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Causes of Crime - A Matter Of Choice

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In the 1960s some criminologists decided their studies and the U.S. judicial system were biased against minorities, the poor, and women. As a result they broadened their focus from the poor and working classes to other crime settings, such as white-collar crime in corporations and governments. Street crime, they asserted, cost society $15 billion annually while white-collar crime could reach over $200 billion annually. Researchers believed it was time to look at why someone who already had a good job and comfortable life might choose a life of crime.

Just as Sutherland believed criminal behavior was learned like other social behavior, some researchers believed the process a person went through in deciding to commit a crime was not much different than how someone made other decisions. Like Merton and Sutherland, they claimed it was not personal inborn traits causing crime but social influences affecting the decision to commit a crime. A person weighed the possible penalty against the anticipated benefits or gains of performing a crime. This is particularly true for white-collar crimes where wealth is the basis for the criminal act.

People vary in how much risk they are willing to accept, in general life or in the commission of a crime; so certain biological and psychological personal factors do enter into the decision. One major factor influencing the willingness of a person to accept the risk of committing a crime is the stability of their employment. People who lose their jobs are often faced with desperate financial situations. Historical research clearly shows that as unemployment increases, so does crime.

People who are unemployed or working for minimum wage obviously feel a greater need to take risks to support themselves and their families. Studies have shown, however, that once a person begins criminal activity, they may still continue to commit crimes even after getting a good job. Past criminal behavior, it seems, especially if the person was never caught or punished, also influences whether someone will commit more crimes.

In the late twentieth century criminologists studied various factors that may influence a person's decision to commit a crime. These included the risk of arrest and punishment (deterrence), parental relations, peer pressure, education, brain function, body chemistry, substance abuse, and the availability of weapons.


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