Do You Choose Crime, or Does Crime Choose You?

You’re faced with choices every day. The route you take to work, where to eat lunch, or whether you exercise or go to Starbucks. You rationally weigh your options, as well as the benefits and/or costs of your possible decisions, and you have the free will to finalize and act upon your decisions. To that point, there is a traditional theory that explains criminal offending as making a choice just like these scenarios.

Choice theory states that rational individuals exercise their free will to decide to either commit a crime or not. As a result, many of the laws today are based on this theory, and these laws attempt to deter and prevent crime through punishment and increased public safety resources.

Just as you decide to exercise or get a latte, you also do this each time you choose to follow general rules, including the law. But think about this: You can also choose to steal or vandalize if you feel you can get away with it and gain something from it. You might not even fear of the punishment that comes with getting caught. This is the premise of the choice theory of crime.

Choice theory was based on a classical model of crime in that all offenders are viewed as rational-thinking individuals who make a rational choice to commit a crime. In fact, this theory was based on the foundational work of Cesare Beccaria, an 18th century Italian philosopher, who theorized that all offenders are rational beings exercising their free will to commit crimes. The central piece of this classical view of crime relied upon punishment as a deterrent to crime.

Think of yourself as a rational-thinking individual exercising free will to either commit a crime or not. In that decision-making process, you consider the benefits, rewards, risks and costs associated with something like stealing a car versus purchasing one. This includes the potential of an arrest, jail, fines, public humiliation and perhaps the loss of your job. On the other hand, by stealing the car you get an adrenaline rush, a free car, and perhaps a cheap way to take a road trip with little chance of getting a harsh punishment. This is the basis of the choice theory.

On The Other Hand…

Criminal offending has also been linked to biological, psychological and sociological theories of crime. These theories point to influences and factors that lead to crime that is less a choice and more a byproduct or function of certain uncontrollable variables.

For example, you may know an individual that is very impulsive, aggressive, has a low attention span and is very hasty. This person randomly goes into a local store and steals food, drinks and some clothes. Now imagine that this person does not actively rationalize and calculate a choice to steal these things; rather this person has biological, psychological or even sociological factors that cued this crime; which is a type of a reaction or result of these factors. This person may have been born with genes linked to hyperactivity, lower IQ and underdevelopment of the mental capacity to consider consequences of their actions, unlike your or I. This person then does not fully understand or properly judge the implications of this crime. This person may have been born with genetically predisposed personality traits that create the actions of stealing without rational choice based on some type of hormonal imbalance. Even in sociological terms this person could have been conditioned, taught, or even forced into this crime by environmental forces and influences out of their control. Perhaps this person grew up in a poor community with learned behaviors that reinforced the notion if you needed to eat or be clothed properly, you had to steal to satisfy those basic needs.

These are the theories that lean towards crime choosing a person based on their biological, psychological and sociological circumstances.

Specifically, there are risk factors that can directly contribute to criminal offending within these theories.

Individual risk factors are those that are explicitly tied to a person’s biological  and psychological development. More often than not, offenders exhibit aggression, hyperactivity, antisocial behavior, low IQ, low language IQ, attention problems, and impulsiveness in earlier years. These risk factors can be explained by biological correlates such has brain development, hormonal afflictions, or genetically cued personality traits that often lead to aberrant and criminal actions that may continue into teenage and possibly adult years. Hence the term “born criminal.”

Family risk factors are exclusive to parent-child dynamics and interactions within the home. These can include child maltreatment, poor parenting/supervision, home discord, parental conflict, antisocial parents, harsh discipline, aggressive parents, broken homes, and large family sizes. Combine these sociological factors in younger individuals, and they may result in criminal activities in the teen and adult years which were molded, conditioned, learned, and forced upon offenders.

Community-based risk factors are those occurring within the environment of the individual, like gang activity, delinquent peers, severe school punishment, disorganized communities, and high crime areas. Again, these sociological interactions explain how offenders are taught, prompted, or convinced to commit crimes outside a pure, rational, calculated choice.

The point is that the biological, psychological and sociological theories implicate factors outside the direct control of individuals that lead to criminal offending. In other words, these individuals do not choose crime, crime in a sense chooses them.

However, there is some clarity that comes with this question of choosing crime, or crime choosing an individual.

Based on putting these various theories under scrutiny, research indicates that more than likely an individual that engages in crime involves a combination of both uncontrollable factors that lead to criminal offending along with a person making the rational choice to engage in the crime. So, a person may be born with certain genetic biological and psychological traits that provide a set of circumstances that can lead to criminal activity; then the environmental and social factors reinforce and promote the conscious calculation to justify and make the choice to engage in crime. This is coined the “nature versus nurture” argument that has been shown to be interconnected as explanations of crime, without one being the dominant factor over the other in most cases.

Either way, there are certain steps and actions that we in society can take to help those individuals earlier in life that may possess the traits and factors that are combined with the social influences that lead to making the decisions that could contribute to crime. We can put certain measures in place to help prevent, deter and support those that would otherwise engage in crime.

Increasing the benefits of non-offending decisions and actions can include policies and access to additional educational programs for adults and extra-curricular activities for children supported by the community. Policies, donations and volunteers could lower the cost of non-offending individuals such as free job placement services or programs to supply adequate housing and food resources. Supporting the educational and child care environments with resources and staffing that can closely help juveniles and teens with proper counseling, home life support, and educational advancement.

All in all, we can say that a person can both choose crime and be chosen by crime at the same time to some extent.

Your Best Traits Can Serve The Public Well

Trait theory centers on an individual’s personality, psychological and biological traits, and their impact on criminal activity. This lesson will explore how the impact of trait theory on public policy can be seen in preventative, intervention, and rehabilitative programs.

What is Trait Theory?

Do you ever consider the type of person you are? Would you consider yourself outgoing, risk-taking, honest, intelligent, or disciplined? This is the basis of trait theory. ‘Trait theory’, as applied to criminal justice considers an individual’s personality, psychological and biological traits, and how they are associated with deviant, anti-social, or delinquent behavior. Modern trait theory considers how individuals’ traits interact with their environment, meaning how a person’s physical and social environment (family, peers, school, community) may trigger or influence an individual’s traits which lead to deviant or criminal behaviors. Trait theory has influenced the development of preventative, intervention, and rehabilitative policies and programs.

Aspects of Trait Theory

In order to understand trait theory and the implications for public policy, you need a little background on what it means and the individual parts that make up the theory. To do this, you’ll want to look at the three individual parts of trait theory.


This is simply those individual traits or attitudes that influence how a person will act in certain environments or circumstances.

Which of the five personality categories might you fall into?

  1. Extraversion – sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness
  2. Agreeableness– trust, kindness, affection
  3. Conscientiousness – good impulse control, organized, thoughtful
  4. Neuroticism – sadness, anxiety, moodiness
  5. Openness – adventurous, creative, imaginative.


This focuses on factors like intelligence, learned behavior, and mental development or disorders which contribute to criminal or deviant behaviors.

Think about which of the three main categories you can relate to:

  • Psychodynamic – this is when childhood experiences and development leaves individuals frustrated or angry; this outlook limits a person’s ability to follow socially acceptable practices. Lack of affection from your parents leaves you angry and prompts you to break normal rules and vandalize property.
  • Behavioral – consider that an individuals’ learned experiences shape behavioral responses to events or circumstances. You may model your own behaviors after observed behaviors from family, friends, or media in aggressive and deviant ways like reacting violently to events and situations.
  • Cognitive – this focuses on how individuals perceive the world around them and how they process events from moral and informational perspectives. You may process the event of stealing as morally justified based on the information process that it is okay to disregard rules and doing what is ‘right’ to get what you want.


This centers around a person’s biological make-up and how it interacts with their social environment. Try to conceive how major biological traits influences your own behavior:

  • Genetic – inherited traits
  • Hormones – testosterone or progesterone
  • Brain/cognitive development – IQ, reasoning, logic
  • Physiological – functioning of parts of the brain and chemicals in the brain

Realize that you may contain some biological features which interact with your social environment to shape your behaviors, both positive and negative.

Implications of Trait Theory on Public Policy

Trait theory can aid the understanding and prevention of deviant behaviors. This has led to the development of preventative and rehabilitative policies within communities and the criminal justice system. These policies have influenced the development of programs, associations, clinics, and centers devoted to addressing the mental health, behavioral, decision making, and personality issues that lead to or sustain deviant criminal acts. These resources can be grouped into one of the three main areas; ‘primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation’.

  1. ‘Primary preventative measures’ – these are policies that focus on preventing an individual, primarily a child, from ever exhibiting deviant behaviors that may lead to crime or offending.
  2. ‘Secondary preventative/intervention measures’ – these are policies that focus on reducing the risk of an individual entering the criminal offending pattern or who are in situations or circumstances that tend to lead to such offending. These are individuals, mostly children, that are already displaying attitudes and behaviors that are deviant.
  3. ‘Tertiary preventative/rehabilitation measures’ – these are policies that focus on preventing re-offending and rehabilitating those individuals that are already in the criminal justice system.

Programs Developed from Trait Theory

‘Primary Personality Programs’

  • Child services programs to monitor a child’s development
  • Parenting programs to educate and improve child care
  • Parenting skills programs to improve bonds
  • Educational programs to help improve child development and skills.

‘Secondary Personality Programs’

  • Cognitive problem-solving skills training
  • Anger control training
  • Social interaction training to improve relationships and emotional responses
  • Multi-dimensional family-based, school-based, and community-based therapy to improve the dynamics of relationships and reactions.

‘Tertiary Personality Programs’

  • Family therapy
  • Foster care therapy
  • Cognitive based treatment programs designed to reduce recidivism and offending through decision-making and behavior adaptations.

‘Primary Psychological Programs’

  • Life skills training
  • Decision-making skills training
  • Parental skills training
  • Behavior management programs
  • School and community-based education and relationship activities

‘Secondary Psychological Programs’

  • Family and parent training
  • In-home visits
  • Multi-dimensional programs including community, school, government, and family resources.
  • Moral reasoning treatment/therapy
  • Problem-solving treatment/therapy
  • Thinking skills treatment/therapy.

‘Tertiary Psychological Programs’

  • Behavioral skills training and treatment
  • Family therapy
  • Martial therapy
  • Functional family therapy
  • Community and school-based therapy
  • Criminal justice monitoring and supervision in the community like halfway houses
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

‘Primary Biological Programs’

  • Home based health and nutrition programs
  • Environmental enrichment programs focusing on health, activity, and education
  • Family and parenting skills training to promote healthy brain and mental health development.
  • School-based programs to boost intelligence, personality functioning, behavior, and decision-making skills.

‘Secondary Biological Programs’

  • Child-centered programs focusing on health-related factors
  • Parent or teacher related counseling to help improve behaviors.

‘Tertiary Biological Programs’

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Drug treatment programs
  • Physical health and well-being counseling and training programs.

Lesson Summary

Trait theory consists of the psychological, biological, and personality traits that interact with an individual’s social environment which can lead to criminal offending behaviors. Many of the initial preventative measures have influenced policies and programs involving children. Whether focused on skills, education, parental, or school-based programs, the intent is to never see an individual exhibit deviant behaviors. If an individual is at risk then the secondary level of prevention and intervention is in place to reduce the deviant behaviors already seen or improve the situation an individual finds themselves in which can lead to criminal offending.

These policies and programs center more on education, counseling, and treatment with families, school, and communities. Once individuals reach the criminal offending stage whether a juvenile, adolescent, or adult, then the policies shift towards more intervention and rehabilitation to desist the criminal offending. A major aspect of this is cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as the anger management, drug treatment, and skills training which are all currently utilized programs.

Surveys Serve as Crime Stoppers

Victim surveys and self-report surveys can help ascertain levels of crime rates and victimization, assist with identifying target populations, and help in the development of successful crime prevention policies and strategies.

What Are Crime Reports, Victim Surveys, and Self-Report Surveys?

Let your voice be heard. Stand up and be counted. Your vote counts.

These are all calls for civic participation when there are important community issues and where individuals have the right, and sometimes the obligation, to voice their opinions and concerns, and to shape the direction of these issues. But what about crime? What if you are a victim of crime? How are you able to be recognized or heard, beyond a local police department or court? And what can public policymakers do to address your concerns in order to prevent crime and victimization in the future? One way is through victim and self-report surveys.

Within the United States there are three main categories of crime surveys that inform, educate, and direct actions about crime. Here are the most widely used and recognized examples from those categories:

  1. Crime reports represented by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR)
  2. Victim surveys identified with the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)
  3. Self-report surveys (SRS) most associated with the National Youth Survey (NYS)

Crime Reports

The UCR is a long standing mechanism to formally collect information about crime incidents that are recorded and voluntarily provided by local and state law enforcement agencies. The UCR provides general tendencies in crime statistics categorized by the type of crime in localized jurisdictions in order to give overall pictures of crime trends across the United States. Crime reports such as the UCR lack specific information on offenders, methods, circumstances, and victims, as well as unreported or inaccurately described crimes. To combat this, more formalized victim and self-report surveys have been instituted in order to supplement crime reports and provide more detailed information on specific crime trends.

Victim and Self-Report Surveys

The NCVS is a victim survey wherein households across the United States are surveyed regarding crimes of which they’ve been a victim, or simply observed. In contrast to the UCR, the NCVS collects crime information for crimes not reported to police. The survey collects detailed ‘ ‘victim, offender, and situational context of crimes,’ ‘ such as the time, place, weapons used and actions taken during the crimes. This detailed information provides a more clear, realistic, and detailed view of representative crime rates and circumstances.

Self-report surveys (SRS) are unofficial criminological surveys of individuals who may or may not have engaged in crimes. Generally, these surveys are administered to juveniles who can be accessed through schools or correctional institutes. The NYS is the most well-known SRS; it specifically gauges a wide array of criminal acts and intentions, from drug use to assault. This has provided a more realistic understanding of how pervasive criminal activity is within the youth of the United States.

The Use of Victim and Self-Report Surveys

The NCVS and SRS question individuals directly and collect specific details on offenders, as well as victims and non-victims involved in the crimes. This allows for comparison and analysis of the characteristics that link offenders, victims and situational factors of crime and victimization. The most valuable statistics include:


  • Gender
  • Age
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Socioeconomic status/income
  • Marital status
  • Education level
  • Home ownership/residence location


  • Age
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Victim-offender relationship
  • Presence of drugs/alcohol


  • Location
  • Time of day/month of the year
  • Use of weapons
  • Injuries
  • Economic impacts
  • Victim defensive actions utilized and outcomes
  • Property type lost

Similar to victimization surveys, an SRS will also collect detailed information regarding comparable demographics of offenders. Specifically, there is increased focus on youths’ involvement in crime, allowing juvenile delinquency to be tracked and classified in more useful ways.

Implications of Crime Surveys

Having more accurate information about the volume, depth and nature of crime allows us to focus more on the sub-groups involved in crimes. Victim and self-report surveys highlight such sub-groups as:


  • Juvenile delinquents
  • Gang members


  • Elderly
  • Ethnic minorities
  • Females
  • Suburbanites/urbanites

Understanding the specific characteristics of the sub-groups, individuals, and circumstances involved in all types of crimes allows criminologists and public policy makers to construct new ways to explain, understand, and prevent crimes. This knowledge can also help us develop theories to explain how and why crimes occur.

For example, surveys provide data on victim’s routine activities related to location, time and distance from offenders; this information led to the routine activities theory. This theory was tested and supported the premise that, with a lack of proper guardians (such as the police) at a certain time and location, opportunities for crime and victimization increase. Testing this theory also showed that offenders target individuals who are similar to themselves.

Specific factors that correlate to crime and victimization can also be analyzed to map out strategies to reduce crimes. Public policies such as tougher penalties for specific crimes, police focusing on ‘hot spots’ where most of crimes take place in a city, and using foot patrols or creating neighborhood watch programs all emanated from survey information. In addition, survey data has led to the growth of situational crime policies in which cities increase street lighting, patrols, guards, alarms, and CCTVs at locations identified in survey data pinpointing where and when crimes and victimization occur.

Lesson Summary

Crime reports began by categorizing crimes and crime incidents to give police and public policymakers general information on trends and crime to analyze the use of resources and manpower. Because the of lack of specific information about crimes, offenders, and victims in these reports, and the underreported statistics of crimes, surveys of the individuals involved in crimes have come to supplement these reports.

Victims surveys and self-report surveys unveil the true nature of crime by providing understanding of the actual depth of crime and victimization incidence. Specifically, surveys like the NCVS and NYS provide better information and understanding of how much more crime exists and the sub-groups of the population that are the offenders and victims of specific crimes. Furthermore, the specific characteristics of sub-groups and situations of crimes and victimization allow for factors to be identified that can limit and prevent crimes, leading to theories of victimization and situational crime prevention techniques.

How do Juveniles Become Delinquent?

Who are juvenile delinquents? What are their common characteristics or surrounding environments? What are the most common characteristics of juvenile victimization? This post covers the correlating factors and patterns of all these questions.

Origins of Juvenile Delinquency

Ever wonder what factors might lead to a child committing a crime? Would it surprise you that delinquency can begin before children are even born?

There is some evidence indicating that prenatal nutrition, mothers that smoke, or complications at birth are factors contributing to delinquency. Now of course, not all children in these circumstances become juvenile offenders, but it’s important to weigh these factors when they do.

Considering juvenile delinquency can begin early in a child’s life, let’s looks at the characteristics of children engaged in this type of delinquency.

Who Are They?

Picture Tom, a 17 year old, white teen, living in a high crime, poverty-ridden area of town. He’s just been arrested for theft. This is the picture of the most commonly arrested juvenile offender.

Recent arrest statistics for juvenile delinquency indicates offenders are typically between the ages of 13 and 17, with 17 being the most common. Most are males, though the number of female offenders is on the rise.

Most juvenile offenders arrested are white, however, black juveniles are arrested at higher rates than other races for violent crimes.

Now that you know the characteristics of juvenile offenders, you may ask yourself what causes them to offend.

The Correlates of Juvenile Delinquency

There are specific risk factors that correlate to the onset of juvenile delinquency. A consensus of research has consistently pointed towards the following:

Individual risk factors are those that are explicitly tied to an individual’s development and personality. More often than not, juvenile offenders exhibit aggression, hyperactivity, antisocial behavior, low IQ, low language IQ, attention problems, and impulsivity. These risk factors are most likely associated with substance abuse, risk-taking behaviors, and poor school performance.

Family risk factors are exclusive to parent-child dynamics and interactions within the home. These can include child maltreatment, poor parenting/supervision, home discord, parental conflict, antisocial parents, harsh discipline, aggressive parents, broken homes, and large family sizes.

Community-based risk factors are those occurring within the environment of the juvenile, like gangs, delinquent peers, severe school punishment, disorganized communities, and high crime areas.

However, there’s some hope. The majority of juvenile offenders that exhibit these traits or are exposed to many of these risk factors desist in late adolescence and early adulthood.

Chronic Juvenile Offenders

There is a small minority of offenders, however, that are considered chronic offenders. Chronic offendersare those that repeatedly commit serious or violent crimes such as theft, burglary, robbery, drug involvement, assault, rape, and murder.

Happily, as of 2015, juvenile arrests for violent crime are lower than they have been in 30 years. Perhaps it is partly because of our growing knowledge of the factors involved.

Children that display poor temperaments in early years are linked to chronic offending. Chronic juvenile offenders typically display three critical features early and often. In order of significance they are:

  1. Serious conduct disorders – in other words, antisocial behaviors.
  2. Poor personality/behavioral issues – poor learning skills, impulsivity, risk taking, aggression, a lack of empathy, poor attachments.
  3. Antisocial beliefs – negative attitudes towards police, teachers, or other authority figures; negative perceptions and distorted information processing.

There is also an established link between juvenile offending and child victimization. Child maltreatment is the most significant factor in this link.

This can include abuses of physical, sexual, or emotional natures, but also neglect. For example, if Mary allows her 7 year old son Jimmy to cross 5 miles of the city of Chicago by himself to get to school, this is an example of physical neglect. Mary has disregarded the physical safety of her child.

Or, as another example, perhaps Gary doesn’t pay attention to where his daughter Sarah is during the day, and consequently Sarah misses several days of school a week. This is an example of educational neglect.

Lesson Summary

Juvenile delinquency can depend on a number of factors, even those present before birth like in prenatal nutrition or complications. Other risk factors are categorized as

  • Individual risk factors – represented by aggression, impulsivity, and antisocial behaviors and attitudes
  • Family risk factors – takes the forms of maltreatment, poor, harsh, and anti-social parents.
  • Community based risk factors – represented by gang involvement, delinquent peers, and poverty.

Most juvenile delinquents desist upon reaching adulthood, but some become chronic offenders that repeatedly commit serious or violent crimes. These individuals tend to have poor temperaments including antisocial behaviors, behavioral issues, and negative attitudes towards authority figures.

There is also an established link between juvenile offending and child victimization. Child maltreatment is the most significant factor in this link.