Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Crime: Biological or Environmental?

When it comes to theories in a given discipline—in this case criminal justice—it is always best to use an interdisciplinary approach; that is, to take a piece of each theory to help solve the questions of causation. Both biological and societal traits are causes of crime. Perhaps the most misunderstood and misinterpreted of the two is biological. The problem with many biological theories of crime is that the results are bias and discriminatory, primarily against minorities. The problem with much of the results of these biological theories as they have some strengths, but more weaknesses—and prove to be very rigid in their approach. In protest of simply using one theoretical approach to crime—biological in particular—Nicole Hahn Rafter, criminologist at North Western University, stated, “…an issue as complex as criminality should not be oversimplified.” Moreover, many of the studies done that helped shape the core of these biological theories have come under much scrutiny as to their validity.

For instance, trying to prove such theories, many researchers have focused their attention on studying twins to see if there is any genetic basis for criminal behavior. Most of these studies consist of separating the twins, putting each in a different environment and studying their similarities when it comes to criminal behavior. Most of the results of these studies showed that there is a high degree of heritability involved in criminality. In his book, Gene Illusion, Clinical Psychiatrist, Dr. Jay Joseph, challenges these findings. Dr. Joseph argued that the separation of these twins was “questionable,” and that most of the twins studied did in fact grow up together in early childhood. He also stated that the researchers failed to share the raw data and the overall information of the twins studied. Additionally, Dr. Joseph concluded that researcher bias had influenced results, which included bias sampling of twins that were more similar.

Other biological factors of crime are much harder to argue against, and most surely contribute to criminal behavior. After all, there are many biological traits shared by those who are more violent. Most of these shared traits are in the brain, and many scientists and scholars are focusing more on neurological studies to help answer these questions. Frontal lobe damage has been correlated with inappropriate behavior and disinhibition, while temporal lobe damage is linked to irritability and aggression. Even the courts have accepted such results. In order for an insanity defense to be accepted, the defendant must have a mental disease or defect that causes him not to know the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his act.

The labeling theory is a very legitimate criminal justice theory because environmental causes of crime are the most accurate indicators. It is through interaction with others that individuals learn values and behaviors that lead to or thwart crime; hence the differential association theory. Social and political unrest is also a big contributor to crime in a region, which is the basis for the neutralization theory. Inadequacies in social structures, such as the unfair redistribution of wealth and the imbalance of opportunity, are drivers of criminal behavior. This is a postulate of the strain theory or the social disorganization theory. Again, one of these theories alone would not give a researcher the complete picture of crime causation. There are also several other environmental crime causation theories; but it is only with a multiple-theory approach that one can gain the understanding and knowledge needed to explain the complexities of crime causation.

The cultural deviance theory is true in one sense, but it stems from a racist and inferiority complex, and it remains poised to demean and hold inferior those who it identifies—i.e. the lower class. When people reference institutionalized racism; it is a theory such as this that they are referring to. This theory suggests that lower class cultures have their own set of goals and values that differ from other groups. This is a given and true only because of environmental circumstances, not biological, as it infers. It is this inference that makes it a discriminatory theory. Certainly those with less—be it money, food, or other resources—will strive for different goals, and thus retain different values. For instance, well-known psychologist, Abraham Maslow, explained human motivations in his hierarchy of needs theory. This five-level theory of needs proposes that people will only focus on the level of needs facing them. If an individual can not obtain food or water—which are the most basic of needs (level 1)—than they will not hold other needs—such as safety—as valuable as they would if they had food or water.

So, of course the cultural deviance theory is correct in its assumptions; but it is correct only because of the environmental constraints placed upon those in the lower classes and their neighborhoods. If we hold Maslow’s theory as a valid one; we must then look at the causes of what the goals of these lower class cultures are, as opposed to the upper classes, and they determine why their goals are different. If we do so, we see that their goals are more basic in nature, as upper class criticizes are closer to self-actualization (Maslow’s 5th level); thus changing the whole perspective on why the goals of both groups are so different.

Let’s look at one of the influences identified in the cultural deviance theory: urban lower-class areas produce subcultures that are responsible for the rise of crime. This is hard to argue, as the statistics speak for themselves, showing that this is true. The question is: why? Is this a biological circumstance or an environmental one?

Urban lower-class areas are very poor areas that do not receive the funding as do other areas. This has a negative effect on schools, hospitals, businesses, and just about everything else in the area. The level of poverty in these areas is worsened by the high number of people living in such a small area. The effect of cramming so many into as small area causes neighbors not to know each other; hence causing a disassociation or dehumanizing characteristic that breads crime—such as what occurred during industrialization period, circa 1790. This is a great example of the social disorganization theory (SDT) in action.

In fact, the SDT was developed in the 1920s and 1930s by the University of Chicago and the Institute for Juvenile Research in Chicago due to their studies of urban crime. Moreover, what they found was that the inner city neighborhoods in which they were researching maintained high rates of delinquency over decades, even though the racial and ethnic makeup of the population in those areas underwent substantial change. These “zones in transition (as described in the early SDT research),” which was changing from residential to commercial, are where the highest rates of delinquency were found. The Chicago sociologists conducting the studies emphasized that residents in this area were not biologically or psychologically abnormal.

Urban street gangs grew (and continue to grow) as a direct result of such conditions. There are three main reasons why kids join gangs: despair, poverty, and peer pressure
In conditions of poverty, where despair is a direct result, people see a gang as a way to band together with those who have a similar interest—making money. Most of these children do not see a way to make money legitimately; they do not feel like they have the opportunity to make enough money to do more than just survive pay-check to pay-check. They see gang life as a way to make more money than they ever could working a legal job. This includes selling drugs, committing thefts, and so on. Many of these children come from broken families, and gangs can fill that void by making members feel like family. It is this type of institutionalized racism that the labeling theory is referring to when proponents of the theory speak of the “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “stereotyping” associated with such labels. This type of labeling aids in the despair of inner-city youths and makes them feel as if they are bad eggs because they are seen as such, even before they commit crimes.

Gang violence is rampant in the United States. A federal report says that gang related violence in the U.S. is responsible for up to 80 percent of all crime in the country. An FBI Agent recently spoke to this increase in gang violence, saying “They evolve and adapt; they know what law enforcement is doing; word of mouth spreads quickly.” In an ever-changing world, this may be, in large part, because of the internet and gang usage and coordination. Another big reason for this is that many of these gangs are getting their drugs directly from foreign sources. This is no doubt a result of the growing drug trade via the Mexican drug cartels. Another big part of the problem is how long it takes for additional gang-prevention-funding to be allocated where necessary. In 2008, Seattle finally approved $500,000 in gang-prevention funding, but it took them a while to allocate the money due to governmental bureaucracy. While money for prevention is slow to be allocated, gangs in the area have surely made five0times that much money in the meantime. This raises another problem; that the money spent to fight these problems is far less than the money made by these gangs.

This problem is clearly one described by both theories. While there is no denying that urban lower-class areas produce subcultures that are responsible for the rise of crime, the reason for such—rise included—has to do, in part, with labeling and the way that these areas are perceived, from the outside as well as from the inside. Of the many theories that can be used to describe rising gang rates in these areas, the social factors, such as the broken window theory, that come to mind.

In 2008, the Human Services Department of Seattle wrote an 87-page report detailing the rise of gang violence in their city. One of the findings of the report was that “Nearly 80 percent of youths surveyed reported having a friend in a gang; while more than 50 percent said they had a relative who was a gang member.” With these kinds of numbers of association; it is clear that these problems are environmental in nature, and it is as they say, “People are a product of their environment.”

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