Causes of Criminal Behavior

As they say in crime dramas, a person is not a good suspect in a criminal case unless he or she had a motive and an opportunity to commit the crime. Opportunities for crime abound in the affluent society, and motives are plentiful among poor, frustrated, immoral, and just plain greedy persons. Motive and opportunity, however, must be accompanied by an ability to commit the crime and avoid detection and apprehension.

Like any other talent, criminal ability is partly learned and partly inborn. According to the principle of differential association, overt criminal behavior has as its necessary and sufficient conditions a set of criminal motivations, attitudes, and techniques, the learning of which takes place when there is exposure to criminal norms in excess of exposure to corresponding anticriminal norms during symbolic interaction in primary groups. (DeFleur & Quinney, 1966, p. 7)

Associating with criminal elements is usually not sufficient in itself to make a person into a career criminal; biological factors, perhaps hereditarily determined, also appear to play a role in shaping criminal behavior (Yochelson & Samenow, 1976).

Criminal behavior is generally more common among teenagers and young adults, who have the strength and speed for crimes such as burglary, larceny, robbery, and, when they are frustrated, aggravated assault and even murder (see Figure 12-2). Older criminals, who are weaker but not necessarily wiser, are more likely to commit "white-collar" crimes such as employee theft, embezzlement, and fraud.

Declines in speed and strength are not the only reasons why the frequency of violent crime decreases with age. Other factors include increased social status, economic self-sufficiency, and the discovery of different ways of prospering. Mast people who have grown up in criminal subcultures find more subtle ways of getting ahead (Gove, 1985; Jolin & Gibbons, 1987).

As people grow older, their investment in the social order expands, and continuing to violate social norms and challenge society's institutions and mores becomes increasingly risky. The penalties for law-breaking become stiffer—at least up until old age—as the person ages into his or her twenties and thirties. For these and perhaps other reasons, to some extent people seem to grow out of crime as the get older. Even sociopaths appear to "burn out" after age 40, and young people who have grown up in a criminal subculture discover more subtle ways of getting ahead. Granted, there are so-called "career criminals," who begin by committing property crimes as teenagers and are somehow able to avoid being arrested when they become adults. They discover that society does not approve of but is less likely to punish "sharp operators" who use their brains rather than their fists and guns to get what they want, even though their activities are illegal.

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