Criminals in Society looking for Solutions

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"Criminals in Society looking for Solutions"
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We have too much crime, a burgeoning prison population and a level of disorder on our streets that is completely unacceptable. Criminality is damaging to society in a material sense, as well as in a social sense. Our property may be stolen or damaged and we can feel vulnerable in our communities and homes. So what solutions have sociologists offered to this seemingly insoluble social problem?


Karl Marx offered both a structural and a moral explanation of crime. For him, the structural causes of crime would be remedied once the proletarian revolution had achieved the destruction of the capitalist system. Capitalism, with all its inequities, alienates man from his work and the productive process. The surplus value (profit) he creates is appropriated by a social class who privately owns the means of production (land, factories and machinery). This system places the subordinate class in a position where they sometimes have no choice but to break the law in order make ends meet. The fact that the law is made by, and for those who own property, is also made even more punitive through the biased administration of class based justice. In a classless society where all share the same relationship to the means of production, human nature would revert back to its altruistic and collectivist form and social control would largely become redundant. So, if we want a solution for crime, we need revolutionary change.

Although capitalism sits comfortably unchallenged radical ideologies like Marxism, Socialism or Anarchism, not all Marx's views sound so redundant. Marx argued that the Lumpenproletariat was responsible for much crime and he had no qualms about pathologising them. In fact, he referred to this group as a "passive, rotting mass, of social scum; a dangerous reactionary class whose highest form of political action was mob violence." Constituents of this group included prostitutes and brothel keepers: beggars, tricksters, rag pickers, bone collectors, discharged sailors, jail-birds and thieves. For Marx, they deserved no sympathy. So for Marx, there were those who had a moral and cultural deficit that were beyond salvation.

It is perhaps ironic that neo-conservatives like Charles Murray, Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher were echoing sentiments shared by Marx as recently as the 1980's. The New Right solution for these types of undeserving poor are forms of social control that seek to deprive them their welfare cheques (or Chip and Pin cards today), their cheap social housing and if necessary, their liberty. If man is programmed to seek pleasure and to avoid pain, the only way some people will change their criminal, or deviant lifestyle, is if society ratchets up the pain. However, that solution can only be part of a broader set of policy prescriptions because the death penalty and the three strikes rule don't seem to have reduced offending behaviour.


Crime, just like the education system, family or religion, will always be with us. Durkheim, in his Rules of Sociological Method (1895) said that crime was simply part of collective life. Durkheim disagreed with Marx by saying that the criminal no longer seems an unsociable being, a sort of parasitic element in our midst." In fact, low levels of crime are actually indicative of an unhealthy society. For example, he says that when the level of assaults falls to a particularly low level, it is usually associated with a time of want. Too much crime is pathological but a modicum of crime is functional because it serves to remind us about the importance of collective values and social boundaries. The guilty need to be identified and should suffer the indignity of a "degradation ceremony" or public trial. Society should only concern itself with deciding what punishment fits what crime and that is as far as any remedy should seek to go. Classical notions of functionalism are not very comforting for those at risk of being victims of crime and it offers few solutions apart from business as usual, identify and punish. So what other strategies have been put forward for those seeking solutions?

Zero Tolerance

James Wilson and George Kelling (1982) developed the idea of zero tolerance in their study Broken Windows, published in the Atlantic Monthly. They said, "If the broken window in a building is not repaired, then people who like breaking windows will assume that no one cares about the building and more windows will be broken." This principle is applied broadly to a range of criminal behaviour and proactive policing sends the message that no asocial behaviour will be tolerated, hence zero tolerance. This was tried in New York in the 1990's and was actually very successful in reducing the levels of petty and serious crime quite dramatically. So for Wilson and Kelling, more police and more vigilant policing is the solution for crime and criminality.

The Correctional Approach

Cullen and Gilbert (1982) argued that labelling individuals and punishing them was not the only duty of the state. Government should provide the opportunity for offenders to reform by offering a range of state funded services. As many offenders commit crime because of an alcohol problem or through the need to fund a drug habit, rehabilitation or dependency clinics must be available. Those who society criminalises can reform if we give then a plurality of choices in life. Prison is not the solution; it is part of the problem. Probation, community service and discussion groups can all have a beneficial impact on changing deeply ingrained behaviour for the better.

Situational Crime Prevention

As retributive and rehabilitative approaches have been less than wholly successful in reducing crime, people like Ronald Clarke (1980) concluded that people are notoriously difficult to change but spaces are much more amenable to it. If you change the physical space through lighting, security shutters or CCTV, you reduce the opportunity to commit crime and you increase the chances of being caught. However, gated communities and other ecological approaches do seem to displace crime rather than cure or control it. The criminal simply looks for more opportune targets elsewhere.


Although unpopular in the United States, some European countries have sought to reduce the criminalising tendency of the justice system that often labels individuals for comparatively minor infractions. By making soft drug possession for personal use an offence that doesn't necessarily justify an arrest, the state is seeking to reappraise the use of its limited resources. Whilst the public would never want to see a whole host of behaviours decriminalised, the strategy does have a place in the states arsenal against crime.

In conclusion, no one approach is that much better than the other, though imprisonment will always be the most appropriate response for those who commit serious crimes. A holistic approach where punishment, rehabilitation, situational crime prevention and even decriminalisation, all have some credence in dealing with particular types of offending behaviour. Finally, one might argue that classical functionalism gives us a valuable lesson in that crime is simply part of collective living. Even in a society of angels, there will always be one or two angels who don't quite pass muster and will invoke the wrath or disapproval of the majority.

More about this author: Julian Salisbury

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