Psychology & Crime: Breaking the Law

In every society, there are norms, rules and regulations to govern individuals. If there are norms, those who refuse to follow them also exist. When any person does something offensive that injures not only an individual but affects society as a whole is known as a crime.

There are several definitions of crime propounded by many jurists. According to Salmond, the distinction between crime and civil wrong is that crime is a public wrong, whereas civil wrongs are private wrongs. Salmond maintains that a crime is an act deemed by law to be harmful to society in general, even though its immediate victim is an individual.

People commit many crimes. Sometimes, the crimes committed by people are not even covered by the statute. They have to be explained in light of previous crimes, or sometimes an amendment has to be made to add new interpretations to the statute.

Now the question arises what instigates people to commit crimes? The contributing factor to the increase of crimes in society is psychology.

One can avoid a crime if they are mentally stable and commit a crime due to mental instability. Today everyone is in a hurry, busy earning. Hence, one has to work 24×7, which leads to numerous problems like work-life imbalance, health issues, et cetera. Moreover, it makes a person irritated and leads to anger in human behaviour.

Psychologists view crime as a behaviour learnt by an individual during contact with other persons. They try to elucidate and study crime in terms of environmental settings. Criminal psychology has often held that some individuals are more prone to committing crimes. They believe that psychologically disturbed criminals commit more crimes because of their mental depravity or emotional instability. Further, they also believe that apart from psychological factors, sociological factors such as less education, unskilled labour, or poor sanitation facilities can create inferiority complexes resulting in unrealistic self-assertion and a life of crime.

Caseros Lombroso attributed criminality to atavism, which meant that criminals have savage ancestral history and their criminality is hereditary. Atavism implies that some individuals have innate tendencies which may lead them to commit a crime. Similar assertions were made by Goring, who pointed out that criminalistic traits in criminals are imbibed by heredity and through instinctive patterns and, therefore, environmental conditions are of little to no importance in determining criminal traits in an individual. The innate compulsion derived from heredity would force him to commit the crime. It is often termed the classical school of thought due to the primitive way crime is perceived. However, subsequent research by psychologists and sociologists has demonstrated that it is not the genes but the psychological influences operating in delinquent families that make one criminal.

Psychologists have now started to move on to the psychological influences that drive individuals to commit crimes. For example, a child who has only seen crime as a way of living will turn to crime for survival. He will unconsciously imbibe criminal traits from the environment. Further, a child who has been taken away from their parents by the state at a very tender age often follows criminality to seek appropriate parental care or an escape from the lack of love and affection. It results in emotional scarring, inferiority complex, frustration, and embarrassment.

Recidivism and Psychology

Recidivism is undoubtedly a crucial problem for penologists in controlling crime and rehabilitating offenders. The term recidivism connotes persistent indulgence in crime. According to John W. Mannering, recidivists or crime-repeaters are anti-social and egocentric. They are offenders with a lengthy criminal record, frequent penal or correctional institutions inmates, and show scant regard for institutional adjustment. The term recidivism may be defined as the habit of relapsing, and a recidivist is a person who relapses into crime repeatedly.

Many psychologists believe that recidivism depends on society's response to convicts and the environment around the offender. In particular, it depends on whether the offender is caught and how their actions are punished. The chance of them leaving their criminal tendencies behind or becoming a recidivist will primarily be dependent on administrative and communal responses. These will positively influence and motivate them to change their defiance. According to Sir Robert Mark, permanent and determined criminals do not regard the present criminal justice system as a sufficient deterrent. They are well aware of the restrictions and limitations of the police and the criminal justice system and find crime as an easy avenue that is highly lucrative and rewarding. In India, professional criminals often get the protection of resourceful patrons and take advantage of the slow-moving criminal justice system. Therefore, the need of the hour is to realise that the malady of crime lies not only in speedy and fair justice but also in the certainty of punishment.

Psychologists have expressed different views about the co-relationship between intellect and recidivism. Goring concluded that with an increasing degree of recidivism, there is a small but regular regression in the mean intelligence of convicts. Sutherland has attributed two significant causes for recidivism, one, the social psychology of the offender and second, the inadequacy of reformative techniques. Social psychology acts as a cause of recidivism in urbanised regions. The congested dwellings, slums, high cost of living, and highly mechanised life in cities and urban places offer sufficient opportunities for offenders to carry on their criminal activities undetected and unnoticed for years. Therefore, criminal behaviour becomes a practice and a habit for them, resulting in them becoming recidivists. The cost of living in rural areas, on the other hand, is relatively cheaper and simple and offers lesser chances for criminality. Further, there are almost no chances of escape from detection in rural places due to their geographical limitations.

Some psychologists suggest that the continuous isolation from normal society due to the extended stay and punishment in prison renders them unfit for a regular life post-release. The stigma of prison makes them shun and avoid normal society. They find no appeal in freedom and favour a prisoner's life to which they are well accustomed. Another psychological reason for the non-adjustability of released inmates to everyday life is that they begin to feel that the law-abiding members of society look at them with suspicion, distrust, and doubt. Thus, they suffer from inferiority complexes and in the anxiety to overcome this weakness, they repeat crimes they consider adventurous.

Another potential cause of recidivism is organised crimes. Criminals often organise themselves into groups and associations due to criminal tendencies and have a strict code of devotion, loyalty, and attitudes to help out one another and continue to exist in the criminal world. Others ridicule the offender who thinks or even talks about changing, and at times even aggressive means are used to prevent him from splitting with the criminal group. All efforts are made to convince him that he can make riches only by continuing his criminal activities. A continuous association with a particular criminal group inculcates a sense of faithfulness, devotion, and loyalty towards their fellow criminals. He, thus, feels obligated to help out those who had helped him earlier in his criminal pursuits.

Persons who commence these activities espouse many criminal traits as a part of their business routine. For example, hoarding, smuggling, black-marketing, racketeering, tax evasion, bribery, fraud, infringement of trademarks, copyrights or patents, hacking the computer systems, et cetera, are followed by the members of business enterprises as a part of their day-to-day transactions. In India, political grafts, corruption, and pressure tactics are so widespread that offenders do not lose social standing even if apprehended and punished.

Compulsive personality traits such as emotional instability, egocentrism, mental depravity, and societal conflicts also increase and are persistent in recidivists. In such cases, treatment through disciplinary processes does not serve any purpose because the personality traits of these criminals remain unchanged, and they continue their criminal behaviour undeterred by the consequences.

Another cause of recidivism is the inadequacy of punitive measures and institutes for the treatment of offenders. Parole failures also contribute to recidivism among the parolees. The offenders discharged from penitentiaries on parole, if they fail to re-socialise and rehabilitate themselves, repeat crime out of desperation and become recidivists. Violation or non-violation of parole largely depends on the behaviour of the people with whom the parolee interacts, and if the social interaction is not favourable, they are bound to resort to recidivism.

Many failures in probation and reformatories certainly reflect upon the ineffectiveness of correctional services in cases of hardened and habitual offenders. These rehabilitative procedures are effective only in some cases wherein the offender is recommended for treatment after careful analysis, which experts conduct. In the present context, when unemployment, poverty, and economic depression are rampant, many people take these correctional institutions as convenient places of shelter where they can be sure of at least two square meals a day. Therefore, they purposely indulge in criminal behaviour to find an honest admission to jail where they feel at home and more secure than in the free life in everyday society.


Criminal psychology has often attributed that some individuals are more prone to crime than others. Psychologists have categorised them into three. The first category of individuals is psychologically disturbed criminals who commit more crimes because of their mental depravity or emotional instability. Second, some individuals harm their mental conditions due to their sociological conditions, which causes them to enter the criminal world. Lastly, some hardened criminals have embraced criminality as a traditional way of life. However, most psychologists believe that certain criminals are far more prone to committing a crime, as seen above.

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