What do criminologists mean when they say the crime is a "social phenomenon"? Why is this significant?

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A starting point for thinking about this is the legal phrase "nullum crimen sine lege" (there is no crime without a law). In legal situations, this means that an act cannot be considered a crime if no law was in existence making it a crime at the time it was...

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A starting point for thinking about this is the legal phrase "nullum crimen sine lege" (there is no crime without a law). In legal situations, this means that an act cannot be considered a crime if no law was in existence making it a crime at the time it was committed. So, for example, someone cannot be prosecuted for taking or selling a designer drug before the drug was criminalized. More profoundly, though, it means that laws define what counts as a crime. There is no absolute a priori measure of criminality, but rather, each society passes laws that make certain acts criminal, and what counts as criminal varies from society to society.

Next, crime does not occur in a vacuum but rather grows out of social circumstances. Income inequality and the lack of a social safety net can lead people to steal. Lack of opportunity to succeed in society and the feeling that there is no legal path to the "American Dream" can cause young people to join gangs.

Neighborhoods saturated with gangs and illegal drugs without strong social cohesion and support for education are breeding grounds for crime. If young children have good schools, a nurturing family environment, and good medical care, they are more likely to thrive and avoid crime than young people who may be food insecure, victims of fetal alcohol syndrome, or surrounded by crime and violence.

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The intent in calling crime a “social phenomenon” is to place the blame for criminal activity where it should be: on the society, environment, and upbringing that encourage the mindset that pursues crime. People are never inherently criminals; they are born as a clean slate with the ability to decide what to pursue, be it a life of crime of a life of upright living. As they age, the environment in which they find themselves drives certain individuals toward criminal activity.

Because of the effect the environment has on behavior, it becomes clear that crime is not an inborn issue. Thus, referring to crime as a social phenomenon reminds us that an individual who commits a crime is necessarily irredeemable or evil; they were influenced by social forces and found themselves following a self-destructive path. The concept of crime being a social phenomenon supports the effort to rehabilitate people convicted of crimes, as opposed to simply imprisoning or punishing them.

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When criminologists say that crime is a social phenomenon, they are stating that environmental factors rather than biological or genetic factors influence behavior. Those who are raised in a stable, loving environment with established values and codes of conduct are less likely to engage in criminal behavior than those regularly exposed to dysfunctional environments in which violence or even nonviolent criminal behavior is routine.

There has been for many years a debate among criminologists, psychologists, sociologists, and others regarding the dominant influences on human behavior, particularly criminal behavior. The so-called “nature versus nurture” debate, which posits that either biological (in effect, whether an individual is predisposed toward criminal activity because of his or her biological construct) or environmental factors are the cause of criminal or antisocial behavior, has been a staple of discussions among criminologists seemingly forever. The prevailing contemporary theory, however, emphasizes the role of environment over genetics or biology, at least in the clear majority of cases. In other words, some individuals are physically incapable due to mental impairment of distinguishing right from wrong and are possessed of no sense of empathy towards the suffering of others. These are the “nature” cases. The “nurture” cases, which far outnumber the “nature” cases, are those individuals who have no discernible physiological predisposition toward criminal or aberrant behavior but are driven to commit criminal or antisocial acts by virtue of having been immersed in an environment in which such acts are normal.

Criminologists conclude that crime is a social phenomenon because decades of study have pointed in the direction of environmental factors as being most important in explaining criminal behavior. More violent criminal acts are conducted at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum because families mired in poverty are immersed in dysfunctional, often violent environments where there is little sense of hope regarding a more prosperous future. To many children, teenagers, and young adults in such areas, there is a sense of little to lose by committing a crime.

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The two major schools of thought about why crime exists, and therefore how to prevent it, are psychological and sociological.  The psychological school believes that a criminal temperament grows out of childhood experiences or chemical imbalances, and therefore crime prevention should concentrate on those individuals with “criminal” tendencies.  A typical connection is that child abuse causes subsequent criminal behavior.  The second school maintains that social conditions -- poverty, racial prejudice, inadequate schools, etc. -- have as their natural consequence criminal behavior as an inevitable response to social injustices -- the social phenomenon.  Their solutions, then, revolve around improving social conditions.

As with all over-simple views, these two views can generate both strong support examples and strong exceptions, and neither takes into account “human nature” (group superiority) or the “seven deadly sins” (greed, anger, etc.) or “anthropologic survival techniques” (dominance of species).  The centuries-old philosophical truth is “People do the same thing for different reasons.”

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