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Crime and Individual Choice Essay

Crime is a common phenomenon. Huge investments of any government go towards the containment and apprehension of crime offenders. The more crime acquires various forms and becomes prevalent, the more studies and theories are brought out to analyze the causes and motivations. A look at Australia in the recent past indicates public outcry over increased incidences of crime, although incidences of organized crime are becoming rare, the same cannot be said of petty thefts. Criminologists have over the years stepped up their efforts in examining the motivations of crime.

This is an issue that sparks controversy as some sociologists blame it on the society, pointing out that it is the prevalent circumstances in the society that are behind crime. In the light of this row, this paper maintains that crime is as a result of individual choices rather that the prevalent social circumstances. A study of the possible causes of crime is core to understanding crime, the information generated is crucial as afar as government’s response and approaches to fighting crime is concerned.

A dearth of information on such a common problem means that law enforcement agencies spend valuable resources and time on addressing the symptoms rather than the causes. It is this fact that motivates criminologists to dig out the real causes of crime. Economists traditionally have not been involved in the analysis of crime, the issue of causes and prevention was seen as being outside the realm of economics. It was seen as a preserve of sociologists and criminologists.

This however changed in the late 1960s when economists brought in an argument that represented a radical paradigm shift from afore recognized sociological and criminological theories. They deviated from the societal foundations of the motivation of crime to a more individualized approach. A good theory of crime according to Becker (1968) has to “dispense with special theories of anomie, psychological inadequacies or inheritance of special traits and simply extend the economist’s usual analysis of choice. ” The economic theory of crime focuses on the aspect of an individual’s rational choice as the key motivation behind crime.

This is a theory that is based on the assumption that each and every individual engages in crime in their bid to increase their utility. Crime should be regarded as a venture; it is an enterprise which an individual engages in with an intention of gaining something just like in business. This hence means that any one can become a criminal, there is no particular group that is inherently criminal, it is just that people tend to move in and out of crime when there is an opportunity and there are ample conditions for a crime.

Just like in business ventures, a potential criminal takes time to plan his activities and also makes decision in regard to the amount of time to be appropriated in each activity so as to maximize the gains. In making a decision of whether or not to engage in crime, an individual takes into account all the possible benefits and also the likely costs. People engage in criminal activities not because they have some natural or psychological motivations but because they have amply taken into consideration the perceived benefits and costs.

This means that a certain crime will not be committed if the costs exceed the benefits. In such a case hence it is possible to see a particular crime being the most preferred in comparison to another due to the net benefits associated with that crime. Indeed crime is driven by the resultant benefits and decreased if the punishment meted out is harsh in comparison to the crime. According to the economic theory, “an increase in the probability and/or severity of punishment (representing costs of criminal behavior) will reduce the potential criminal’s participation in illegitimate activities.

” (Philip & Cameron) This is what motivates the deterrence theory. It is important to point out that the issue of costs and benefits must be carefully analyzed, the cost does not only revolve around the aspect of incarceration but also encompasses the social cost, this applies even to the perceived benefits. A rational individual wishing to engage in crime hence puts into consideration all these factors and weighs his options, his decision and choice is influenced by the resultant weight, either towards the benefits or towards the costs.

If the costs outweigh the benefits, the individuals is unlikely to engage in the crime; the vice versa is also true (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). The Rational Choice Theory, on which the economics theory is founded, is derived from the utilitarian belief that indeed human beings are rational; their decisions are independently influenced by the factors of costs and benefits. In the propagation of this theory, several assumptions are made. There is the assumption that people are driven by utility; they are motivated by the urge to increase their happiness which mostly is in terms of wealth.

they also are supposed to have goals and they pick the choice that enables them to accomplish such goals. The theory of rational choice can be traced to the early works of Cesare Beccaria who set out to explain crime using the enlightment ideas. According to Cessare, “people want to experience pleasure and avoid pain, and while criminal acts can bring pleasure of various sorts, possible punishment can bring pain. ” (Laura, 2007, 231) This is a theory that has immensely been used in the justice system; it is based on the thinking that for crime to be prevented, punishment must outweigh the benefits of the crime.

This is because if the pain is less than the benefits, then there is no motivation to quit crime. Bentham also was in agreement over the aspect of crime boiling down to individual choice, and influenced by the perceived benefits. He noted that “the profit of the crime is the force which urges a man to delinquency. The pain of the punishment is the force employed to restrain him from it. If the first of these forces is greater, the crime will be committed; if the second, the crime will not be committed. ” (Cited in Maurice, 1993, 311)

An important aspect that has to be looked at is why some people or groups show a higher prevalence to crime. Indeed, people can not have a similar response to crime. This is so as people have individual differences that affect their preferences. There are those that may prefer honesty, have a higher income and hence value their reputation. The perceived gains and costs are also regarded differently. The prospects of experiencing a certain level of pain might be motivating enough to some people to avoid crime. The decision to engage in one sort of crime and avoid others also follows a similar pattern.

It is influenced by opportunity, available information, costs and benefits (Loftin, & McDowell, 1982). The view that crime is influenced by rational individual choices has most often than not been put into disrepute by a flurry of other available studies done on the subject. A majority of the existing studies are influenced by the social conditions and environment rather than the individual choice. One of the existing schools of thought that points at the relationship between social factors and crime is the positivist school of thought.

According to this thinking, crime and criminality is influence by internal and external factors that are beyond the control of an individual. The answer to criminality lies in the biological, psychological and social foundations. Those that propagate the thinking that crime can be explained by physiological factors do it on the basis that those individuals that have a higher affinity towards crime tend to have some specific physiological traits. This thinking influenced the thought that crime is a natural trait and hence cannot be individually controlled. Some individuals are born criminals and they cannot change this.

It is this argument of inherent criminality that was used to fuel the arguments behind the abolishment of capital punishment, on the basis that criminals were being punished for things they had no control on. There is also the thinking that crime can be closely linked to neuroticism and psychotism. In this, crime is seen as a mental disease where the criminal develops a psychotic compulsion to engage in crime. The prevalent theory that challenges the aspect of individual choice in crime is the sociological positivism. This is a theory that traces crime to societal factors such as poverty, subcultures and lack of education.

The social disorganization theory for example has been able to establish a positive link between the collapse of important social institutions and crime. The society is held together by institutions such as religion and also the justice system. The collapse of these core institutions contributes to an increase in crime. Poverty and lack of economic development fuels an increase in crime. As the theory claims, places that are characterized by neighborhoods with high population and failed social structure record high instances of crime compared to others.

Poverty leads to social disorder and is characterized by physical evidences of collapsed buildings and deteriorating neighborhoods. This leads to what has been referred to as the deterioration concentration effects. Such neighborhoods attract crime (Maurice, 1993). It is important to observe that social factors can indeed fuel crime. There exist immense studies that have focused on crime and ethnicity and have come to conclude that there are certain social conditions that influence such communities to commit crime.

Poverty has been pointed out as one of the leading factor, where people resort to crime as a means of acquiring wealth and prosperity. This however does not mean that the role of an individual in making such a choice diminishes. People are influenced by their own rational choice to engage in crime, in consideration of the existing benefits and costs of such a crime, should the cost override the benefits; then crime is reduced. References Maurice P. F. (1993) The psychology of crime: a social science textbook. Cambridge University Press. Laura L. F. (2007) Encyclopedia of juvenile violence. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Brantingham, P. J. & Brantingham, P. L. (1991). Environmental criminology. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. Gottfredson, M. , T. Hirschi (1990). A General Theory of Crime. Stanford University Press. Becker, G. S. (1968) Crime and punishment: an economic approach. Journal of Political Economy, Loftin, C. and McDowell, D. (1982) The police, crime and economic theory. American. Sociological Review Philip M. B & Cameron M. Crime, punishment and deterrence in Australia: A further empirical investigation. International Journal of Social Economics retrieved on April 28, 2009 from http://www. uq. edu. au/~ecpbodma/ijse. pdf.

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