Understanding Why People Commit Crimes

One of the first questions asked by law enforcement officials after a crime is committed is “What was the motive?” Crime scene investigators work with detectives and law enforcement to piece together the many parts of the puzzle but understanding the psychology of crime requires an additional skill set. Below, we examine crime statistics, explore potential factors influencing criminal behavior, and highlight a few careers in forensic psychology.

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Crime Statistics

Although 70 percent of Americans believe the overall U.S. crime rate is greater than the previous year, data paints a slightly different picture.

Crime Rates

There were 7.9 million U.S. property crimes in 2016, totaling $15.6 billion in losses. 71.2% of these crimes were classified as larceny, followed by burglary (19.1%) and vehicular theft (9.7%). These percentages reflected a 1.3% decrease from 2015 and a 48% drop from 1993.

Violent Crime

There were 1.2 violent crimes reported in the U.S. in 2016. 64.3% of these crimes were aggravated assault, followed by robbery (26.6%), rape (7.7%), and murder (1.4%). While these percentages reflected a 4.1% increase from 2015, they also reflected a 48% decrease from 1993.

Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico, and Tennessee reported more than 600 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Conversely, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont reported fewer than 200 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.

Potential Factors Influencing Criminal Behavior

Individuals engaging in criminal behavior are typically influenced by a combination of various biological, psychological, and social factors.

Biological Factors

Individuals exhibiting antisocial behavior may have an underdeveloped or damaged prefrontal cortex, which is the reasoning part of the brain responsible for self-control. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s, which may explain adolescent delinquent behavior. Another part of the brain that factor into criminal behavior is the amygdala, which is involved in fear, aggression, and social interaction. Additionally, imbalanced levels of testosterone, dopamine, and serotonin may contribute to criminal behavior. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is heavily involved in behavior regulation and impulsivity, could also be a contributing factor.

Sociological Theories

Researchers have proposed various theories examining social and environmental factors that influence or drive individuals to commit crime. Some theories point to elements like neighborhood dynamics, pressure caused by cultural goals and social structures, and the development of subcultural systems as the reasons for criminal behavior. Other theories suggest factors like rational choice, feelings of being unfairly disadvantaged compared to peers, and various biological and social elements as criminal influences. There are also theories that examine the reasons why people don’t commit crime, such as relationship strength and belief in abiding by laws.

Psychological Theories

A key psychological theory is behavioral theory, which postulates committing a crime is a learned response to situations. Another prime theory is cognitive theory, which explores how individuals solve problems through moral development and information processing.

Psychological theories scrutinize personality traits like extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness when examining criminal behavior. Additionally, they examine the concept of the psychopathic personality, where an individual may engage in criminal thrill-seeking behavior to compensate for low arousal levels. Studies indicate that personality traits of hostility, narcissism, and impulsivity correlate with criminal and delinquent behavior.

Role of Forensic Psychology in Criminal Justice

As more research is conducted to understand the criminal mind, forensic psychologists will be able to apply these findings to aid the criminal justice system in understanding and prosecuting delinquent behavior. Social and community service managers will work alongside the criminal justice system to identify community needs and implement programs to help prevent and respond to crime.

Social and community service managers identify necessary programs and services for communities, implement and analyze suggested programs, and oversee outreach efforts to raise awareness for a program of service. The median annual pay for the position is $64,680.

Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists provide social services to assist in rehabilitating law offenders. They also assess progress through interviews with offenders, their friends, and their families. Additionally, they complete prehearing investigations and testify in court regarding the offender’s background. The position’s annual median pay is $51,410.

Forensic psychologists consult with individuals working in the criminal justice system, and they apply psychological principles to understand a case’s psychological aspects. They may also testify as expert witnesses in court. The position’s median annual pay is $75,230.

The impact of forensic psychology is substantial. The testimonies of forensic psychologists in court have “the potential to advance the public confidence in the justice system as being safer, fairer, and more humane,” per APA. Forensic practitioners are dedicated to providing accurate, honest professional assessment without giving into partisan pressure. Practitioners also advocate for people suffering from alcohol misuse, drug addiction, and mental illness to obtain proper treatment instead of court-driven punishment.

Experts in the field of forensic psychology will play a key role in helping the criminal justice system, the political system, and the general public understand the factors causing and influencing individuals to commit crime. A bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology from Maryville is a step toward a career in making a sizeable impact on the lives of victims and their families.