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Crime Theories: “The Background of the Offenders We Supervise”
By Adrian Smith
Published: 09/24/2012

Police ny I’d like to start off by posing a question. Have we as Corrections professionals ever took the time to ponder how the individuals we supervise end up in Jail or Prison? Sure we know they committed a crime and we’re arrested and/or convicted, but we want to dig deeper than that. To take it further, have you ever asked a colleague, Hey? What are some of the theories of crime and they looked at you like you were speaking Spanish. To really understand your profession, it is a strong belief of mine that we should all know theories of crime, so that we can better deal with the offenders we surround or supervise.

To understand criminal justice, it is necessary to understand crime. Most policy-making in criminal justice is based on criminological theory, whether the people making those policies know it or not. In fact, most of the failed policies in criminal justice are due to misinterpretation, partial implementation, or ignorance of criminological theory. Much time and money could be saved if only policymakers had a thorough understanding of criminological theory. At one time, criminological theory was rather pure and abstract, with few practical implications, but that is not the case anymore. For example, almost all criminologists today use a legalistic rather than normative definition of crime. A legalistic definition of crime takes as its starting point the statutory definitions contained in the penal code, legal statutes or ordinances. A crime is a crime because the law says so. Sure, there are concerns about over criminalization (too many laws) and under criminalization (not enough laws), but at least on the surface, a legalistic approach seems practical. It is also advantageous to a normative definition, which sees crime as a violation of norms (social standards of how humans ought to think and behave); although there are times when criminology can shed light on norms and norm violators.

When studying criminal behavior and theories, there are two particular theories that I like to look at. Those theories are the Social Learning Theory and Conflict Theory. The first theory, Social learning, basically states we are a product of our environment and that crime is learned. We all know that this can be particularly true. There’s an old saying that inmates come out with better crime tricks than with what they went in with. Learning theories tend to follow the lead of Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association, developed in 1947, although ideas about imitation or modeling go back to 1890. Often oversimplified as “peer group” theories, learning is much more than that, and involves the analysis of what is positively and negatively rewarding for individuals. If inmate John Doe was raised in a crime stricken neighborhood, and both of his parents were career criminals, the assumption would be that inmate Doe grew up around crime all his life. There would be no surprise that he himself, turned to that lifestyle because that was his surroundings. His parents were criminals and so were all his peers. Doe may find his lifestyle rewarding because that’s all he grew up around and knows no different. He doesn’t necessarily see jail or prison as negative but just a setback. This may be a reason for increase recidivism.

Conflict theory holds that society is based on conflict between competing interest groups; for example rich against poor, management against labor, whites against minorities, men against women, adults against children, etc. These kinds of theories also have their origins in the 1960s and 1970s, and are characterized by the study of power and powerlessness. Without conflict there would be no crime and we would all be without a job. Conflict is what causes altercations which leads to a criminal offense with leads to jail or prison. Inmate Doe grew up selling drugs to make money for a living. His earnings in cut off when a rival drug dealer enters his territory and begins selling which in turns decreases the amount of money Inmate Doe is making. Furious by this, inmate Doe kills his rival and is arrested and convicted to life in prison. Domestic Violence is Conflict, paying for your items v. stealing them is conflict, and stopping at a red light v. running through it is conflict. So as you can see conflict=crime.

There are many more theories to crime out there but these are just a few to look at. Others such as labeling and broken window also illustrate criminal behavior. Knowing these theories may seem useless to some, but to an officer who strives for safety and better understanding of his or her job and the individuals they supervise, these are priceless to them.

Corrections.com author, Adrian Smith, is a Classification Officer for Orange County Corrections in Orlando, Fl. He holds a Bachelors of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Upper Iowa University and a Masters of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Everest University. He is currently obtaining his Doctorial Degree in Public Safety Leadership from Capella University. Adrian has been in Corrections for 6 years working for Florida’s Prison and Jail system. He can be reached at Adrian.Smith@ocfl.net

Other articles by Adrian Smith


  1. hamiltonlindley on 04/10/2020:

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  2. Ismael on 10/03/2012:


  3. Fred Davis on 09/30/2012:

    Culture rises as civilization falls. Without conflict one does not grow. With dependency on others one stays feeble while the parasitical others live their lives through the weak. People who need people are weak and those that look to institutions or others for support sometimes do not develop the skills in order to survive if the political climate changes and Federal Express must take over and do the job of any bankrupt government. Outcome based changes are good for dogs and monkeys. When one robs a person of pain and suffering one is also robbed of grace and self-sufficiency. People actually lived and survived before the universities of Chicago and their ideologies as to how the criminal element is created or can be reformed. Pavlov understood this concept also. Inner strength enables one not to respond to those that coerce the masses by gifts and “helps” like a dog responds to his master to get his next meal. Cognitive skills should be at the very peak by twelve to fourteen years of age and not at twenty six years of age still sitting at home with momma on food stamps or healthcare. The more one looks to outcome based stimuli one is weakened to that same degree and self motivated skills are withered. There is no new thought under the sun. What has been tried will be tried again and it will “seem” new. Democracy lasts until the public becomes so selfish that they believe they can vote their “wants” into existence at the ballet box. Actually most of the white collar crime is still coming out of Chicago. It is just inverted and has relocated. Most democracies last between two to three hundred years at the most. Another downgrade is on the way. Progressivism is an invention of the Universities and these individuals believe those before 1920 were feeble or old fashioned. Other cultures have been around much longer and they have been multiplying at a rapid pace. Two ideologies are now opposing each other and we will soon see a regeneration of this nation or an economic disaster. Returning to our Constitutional ancient landmarks will require economic sacrifice but sometimes iron sharpens iron.

  4. Fred Davis on 09/24/2012:

    In a "normal cannibalistic culture" eating people would be politically correct in a democracy with no Constitutional restraint. In a lying culture electing a lying leader is also politically correct. These legalists today are in theory what is called the United States of AmeriKa in comparison to these united States of our founders. Property must have landmarks and so must a civilized government. This is something to think about also. There are normal cultural “seemingly good” laws that can be quite oppressive and/or un-natural indeed. Depriving a neighbor of water rights to save a rare rat is an un-natural act even if it makes sense to the animal rights activist.

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