Question 1

Why do people offend?

by Rob Canton
De Montfort University, Leicester (UK)

Attempted answers to the question why people commit crime could fill a library. Many criminologists now have doubts that it is the right question in the first place. Any of the (contested) definitions of crime includes such a wide diversity of behaviour that no one explanation could be complete. Sometimes scholars have approached the question by asking what is different about offenders and tried to find differences that are biological (often genetic) or psychological (perhaps linked with childhood experiences) or sociological (considering the influences of the wider society, of culture and of the socio-economic order). Many of these inquiries find a place for all these factors. But criminology has been selective here, usually inquiring about certain types of crime while overlooking others. (Who searches for a gene to explain the rapacity of white-collar criminals? Or the violent crimes of heads of state?) There are questionable assumptions in these investigations – that most people do not offend (there is much reason to think that most of us commit one or more crimes in the course of our lives) and that there is a difference to be found between offenders and others. Yet even the most prolific offenders behave, for almost all of the time, much like everybody else.

With regard to probation work, an influential research finding has been that many offenders have impaired thinking skills or cognitive deficits. This is said to include limited capacity to think through the consequences of their actions, but may also be associated with a range of other limitations in thinking and social skills and diminished empathy for victims and others. Since there is a close and mutually influential connection between thoughts, behaviour and feelings, these insights have been used to design offending behaviour programmes informed by cognitive-behavioural psychology (It may be noted in passing that the emphasis on the links between thinking, which the programmes ‘address’, and behaviour has sometimes led to the importance of feelings being at least relatively neglected – and sometimes forgotten about entirely).

Probation staff, however, are aware of the enormous social disadvantages that beset so many of their clients. And while it is not true that cognitive behaviourism denies the significance of social factors, there is a risk that its focus on the thoughts, behaviour and feelings of individuals could marginalise other ways of understanding crime – notably the links between offending and social disadvantage and injustice. This criticism is all the sharper when considering the position of groups, perhaps especially women and offenders from minority ethnic groups, whose offending behaviour and experiences of criminal justice can only be fully understood within that broader socio-political context. Desistance research and the ‘Good Lives Model’ (of offender rehabilitation) have begun to redress this by attending to the importance of social inclusion and insisting that desistance and rehabilitation call not only for change in an individual’s attitude and behaviour, but for fair social opportunities to develop and sustain lives in which offending comes to have no place. Probation then has a responsibility to encourage society to support social inclusion and to enable its clients to access the services and opportunities that they need – not only to address individual influences on offending behaviour.

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