In a previous article, we looked at positivism as a criminological school of theories. Put briefly, this set of theories sees crime as being determined by outside factors and not as a rational choice of the offender. This school of thought was originally put forward by Lombroso, who suggested that there were physical differences between criminals and non-criminals, and you could therefore tell if someone was a criminal just by looking at them. Though in the modern day, this is clearly an unscientific idea, it provided the basis for other positivist ideas, which are now somewhat accepted in our society and impact on our criminal justice system.
Today, we believe much more in a psychological positivism, whereby those who offend are predisposed to committing criminal behaviour. One example of this would be Freud’s theory of the id, ego and superego, where the id is driven by instinctive, primitive desires, and the superego contains our knowledge of social norms, and acts as our moral compass. In this case, criminality could be explained as an over-active id and an underactive superego within one’s personality.
There may be more scientific explanations from modern science. For example, perhaps those with higher IQs are less likely to commit crime. This factor is largely inherited at birth, so it would suggest that there is very little that criminals can do about their condition. Intelligence is also known to be an important factor in achieving social economic success, so it makes sense that it could have some, however minor, effect on causing criminality.
Perhaps criminality itself also falls within a bell-curve, whereby there are a few extremely immoral people and a few extremely criminal people, but the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle. If this is the case, then there must clearly be some non-inherited, or rational choice factors involved in committing crime as well, since the majority of people still do not commit crime.
Furthermore, in psychological positivism, there are theories based not around inherited characteristics, but on people’s learning from their environment during life. Sutherland suggested that criminal behaviour could be learnt via a process of operant conditioning, whereby if an individual is surrounded by people who agree with criminality, then they are more likely to turn to crime themselves, as these will be the individual’s major source of reinforcement. In this idea, when a person is exposed to more positive feedback about criminality than negative they will become a criminal. Operant conditioning, as suggested by B. F. Skinner, works on a process of behaviours causing future behaviours, such that if an individual commits a crime once and is not properly punished for it, they are more likely to think it is acceptable and therefore to commit crime again. Each time that they commit a crime and it is not punished, they will become more criminal.
The policy implications of this are that we should encourage specific parenting practices which will stop children from becoming criminal. On the other hand, in terms of IQ, there is not much we can do to prevent the problem. The best that we can do is to target these people with criminality prevention schemes to stop them from turning to crime. This may however cause discrimination against these individuals and there are racist overtones to the whole positivist theory.
Some people also argue that this school of theory takesthe blame away from the criminal, but I personally believe that it is not about removal of the blame, it simply offers hope that the criminal can change their ways, and perhaps with time we will be able to teach criminals to act as upstanding members of the community instead of just locking them in prison for life, as some people would like.
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