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Causes of Crime

Social And Economic Factors

In addition to studying the biological and psychological causes of criminal behavior, others looked toward society in general for possible causes. In the early 1900s researchers believed social changes occurring in the United States, such as an industrial economy replacing the earlier agricultural economy (industrialization) and the growth of cities (urbanization), as well as the steady flow of immigrants from eastern Europe affected crime levels. A reform movement, known as the Progressive Movement, attempted to solve increasing crime stemming from social causes.

As part of the growing concern, the University of Chicago's Department of Sociology, the first of its kind formed in 1892, focused on how city problems could lead to criminal behavior. By the 1930s and 1940s its pioneering research efforts became known as the "Chicago School" of thought, and influenced research across the nation and abroad. The researchers claimed criminals were ordinary people of all racial backgrounds who were profoundly influenced by the poverty and the social instability of their neighborhoods. They claimed such a poor social and economic environment could produce all types of crime.

Other researchers looked at various ways society can influence crime. Criminologist Edwin Sutherland (1883–1950), influenced by the Chicago School, first published Principles of Criminology in 1939. Sutherland argued that criminal behavior was learned, not an inherited trait. Exposure to crime, either through relatives or peers, gave a youth frustrated with his or her social status a choice to pursue crime. These bad influences could be lessened by good relationships with parents, teachers, an employer, or the community.

Broken Windows

In the 1990s a new idea spread through the criminal justice field concerning the influence of a person's social environment on crime rates. The idea was that general disorder in the neighborhood leads to increased antisocial behavior and eventually to serious crime. For most of the twentieth century, police primarily reacted to serious crimes such as rape, murder, and robbery often with little overall success in curbing crime rates. "Broken Windows," referring to a neighborhood of abandoned vehicles, vacant buildings with actual broken windows, and litter scattered around, is an idea that contends much of serious crime comes from civil disorder. So, the thinking went, if authorities eliminated disorder, then serious crimes would drop.

Disorder creates fear among citizens of unsafe streets; they avoid public areas allowing criminals to gain a foothold. The neighborhood goes into a downward spiral because as crime increases, then disorder increases further. Back and forth the spiralgoes. During the 1990s New York police commissioner William Bratton aggressively applied Broken Windows theory to New York City neighborhoods. His department attacked minor crimes such as public drinking, panhandling (begging for money), prostitution (selling sex for money), and various other kinds of disorderly conduct.

Once minor offenses were significantly reduced in an area, the number of serious crimes decreased as well. Felonies decreased by 27 percent after only two years. One factor they found was that many people committing minor crimes were also the ones committing more serious offenses. For example, by cracking down on people evading subway fares, police found many offenders carried illegal weapons and had outstanding arrest warrants. Subway crimes of all types dropped dramatically after enforcing collection of fares.

Police found Broken Windows a convenient way to control serious crime at less cost. As some critics also pointed out, it was simpler for the city to crack down on minor crimes than address social problems like poverty and limited education opportunities —which probably caused much of the criminal behavior in the Broken Window communities in the first place.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCauses of Crime - Explaining Crime, Physical Abnormalities, Psychological Disorders, Social And Economic Factors, Broken Windows, Income And Education