), 187.

Praeger, P., Inciardi, J. A., & Siegal, H. A. (1977). Crime - Emerging Issues. Crime - Emerging Issues.