Criminological theories link with explanations

Critically Evaluate Which Criminological Theories Link With The Explanations Given By The Author For Their Criminality In The Account You Have Read. Your Answer Must Make Reference To Specific Criminological Theories/Theorists.

Jimmy Boyle's autobiography A Sense of Freedom (1977) gives a very interesting and honest insight into his life of crime and incarceration. The autobiography, written from inside prison, is according to Boyle an attempt to warn young people that there is not anything glamorous about crime and violence. It gives a full narration of his life from a very young age, with a detailed insight into his childhood, experiences of petty crime, approved schools and borstal, right through to his adult experiences of more serious crime, violence and adult prisons, including his interpretation of the Penal System. Reading this autobiography I aimed to remain detached from the author and seek to create an independent analysis of his criminality. The definition of ‘autobiography' according to AskOxford (2010) is ‘an account of a person's life written by that person'; this suggests that in analysing the author's criminality throughout the book one should not forget that it is written from the author's perspective and memory and should not be taken purely on face value. With this in mind I intend to apply criminological theories to Boyle's autobiography with an aim to distinguish which criminological theory most effectively seeks to explain his criminality. Moreover, in doing this I expect to illuminate the criticisms involved within these theories.

Crime can be defined as ‘an act or deed, which is against the law' (Chambers 1998:145). Over the past few centuries there have been numerous theories try to explain why crime is committed and the answers to this question are still quite sceptical. I intend to consider the key principles of Rational Choice Theory and how convincing it is in explaining Boyle's criminality. Rational Choice Theory is part of a contemporary Classical approach in explaining crime. In order to explain this theory it is important firstly to look into the Classical approach.

Classicism is the eldest of these two theories that seeks to explain criminality. It emerged at a time when the naturalistic approach of the social contract theorists was challenging the previously dominant spiritualist approach to explaining crime and criminal behaviour (Burke, 2005:24). It rests on the assumption of free will and suggests that criminal activity is the result of rational choice and of the hedonistic impulses of the individual (Newburn, 2007:114). It was the two key Classical school theorists Baccaria and Bentham who in the late eighteenth century established the essential components of the Rational Actor model. It suggests that crime is the product of evil and people commit crime through choice because they are simply ‘bad' (Newburn, 2007:114).  

A key principle of the classicist approach is to state the law clearly to the public and punishment should be predictable in order to create deterrence against crime. Baccaria considered that criminals owe a debt to society and proposed that punishments should be fixed strictly in proportion to the seriousness of the crime. According to Baccaria human behaviour is essentially based on the pleasure pain principle, therefore punishment should reflect that principle and all that are guilty of a particular offence should suffer the same penalty (Burke, 2005:25).

Rational Choice theory derives from this same school of thought as Classicism. It emerged during the 1980s with the notion that ‘nothing works', influenced by the Bentham and the economic utility model. Likewise to Classicism it bases its structure on simple deterrence and retribution principles and also shares the same assumptions that offenders are essentially rationally calculating actors (Newburn, 2007:280). It suggests that offenders make a cost-benefit-calculation as whether to commit the crime. If the benefit (e.g. money) out weighs the cost (e.g. prosecution if caught) then it is likely that they will take the risk and commit the offence. Becker (1968, cited in Newburn, 2007) argued that individuals will commit offences if the ‘expected utility' of doing so is positive, and will not do so if it is negative. Cornish and Clark (1985, cited in Newburn, 2007) have had a major influence in developing Rational Choice theory. They suggest that rather than a simple choice, a sequence of choices have to be made, and that these choices are influenced by a number of social and psychological factors within the individual. Although this contemporary view still holds some of the main aspects of Classicism regarding rationality, it has moved in a new direction as it now arguably considers the psychological and sociological effects on the offender, an area that Classicism failed to consider. Rather than suggesting offenders are just ‘bad' in its explanation of crime as Classicism does, the Rational Choice theory became the study of why people make particular decisions and behave in particular ways under certain circumstances (Newburn, 2007:281). According to Cornish and Clark (1985, cited in Newburn, 2007) crime is treated as ‘purposive'; it is never senseless. Moreover, Cornish and Clark (1985, cited in Newburn, 2007) suggest that other than material wealth, the benefits of committing such crime may also include excitement, prestige, fun, sexual gratification, defiance or dominance of others.

It is arguable that throughout reading A Sense Of Freedom (1977) Boyle is aware of all the benefits from crime he receives, a lot of which are mentioned above. From a young age Boyle admits to the excitement experience by stealing and fighting. It is this that makes it evident that he has made rational calculations of what the benefits received will be as a result of crime, for instance stealing will gain him material wealth, reputation/status and excitement, much the same as fighting would gain him reputation and excitement. In this sense for Boyle the benefit of committing crime outweighed the cost, which explains his ongoing criminal behaviour. However, these benefits received would be an after effect of committing these crimes. What the Rational Choice theory fails to explain is why the need for committing the crime in the first place. Although Rational Choice theory does mention the psychological and sociological aspects that the offender brings with them into certain situations, it bases these aspects on calculating whether to commit the crime or not, rather than what sociological or psychological effects would contribute towards committing the crime in the first place i.e. strain, inequality, poverty, learned behaviour etc. Therefore it still does not seek to explain the individual's social circumstances. In this sense according to Newburn (2007) it fails to take sufficient account of the structural conditions within which individual decision-making takes place (Newburn, 2007,296) Simply Rational Choice theory does not explain the reasons for committing crime in the first place. It explains the process that takes place when there is an opportunity for crime. According to Newburn (2007) it fails to explain or is unconcerned with the motivation of the offender. What it does seek to explain is the reasons why offenders such as Boyle repeatedly committed crime, such as the benefits i.e. reputation, status and material wealth.

The Rational Choice Theory suggests that we would all commit crime if we thought we could get away with it, the reason we do not is because for most the cost outweighs the benefit (Newburn, 2007:296). This illuminates the question as to why everyone does not commit crime if everyone has the same rationality? According to Jones (2006) ‘the various definitions of ‘rational choice' provided by the theory's proponents seems to be too vague and allow for almost any form of behaviour except the most extreme pathological variety'. According to Jones (2006:417), Gibbs (1989) sums it up when he said ‘if rational behaviour is defined as simply goal-orientated behaviour, then virtually all human behaviour is rational'.

According to Burke, (2005,44) one of the criticisms with Rational Choice theory is that it is accused of implying a too high degree of rationality by comparing criminal choices too closely with market-place decisions. The work of Cornish and Clark suggest ‘offenders invariably act in terms of limited or bounded form of rationality (Burke, 2005:44). In this sense offenders will not be fully aware of all the aspects involved in making the decision to commit crime nor will they have all the facts to make a wise decision. This is still considered to be a rational choice but to a different degree. Therefore, this suggests that offenders can be categorised separately from ‘law-abiding' citizens (Burke, 2005:44).

Although the Rational Choice Theory has played a large part in the Governments aim for situational crime prevention within the past forty years, with the notion that ‘nothing works' and its concentration on removing/reducing the opportunity for crime, it seems it has not played a large part in understanding why crime is committed nor has it contributed towards developing criminological theory. Gibbons (1994, cited in Walklate, 1998:38) argues that ‘the Rational Choice theory neither constitutes a new or nor a general explanation of crime since elements of attributing the ability to make choices and decisions to criminals and criminal behaviour are present in a range of criminological perspectives'. Akers (1994 cited in Jones, 2006:416) suggests Ration Choice theory and deterrence theorists have not acknowledged their debt to Social Learning theory, which he states already allows for the adoption of rational decision-making processes in considering whether to commit crime.

As it is apparent after reading Boyle's autobiography that he has made a lot of choices to commit crime throughout his life, it is difficult to apply the Rational Choice theory to specifics as it seems to be a very vague theory, much the same a Classicism. It seems that all his decisions throughout were of a cost-benefit-calculation, however arguably, this could be said about every decision any offender makes from stealing a pen at work, vandalism to murder and more serious crime. With this in mind I am now going to consider a psychological positivist approach in explaining Boyles criminality. Instead of looking at abnormalities of the brain in an attempt to explain his criminality, although there are a number of questions that could be raised when looking at his actions in prison, which could arguably be linked to psychopathic behaviour, in this case it would be beneficial to look into learning behaviour in trying to explain his criminality, with an emphasis on Social Learning thoery.

From a young age Boyle explains the area he was brought up in as poor and socially deprived (Boyle, 1977:21). He tells of his experiences as a young boy as looking at certain areas as more upper class and the people who live in them are ‘toffs' which he later admits that they were not, however they had nicer clothes or shoes than himself therefore they were classed as ‘toffs' by him and his peers. He states that his and his friend's mother used to call then ‘half boiled toffs' and used to mimic their accents (Boyle, 1977,9). He tells of his time going around from a young age stealing with his friends from other peoples unwanted possessions, something that was seen by Boyle as not criminal activity just the done thing. Watching the older men come out the pubs at night time drunk and engaging in violent behaviour (fighting) was one of the activities Boyle and his peers used to do, preferably on weekends. (Boyle, 1977:15). Although when reading the book Boyle's childish endeavours seems rather inline with the norm that boys will be boys and get up to mischief, it seems that this is where Boyles personality developed. The fact that he was out late watching the fighting outside pubs at the age of 5-6 suggests that his violent behaviour in his adult life could have derived from this. Thus, the significant aspects of this are that Boyle was out at a very late time for a young boy, which suggests that there was a significant lack of supervision by his parents. This is one of the reasons for Social Learning theory's explanations as to why some delinquent behaviour takes place, and is one of lack of supervision or poor child rearing can lead to aggression (something that Boyle implied he was eventually an expert in) (Newburn, 2007:165) Boyle tells us from the start that his Father dies when he is a young boy, this is significant because of the lack of parenting in his family regarding supervision but also because of his Father's reputation of which Boyle states he was aware of, which is of a violent nature. It is evident that these activities from childhood and throughout his adolescence could be key in explaining his criminality.

Behavioural learning theories has its origins in the work of Pavlov and Skinner and their experiments carried out on animals, with their conditioning with stimuli when confronted with different tasks (Burke, 2005:79). This had a profound impact on the perspective developed when considering criminality. Skinner argued from an operant conditioning perspective that a person must actively respond if they are to learn, whereas Cognitivists place the emphasis on mental rather than physical activity (Burke, 2005:85). Social Learning theory like the Rational Choice theory shares the same notion that behaviour can be reinforced by rewards and punishment however it emphasises that behaviour can learned by expectations that are learned by watching what happens to other people, in this sense individuals will make a choice as to what is learned and how (Burke, 2005:85). Tarde (1843-1904, cited in Burke, 2005) suggested that crime was simply a normal learned behaviour. He argued that criminals are primary normal people who by accident of birth are brought up in an atmosphere in which they learn crime as a way of life. This leads to my argument as rather than generalising everyone as just rational actors, Boyle was nurtured into crime from a young age. In this sense this takes into consideration that whilst this theory shares the same values regarding rationality it looks closer into why crime is committed in the first place.

Albert Bandura had a major impact on Social Learning theory, especially with his demonstration of the ‘Bobo doll' experiment. The basis of the theory is that the learned behaviour is a combination of the physical acts and how to perform them (skills) and the attitudes and mental understanding necessary to the behaviour (including social skills, morals and choice) (Williams, 2008:289). In this sense criminal behaviour can be learnt through practice, watching others or engaging in the environment (Williams, 2008:289). According to Williams the level of social skills, which the individuals have learnt, may be connected to the amount of crime they perform.

Bandura (cited in Newburn, 2007:153) points out that Social Learning theory includes a consideration of motivation and the three types involved, these are; external reinforcement-from the environment, vicarious reinforcement-from observing others and self reinforcement-as a result of taking pleasure or pride from one's own actions. According to Bandura (cited in Newburn, 2007:153) in this sense we are likely to be influenced by others especially if they are of a high status, which is referred to as models. It is arguable that Boyle learnt his violent behaviour from hearing stories about his Father to watching fighting outside the pubs, in this sense he idolised this behaviour. It is stated in the book that in the book Boyle's peers stole some money on a particular occasion. Boyle states that he did not want any of the money when his friends were sharing it out. However, he did let them pay for him to get in the cinema. This aloud Boyle to receive the benefits of this criminal act, which arguably conditioned him for the future, as this moral decision did not last and before long Boyle was participating in more theft himself. This is a case of learned behaviour from his peers. This shows that not all models have to be of high status, but behaviour can be learned through delinquent peers and what is accepted within a group (Newburn, 2007:165). The Social Learning theory therefore, can be applied to how Boyle became more involved in criminal activity. According to Newburn (2007) Ron Akers and his study of crime, suggests that crime is a result of operant conditioning or imitation. Not only did Boyle involve himself in theft and violent activity at school, but also carried on through his adolescent life which lead him into Approved schools and Borstal. This is where Boyle states that he made a lot of ‘contacts'. He referred to these institutions as ‘University for crime' (Boyle, 1977:73). This suggest that Boyle believed himself that mixing with people of a more higher criminal status played a significant part in extending his criminality. According to Jones (2006:415) ‘for persistent offenders, the periodic reinforcement of their values by other criminals has been sufficient to outweigh the inhibitory effects of punishment.

It is clear that whilst covering only a small area of Psychological Positivism with an emphasis on Social Learning theory, it seems to be a good explanation to Boyles Criminality. What this theory fails to explain is to some extent the social deprivation that Boyle experienced. It does focus on some areas that the social circumstances had on Boyle's personality, however it emphasises on modelling his personality from influence of his peers and role models. This does seem to be effective in explaining why Boyle became violent and engaged in theft, however it fails to explain why he was influenced in this way in the first place and illuminates the question as to why are people around him acting in this way? According to Howitt (2009) ‘suggesting that people learn their violent and criminal actions from others is a weak argument, unless violence and crime are entirely genetically transmitted then inevitably they must be learnt socially in some way'. In this sense according to Howitt (2009) ‘any explanation of violence and crime in terms of learning is not particularly helpful unless the conditions under which it is learnt can be specified. Violence and crime are not the exclusive means by which goals are achieved. A variety of tactics are involved in achieving goals - working rather than stealing to get a television set being a simple example. As work is a major form of modeled behavior, how can we explain why there is any crime at all if it is simply through social learning'? In this sense the Social Learning theory's weak ability to explain under what circumstances criminal behavior will or will not be learnt means that it has limited explanatory power (Howitt, 2009:78).

Due to official statistics on crime there is a common belief that poverty has a significant role to play in underlying offending (Jones, 2006:151). The work from Durkheim focused on how the organization of society can drive people into breaking its rules (Jones, 2006:157). Durkheim thought that some crime is normal in society and it would be impossible to imagine a society without crime (Jones, 2006:157). Derkheim's concentration on ‘anomie' and the sociological perspective of crime had a profound effect on the development of criminological theory as he realised that crime is a contemporary social construct rather than a set of universal values or the reflection of intrinsic ‘evils' (Jones, 2006:161). This gave rise to Merton's theory on strain. Derkheim saw ‘anomie' as created by sudden changes in society, whereas Merton ‘anomie' applies to disadvantages of the lower classes. This is the area I am going to concentrate on next in explaining Boyle's criminality.