Understanding the relationships between biology, family, labor markets, economy and community, and how these forces intertwine with criminal conduct, has been perplexing scholars for decades. As a result of rigorous study, we tend to have a much wider base of knowledge regarding the patterns and causes of criminal activity on an individual level, than we know about factors that create criminal environments. In as much, we also possess a great deal more insight regarding the factors that create criminal environments than we know about factors that influence trends in crime longitudinally. Regardless, there appears to be no single theory as to what causes an individual to participate in deviant behavior.
The law and the legal system in general set forth technical standards and expectations that represent an official normative source for defining what is deviant; it is, by definition, legitimate (Mastrofski, Snipes, Parks, & Maxwell, 2000). Throughout one’s lifetime, at some point, most people will commit a crime of some sort. It can be something as serious as a murder, or something as innocuous as violating the speed limit or littering. Additionally, some teenagers in their youthful indiscretion, tend to commit relatively serious crimes but desist in participating in further criminal activity as they transition into adulthood. This leads one to believe that engaging in criminal activity is not merely a biological inadequacy or a genetic flaw, but a temporary manifestation fostered by a wide array of available life choices and environmental influences. The task of criminological study in the future will be to further define those life-course influences that shape our being and influence our behavior to participate in criminal activity. That will be no easy task because all human beings are different, and their life experiences and exposure to criminal deviance will vary greatly.
One thing is certain. The factors that cause one individual to participate in deviant behavior may not necessarily be the same factors that cause another individual to participate in deviant behavior. So, one needs to be careful in how he or she defines deviant behavior and crime because as previously stated, crime encompasses everything from littering to murder. Additionally, one needs to examine the current level of public tolerance towards crime and the age composition of the population. Research has shown that youthful offenders between the ages of 15-24 commit most crime so one would expect an increase in deviant behavior to correlate directly with the age composition of the population at the time.
The underlying cause of criminal activity and deviant behavior are many, to say the least. American policing has entered a time when reformers have shifted the meaning of the term professionalism from being a snappy bureaucrat to being a well-trained decision maker, acting like a clinician serving clients based on their informed judgment of what they need (Mastrofski, Snipes, Parks, & Maxwell, 2000, p. 314; Bittner, 1970)). The challenge for the criminal justice system will be its ability to be flexible, resilient and adept to change in a quickly evolving society. Of all the ideas in policing, one stands out as the most powerful force for change: police practices should be based on scientific evidence about what works best (Sherman, 1998, p. 2). In today’s economically distressed times, police departments are required to do more with fewer resources. So, like it or not, it is a huge advantage to have an entire field of research dedicated to the study of what police do, at no cost to them (Engel & Whalen, 2010). The criminal justice system needs to be able to form partnerships with scholars and utilize the wealth of knowledge obtained through research to guide and define their initiatives. However, researchers need to understand the political environment of police agencies and criminal justice systems, remaining aware that most criminal justice practitioners need quick solutions to their concerns, not something that stems from research conducted that produces a result a decade later.
In any event, inequality, poverty, unemployment, weak social controls, substance abuse, poor parent-child attachment and parental supervision, family factors, influence of peers, increased availability of firearms, public tolerance of crime and inadequate law enforcement will all no doubt have long-term influence over the ability of the criminal justice system to effectively combat criminal activity and deviant behavior. As such, since it is obvious that deviant behavior is not a result of a single influence or a combined set of influences, it makes no sense to try and force one end-all solution. In order to truly understand the far-reaching aspects of deviant behavior, it is necessary to observe criminal activity as it unfolds in a dynamic environment (Maguire & Katz, 2002). Varied strategies, including ethnographic research, should emphasize the particular nature of the crime and focus on the formulating options for the time. Only through the implementation of creative methodologies will the criminal justice system be able to expand their knowledge of the problems they face (Maguire & Katz, 2002).
Bittner, E. (1970). The functions of police in modern society. Bethesda, MD: U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.
Engel, R. S., & Whalen, J. L. (2010, April). Police-academic partnerships: ending the dialogue of the deaf, the Cincinnati experience. Police Practice and Research: An International Journal, 11(2), 105-116.
Maguire, E. R., & Katz, C. M. (2002). Community policing, loose coupling, and sensemaking in American police agencies. Justice Quarterly, 19(3), 503-536.
Mastrofski, S. D., Snipes, J. B., Parks, R. B., & Maxwell, C. D. (2000). The helping hand of the law: Police control of citizens on request. Criminology, 38(2), 307-342.
Sherman, L. W. (1998, July). Evidence-based policing. Ideas in American Policing, 1-15.
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