Why one person becomes a criminal can probably be answered anecdotally. The criminal may have been abused as a child, grown up in economically depressed circumstances, or fell into bad company. He may suffer from sociopathic tendencies, or maybe the criminal is just plain evil. But anecdotes are only useful to the extent that they begin merge into some sort of pattern that therapists, criminologists, social workers and law enforcement officials can apply usefully in trying to figure out why our prisons are so crowded.
Social scientists have tried to figure out why people become criminals, and they have, over the years, developed so-called "theories of deviance." These theories range from one that explains gang behavior (differential association), why minorities or disadvantaged groups tend to commit crimes (anomie), and how people labeled as criminals go on to create more crimes (labeling theory). Finally there is the theory that says that people who commit crimes simply lack the normal restraints that the rest of us operate under (control theory).
Let's discuss the aforementioned theories is a little more detail:
This theory is used to explain how people learn to be criminals. It says that our environment has a lot to do with what "norms" (attitudes, laws, etc.) people are prone to violate. Think of Dickens's "Oliver Twist" and Fagin's band of thieves. The boys learned their criminal behavior from close association within their group and came to consider their activity as truly normal and social.
Differential association can be applied in a modern context of juvenile gangs, who regard committing crimes as the way to social status. The theory relies on the notion that criminal behavior is learned through "association" with their friends. Although the theory does not lend itself to rigorous research, it does explain somewhat the intense neighborhood loyalty of Mexican gang members or why gang members appear to lack remorse when someone outside of his group is victimized by gang activity.
In the 1960's sociologist Robert Merton came up with the term "anomie" to describe how a society can value certain goals (wealth, for example), but deny or place obstacles to achieving those goals. Since many people in our society will never become rich (minorities, the poor, etc.), they take up criminal behavior to become wealthy, or simply as an act of rebellion.
Anomie seems to explain lots of criminal behavior, but it tends to blame society more than the criminal. It brings to mind criminals like Willy Sutton, who, when asked why he robbed so many banks, said words to the effect, "That's where the money is!"
This theory purports that some is a criminal only when society labels that person as such. It also relies on the view that powerful people in our society (judges, police, doctors, etc.) tend to be at the vanguard of labeling: the judge who hates alcoholics, the policeman on patrol who stops only African Americans, or the doctor who despises drug addicts. Victims of labeling likewise tend to have low self-image and may even commit crimes based on their being "labeled."
Labeling theory is similar to anomie to the extent that it attributes criminal behavior to the reactions and attitudes of society and somewhat deemphasizes the role of the criminal. Those who disagree with this theory say that being labeled as a criminal might be an acceptable outcome of committing and being convicted of a crime.
This theory simply says that people who commit crimes simply lack the normal self-control (conscience, morality, etc.) that restrains the rest of us from committing crimes. Society and its restraints (values, laws, enforcement) plays its part in keeping most of us on the straight and narrow, but people, for whatever reason, who are not properly "socialized" and grow up to be criminals.
Control theory does a good job in relating criminal behavior to failures in socializing an individual. It also explains why most of us do not become criminals. Critics argue that control theory does not do a good job in looking at the real causes of a criminal's misbehavior. Proponents, on the other hand, say that by bypassing the irrelevant psychological gobbledygook, we can get make a better connection between societal controls and criminal behavior.
So explaining why people become criminals depends on the point of view of the observer. There is no universal agreement on the causes or crime, or whether we should blame the criminal or society more. One thing that everyone agrees on is that prison tends to cramp the style of career criminals, whose activities are stunted while within the walls of our prisons.
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