Public Policy and Theories of Criminology


Policy refers to the reflection and provision of future goals and aspirations through clear guidelines for achieving those desires. Public policy is a term that is commonly used and does not have a single definition. It has been defined differently by many scholars and public stakeholders. However, in all the definitions, it is clear that it entails a government action plan in solving the existing problems of concern through implementation and evaluation of the plan. According to Bromley (2007), public policy is defined as the actions and goals of the government on a particular issue affecting the citizens and provides the road map for their implementation. Public policy equally includes government intestinal inaction or the choice not to act on a particular matter of concern. Dye (1992) defined public policy as a collection of how, what, why and where the government chose to implement a specific action plan or inaction. According to Wilson (2012), public policy refers to the decision and choice of action taken by the government so as to overcome social problems through effective implementation of the plan and the final adoption of the plant after evaluation. Through these definitions, public policy is purposely concerned with identifying and resolving an existing conflict based on demand of action plan or scarcity. Through the implementation of public policy, there is behavioral regulation, rights and freedom protection, motivation of group action with the intention of directing benefits towards the public. Public policy is therefore a process that does not only involve single party action plan, but rather all the stakeholders: from household family to minority elite groups, from church clergy to government officials and from the economic action plan to political influence. In relation to criminology, there are many theories or models that can be used to formulate public policy. The theories include: differential association theory, anomie theory, labelling theory, social control theory, social learning theory, lower class cultural theory, social disorganization theory, strain theory and differential opportunity theory (Curran and Renzetti, 2001). When analyzing public policy through policy analysis, each of the theories is subjected to scrutiny to verify their views, parties involved in the decision making process, how the theory plans and implements the chosen action and their implications or assumptions made based on how well it helps in formulating public policy. In this paper, discussion is on the strong and positive impacts of the differential association theory based on how it is being used or could be further used to formulate public policy on combating criminal acts. The paper also considers the strain theory in view of its lack of applicability in public policy formulation in a bid to deal with crimes.

Differential Association Theory of Criminology

According to Sutherland’s theory of criminology, differential association theory, the causes of social behavior that predisposes an individual to criminal acts are related to the process of learning and assimilating social deviance from peers through close or interpersonal relationship (Sutherland, 1949). The process begins with a criminal who is associated with other people either by blood relation or friendship relation. Through the associations of good criminal outcomes in relation to material possession and financial gain, the other people who are in close relation with the criminals become motivated to also engage in criminal acts (Sutherland et al., 1992). The postulates of differential association theory includes: social behavior leading to crime is learned, criminal behavior is learned through both verbal and non verbal communications, juveniles learn criminal behavior in small groups, the process of learning a criminal act involves the criminal techniques as well as development of an attitude about crime target and also to commit a criminal act and when the attitudes that conforms with societal laws and values is outweighed by the attitudes that encourage one for criminal act, an individual becomes a criminal (Fleur and Quinney, 1966). The duration, frequency and magnitude in which these deviance behaviors are exposed to the individuals who are not criminals yet, determine the criminal learning process (Burgess and Akers, 1966). For example, an individual who previously conforms to the society and cultural norms deviates faster to criminal acts when exposed to criminal and deviant behaviors frequently, for a longer duration and equally when the impact of crime is very big. Differential association theory reiterates that criminal behavior is learned the same way as other psychological behaviors and this probably may explain why children exposed to criminal acts are more likely to be criminals that adult counterparts. The former are more open to any form of learning as their minds are not yet full of experience while the latter are more prone to decisive learning. The former learns based on what they want, what they feel is necessary and not really what learning opportunity that presents itself to their surrounding. Similarly, Sutherland also found out that the goals of criminal behavior just like other psychological behaviors are the same and their only difference is the way and means of achieving such goals. This theory as been considered to be the best theory as far as explaining the causes of deviance criminal behaviors is concerned following its positive impacts in developing public policy that counteracts criminal acts.

Two examples of how the differential association theory of criminology can be used to prevent crime

The process of curbing crime following ideas from differential association theory is based on the fact that criminal acts are behaviors that are learned from the criminal stimuli. The criminal skills relating to criminal acts are not acquired genetically through biological inheritance, but rather are acquired through environmental stimuli that motivate one to venture in criminal act (Lilly et al, 2014). These skills are neither innovative nor scientific, but are only acquired through association with criminals in a learning process.

The first way employs the use of tough criminal measures anchored on the state laws to act as a competing learning stimulus.  For example, an individual who associates with fellow peer who seems to be ‘prospering’ as a result of engaging in successful criminal behavior is highly likely to underestimate the chances of  occurrence of the negative effects of crime and instead put a lot of focus in the resulting ‘criminal reward’. In the process, he or she gets extrinsically motivated to venture in criminal acts through learning by association and response to criminal stimuli. However, when a negative competing stimulus is exposed to the non criminals while suppressing the former stimulation, associative learning will be more on the side against crime. The degree in which the two contradicting associative learning occurs depends on the level of suppression. In view of the development of public policy that try to overcome or reduce criminal acts, a negative result of crime should be presented to the general public so that everyone learn by associating crime with the purported negative results. For examples, if criminals – especially majorly known criminals who grab public resources and are influential enough that they get state protection – can be prosecuted publicly, then the majority will end up conforming to the values and norms of the society due to fear of the negative outcomes. The process of learning by association will be more directed from the fear of resulting effects than the associated criminal reward. Tough measures ought to be taken to criminal individuals and these measures are supposed to be made public to facilitate learning by association. In the same way, differential association theory postulated that learning criminal behaviors is made possible through non criminal individuals relating and openly interacting with the criminals. When such tough measures are taken, criminals will be identified, arrested and arraigned in jails, where there is no close relation and association with other non criminals. Through this, learning criminal behavior will be suppressed. In the process, the non criminals will only be subjected to the negative criminal results and consequently associative learning will be inclined on the need to divert one’s attention from criminal acts.

The second way involves using parental guidance to control the interaction between their children and other children with deviant behavior. This is based on another Sutherland’s differential association theory postulate which states the cause of action is linked to the intensity and magnitude of criminal stimuli exposed to the non criminals as well as the ratio of their resulting attitude on criminal activity. According to Matsueda (1988), close relations and association between the criminals and non criminals alone does not make one to develop criminal urges, but also the extent to which such criminal acts are repeated in their watch. Consequently, an individual will learn criminal behavior when the he or she is exposed repeatedly to crime. This implies that there is an initial conflict between the law abiding non criminals and the criminals and thus pro criminal or anti criminal associative learning will be anchored on whether the a individual is repeatedly exposed to criminal and deviant behavior or not (Fleur and Quinney, 1966). Similarly, the ratio of attitude of an individual based on criminal act may render an individual to criminal act. When an individual’s attitude towards crime is stronger than his or her attitude against crime an individual will have a greater desire to embrace the criminal act (Wolfgang et al., 1967).  For example, a child raised by drug addicted parents who is continuously (longer duration) and repeatedly (higher frequency) exposed to the illegal act of drug addiction may never recognize the law counteracting its usage as fair but instead will find delight in going against the law as his or her parents used to do. With regard to public policy on criminal acts, parents ought to train and guide their children in accordance to the society and cultural values and norms. According to Dye (1992), parents have an influential ability on their children’s behavior and in turn determine their choice of peer group they relate to. The best example in this case is peer-based pressure of learning illicit drug use among children. By closely monitoring and determining the group they children associates with, parents can effectively minimize the drug use among children.  Family and community based programs have as well been used to identify and counteracts the factors that lead young ones to criminal and deviant behaviors. Similarly, following the initial cultural conflicts between an individual’s attitude towards crime and that against crime, public policy makers should educate the society through mass media about the value of maintaining attitude against criminal activity. This will consequently result in attitude ratio linking towards society’s accepted values and norms thus reducing the number of criminals in the next generation.

Strain Theory of Criminology

According to strain theory, social strata that exist in society may cause an individual to engage in criminal activity with attempts to bridge the existing gap (Mazerolle et al., 2000). This theory associates crime and diligent behavior as an outcome of anger and frustrations individuals have based on their inability and inadequate capacity to meet their needs as well as to achieve their dreams (Agnew, 2007). Strain theory argues that failure to achieve one’s desires, elimination of positive stimuli and or presentation of negative stimuli within the surroundings may result in the development of the strain. Unlike the differential association theory in which criminal behavioral learning is based on motivation, strain theory of criminology argues that criminal act is based on the pressure to achieve the desired goals. People engage in criminal acts, and other deviant behaviors following their continuous failed attempts to be like others who manage to achieve their goals. In the process, they become pressured to engage in illegitimate actions to facilitate their goal achievement. Like Sutherland’s theory of differential association, strain theory also associate magnitude, duration and frequency of enactment of the desired goals to the level of criminal urge in an individual. The only difference is that the former theory argues towards motivating link to criminal act and other forms of deviant behaviors while the later theory argues based on the pressured link to the criminal act. This theory has been successfully used to explain the cause of crime linked to unachieved goals, especially in lower and middle class individuals. However, the theory of strain is linked to several limitations with regard to its applicability in developing counter criminal public policy. These limitations include: associating criminal activities to lower social class only and could not explain the cause of criminality among the high class rich elites, relying mostly on materialistic items as the source of strain and thus cannot be used to explain other forms of criminal acts like drug addiction, abortion and non integrity issues. Currently, high impact criminals entail a class of rich cartels and elites who are able to use their political powers to influence the policy makers through corruption. With this regard therefore, the strain theory fails to explain the causes of criminal act as these rich cartels do not have the ‘pressured link’ towards the act following the absence of the stain. Based on the underlying limitations of the Agnew’s strain theory, it is difficult to develop a public policy of combating crime and deviant behaviors from the suggested postulates of the theory. This implies that if public policies were to be made in line with this theory, then the implementations of the action plans are equally likely to fail just like the theory itself.

Conclusion and Recommendation

This paper has reviewed only two theories of criminology at the extreme end with regard to high applicability and non applicability in the public policy making process of overcoming or reducing crime rate in future generation. When assessing individual theories of criminology separately, differential association theory is more important in explaining the causes of criminal behaviors. On the other hand, strain theory is less important as far as its applicability in criminal public policy formulation is concerned, however, it can best explain the causes of criminal act among the lower class individuals. It is due to this non totality that this paper recommends that criminal public policy formulation should be based on an integrated theory that covers nearly all major theories of criminology.



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