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Crime and Criminal Behavior

Abstract and Keywords

This entry includes contemporary definitions of crime, theoretical ideas about the etiology of criminal behavior, and information about the methods used to estimate crime rates in the United States. The focus of this entry is on adult prisoners. Key issues such as disproportionate minority incarceration, the acceleration in the number of women entering into the criminal justice system over the last 20 years, and the prevalence of persons with mental illnesses in the nation's jails and prisons are addressed. Current controversies and practices such as risk reduction efforts and rehabilitation strategies are described.

Keywords: crime, criminal behavior, crime measures, incarceration, mental illness, minority, reintegration, risk reduction, women

Although crime and criminal behavior are lumped together here as though they are inseparable concepts, in fact they are quite different. A crime is a legislatively defined event, although at times the term is used as a descriptor for one's dissatisfaction with a particular behavior or incident, as in “it ought to be a crime to talk back to one's parent.” Local municipalities, every state legislature, and the U.S. Congress determine within their own legal jurisdictions what events will be considered crimes, what crimes are called, what the elements of separate crimes are, how they will be categorized (felony or misdemeanor, major or minor, property or violent, statutory or common law), and what the range of punishment for the conviction of a particular crime will be. Certain types of crimes are universal in name and so found in every state (the “index” violent and property crimes of murder, robbery, rape, burglary, larceny, and sodomy—to name a few), while there are other crimes that exist in one state and even in one town in one state, but not in another (loitering, urinating in public, and vagrancy, for example). Even when an event is defined universally as a crime in almost every jurisdiction in the United States, the level of severity assigned to and the stigma associated with the crime itself (possession of marijuana, for example) may vary significantly both legislatively and socially.

Criminal behavior, on the other hand, is behavior that defies some normative standard in a particular time and place and, once displayed, is categorized by association with the commission of one or more crimes. Criminal behaviors may be associated with psychological constructs (such as antisocial personality disorder), sociological observations (social disorganization and anomie), economic theories (poverty and un- or underemployment), religious ideology (moral failings), or social science perspectives. What is sometimes called “criminal behavior” is instead criminalized behavior, the most notable examples being the hypothesis, now in dispute, of the criminalization of mental illness (Draine, Salzer, Culhane, & Hadley, 2002; Lurigio, 2011; Skeem, Manchak, & Peterson, 2011). The assertions of racial and ethnic bias in the application of charges to a particular kind of person may also constitute the criminalization of behavior. And still at other times, certain defined groups seek to label some behavior as being criminal (for example, performing abortions), even though the event is not a crime.

Social workers' interests and involvement in crime and criminal behaviors merge in their efforts to help people manage their behaviors in successful ways and in their advocacy for social justice, particularly within the criminal justice system. These interests will be discussed in detail here.

Historical Background

How crime is reported and criminal behaviors are interpreted change with the times (Cantor & Lynch, 2000). Criminal behavior may include individual moral transgressions, the wrongdoings of the community (or the corporation), the product of social exclusion and provocation to aggression, the denial of individual human rights, the work of hatred and evildoers, and so on. Plato wrote on the themes of crime and punishment and rehabilitation; so did Kant and Bentham, Nietzsche and Menninger, to name just a few (Murphy, 1995; Tittle, 2000). Throughout history, crime and criminal behavior have drawn the interest of scholars and ordinary citizens alike, each wanting to understand better the human condition that often ends in the perpetration of a crime and the victimization of a person.

Definitions and Measures of Crime

There is a national interest in tracking the types and frequencies of crimes committed. Generally speaking, there are three major sources of crime data: the Uniform Crime Reports, the National Crime Victimization Survey, and self-report victimization surveys (Cantor & Lynch, 2000; U.S. Department of Justice, 2004). All three sources are important to consult for an overall view of crime in the United States. Each source has methodological limitations, and some of the data reported using each method are at best speculative, in part because of the way in which the data are reported.

Law enforcement agencies in the United States are encouraged to voluntarily submit certain types of arrest data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the agency in charge of compiling and maintaining the annual Uniform Crime Reports. Data are maintained principally on the index crimes—those major personal and property crimes that are believed to be the most common types of crimes and that are similarly named and categorized as such in every state. The participation of some law enforcement agencies is voluntary, and to compensate for their nonparticipation or for the submission of incomplete data, statistics for these jurisdictions are generated using formulas designed to produce an estimate of a particular area's crime rate (U.S. Department of Justice, 2004). These data from Uniform Crime Reports reflect only reported crimes; they do not capture the full picture of U.S. crime rates or patterns. Consequently, two other methods of crime data are relied on to help do so.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, created to develop further understanding of criminal victimization, attempts to gather data about crimes that go unreported, including information about victims, offenders, and the details of the crimes committed (U.S. Department of Justice, 2004). Victims often choose not to report a crime to police for a variety of reasons, including shame, stigma, fear for their safety, and their own concerns about or experiences with law enforcement. Twice yearly Census Bureau personnel interview 42,000 household members aged 12 years and older, for a total yield of ∼150,000 annual interviews that make up the National Crime Victimization Survey for each reporting period. Households remain in the sample for 3 years. In addition to questions about victimization, this survey asks about victims' experiences with the criminal justice system, the self-protective measures they may have used, and the possibility that the offenders abused substances. Periodically, other queries are added to the survey as well.

The development of self-report instruments and the use of self-reported data about criminal behaviors and the commission of a range of crimes (Thornberry & Krohn, 2000) as well as about victimization (Cantor & Lynch, 2000) started in the 1950s, and the use of these self-report instruments is subject to continuous refinement as theories of the etiology of criminal behavior are tested. There are various types of crime and victimization self-report surveys used and types of sampling strategies employed; consequently, the instruments and methods undergo constant scrutiny in terms of their ability to produce an accurate portrait of victimization in the United States (see, for example, Cantor & Lynch, 2000). Thus, the self-report mechanisms, improving over the years in terms of internal consistency, reliability, and content validity, round out the nation's view of crime and criminal behavior (Thornberry & Krohn, 2000) from the perspectives of both the criminal and the victim.

Theoretical Perspectives on the Origins of Criminal Behavior

Theories abound about the origins and causes of criminal behavior and understandably so: Crime is a central part of everyday life in the United States. Regardless of whether crime rates are up or down during any given period, the six o'clock news carries the day's stories of murder, rape, and pillage. Thus, questions about etiology persist despite decades of research into the causes of criminal thinking and behavior.

Tittle (2000) categorizes theories of individual differences in criminal behavior into six major themes: personal defects, learning, strain or deprivation, identity, rational choice, and control/integration. These theories run the gamut of hypotheses, suggesting biological, biochemical, genetic, psychological, or physical causes of criminal behavior or a blend of these; but no one theory has succeeded in adequately pulling together and explaining all of the elements of criminal behavior. Other theories that seek to explain the development of criminal behavior focus on the influences of external factors such as those situated in environment, opportunity, shaming, social disorganization, and conflict. Again, no one theory is enough to answer the query, What are the definitive causes of criminal behavior?

The questions of causation are of interest to criminal justice scholars, whereas social workers, the millions of adults currently living under correctional supervision, and the many thousands of juveniles living under conditions of judicially imposed restraint have more immediate and pressing questions: How do we predict criminal behavior? How do we reduce the risk of criminal behavior once we recognize that the risk exists?

Research and Best Practices on Managing Criminal Behavior

Risk, Resilience, and Protective Factors. The evidence is building about the risk factors associated with the development of criminal behavior. Farrington (1999) cites many of the risk factors gleaned from the research evidence, including “hyperactivity-impulsiveness, attention deficit, low intelligence or attainment, convicted parents or siblings, poor parental supervision, harsh or erratic discipline, parental conflict, separation or divorce, low family income, poor housing, large family size, delinquent friends, attending a high delinquency rate school, and living in a high crime neighborhood” (p. 157). Childhood sexual abuse and adult victimization, particularly among women (Greenfeld & Snell, 1999; Severson, Postmus, & Berry, 2009), are additional risk factors, as are histories of drug and alcohol abuse (Chandler, Fletcher, & Volkow, 2009). Werner and Smith (1992) report that protective factors such as “parental competence and caregiving style (particularly the mother's) and a range of sources of support in the family, neighborhood, school, and community” (p. 199) helped delinquent children transition into crime-free adult lives.

Prevention and Risk Reduction. Tonry and Farrington (1995) classify crime prevention methods into four categories: (1) those that focus on the identification of risk and protective factors related to the formation of criminal thinking and behaviors; (2) those targeting changes in community institutions, including families, peers, and organizations; (3) those addressing the everyday opportunities for crime; and (4) the various criminal justice system responses, which include efforts to deter, incapacitate, and rehabilitate. As these authors point out, while the “what works” (and what doesn't work) evidence is building in the areas of prevention and risk reduction, there is still much to be evaluated. Often these evaluation findings are disseminated through Web sites designed specifically for that purpose (see for information about promising crime prevention programs; and forthcoming at

Reintegration Efforts. The 21st-century term for rehabilitation is “reentry,” a concept and set of funded program strategies initiated by the Clinton administration and reformulated by the George W. Bush administration in 2002. In brief, with well over 2 million juveniles and adults incarcerated in the United States, something more than preventive strategies is needed to stop the continuation of criminal behaviors and the consequent flow of former prisoners back into penal institutions (Sabol, Minton, & Harrison, 2007). Helping offenders reintegrate into the community upon their release from incarceration is becoming a more evidence-guided endeavor, with social workers and other program personnel redirecting their efforts so that specific, tangible, and evidence-informed services are delivered that support the offender’s life without crime once he or she returns to the community.

The reintegration process starts with a valid assessment of an individual's risks for further criminal behavior and of the individual's criminogenic needs as well. There are a variety of risk assessment instruments available to assist with this, such as the Level of Service Inventory-Revised (LSI-R) (Andrews & Bonta, 1995), which is perhaps the most well known of dynamic risk, need, and responsivity assessment tools. Such instruments are intended to help reintegration specialists design a program for each offender, based on both the level of risk the individual presents and the answerable needs he or she has. Thus, if a high-risk offender has deficits in cognition, education, or job skills, the reintegration program targets these areas for concentrated interventions. The approach and methods are straightforward: assess the level of risk posed and respond to it with a comparable level of intervention that is likely to optimize the offender's response to the intervention. Recent research suggests that doing otherwise may well be harmful to the ultimate goal of the individual's rehabilitation (see Andrews & Bonta, 2003; Lowenkamp, Pealer, Smith, & Latessa, 2006). When considering levels of intervention, the importance of measuring and administering the appropriate (largely based on treatment evidence) dosage and duration of the intervention is also garnering attention (Serin & Crime and Justice Institute, 2005; Wilson, 2007).

Cultural and Special Populations: Social Justice Issues

Disproportionate Minority Incarceration. No discussion of crime and criminal behavior would be complete without at least mentioning the problem of disproportionate minority arrest and incarceration rates, that is, the fact that persons of color and ethnic minorities are arrested and incarcerated at rates much higher than those of Whites (for an overview of these issues, see Pewewardy & Severson, 2003). For social workers, this is a matter of both ethics and advocacy. In post–Civil War history, this disproportionate treatment of minorities has been dealt with in at least three significant ways. First, by alternately blaming the victim, with suggestions that certain members of minority groups have genetic or biological predispositions for criminal behavior. Second, by the lack of or ineffective internal monitoring practices to ensure a fair and impartial application of the criminal laws, resulting in racial bias in law enforcement practices, criminal processing, and judicial proceedings. And third, by the growth of the prison industrial complex: a self-perpetuating and often profit-making system that depends on a steady flow of prisoners for its continuation (see, for example, the work of activist Angela Davis; also see Pewewardy & Severson, 2003).

Women. Since 1995, the rate of women coming into U.S. jails and prisons has risen considerably faster than that of men (Harrison & Beck, 2006; Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009). The majority of these women have children who are left behind when no alternatives for these mothers other than incarceration are offered. Many of these women are undereducated. Many are imprisoned for economically motivated crimes. They bring with them histories of physical and sexual victimization and tangible needs that are almost impossible to meet within the prison environment (Greenfeld & Snell, 1999; Postmus & Severson, 2006; Sabol et al., 2009). Because these women are primary caregivers to their children, these questions must be asked: How will the development of criminal thinking and behavior be stopped when parental incarceration is a risk factor in its development? What feasible methods of intervention exist to keep mothers out of the justice system and successful in their parenting roles? These are areas of particular importance for social workers to address.

Persons With Mental Illnesses. While the research methodologies are less than rigorous in this area, by all anecdotal and investigatory accounts, persons experiencing severe symptoms of mental illness are frequently seen in jails (see James & Glaze, 2006; The Criminal Justice Mental Health Consensus Project at; Steadman, Osher, Robbins, Case, & Samuels, 2009; Torrey, Kennard, Eslinger, Lamb, & Pavle, 2010). In fact, it is commonly believed that the correctional system is the largest provider of mental health services in the nation. That is certainly true in large cities, but the evidence suggests that this is not just an urban problem. Changes in health care policy, costs of psychotropic medications, and long waiting lists in local community behavioral health centers are just a few of the reasons why more persons can expect to be treated for their mental illnesses in jail rather than in the community. Furthermore, law enforcement personnel know that they can more expediently address the unusual behavior by transporting the person to jail rather than by arranging for a mental health intervention. Across the country, social workers and other mental health professionals are strategizing to help divert persons with acute mental illnesses from the criminal justice system and into a more responsive mental health system. Some contemporary methods of doing so include the use of mental health courts, crisis response teams, the availability of social and medical detoxification centers, and the development of dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders programs that include intensive case management services.

Persons Using or Dependent on Drugs and/or Alcohol. There is perhaps no more vexing issue facing society as a whole and challenging those who work with justice-involved persons than that of substance use, abuse, and addictions. Drug and alcohol dependence is common among criminal justice populations; it is a problem in its own right, and it complicates the clinical picture of those who have coexisting psychiatric disorders. In society at large, approximately 25 percent of those with serious mental illnesses also have a co-occurring substance use disorder, and in 2011, 42 percent of those with substance use disorders also had a co-occurring mental illness (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2012). In correctional settings, however, it is estimated that 68 percent of inmates have substance use disorders and that 70 percent or more have a co-occurring disorder (Osher, D’Amora, Plotkin, Jarrett, & Eggleston, 2012). Many detainees are under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their crime and/or at the time of their admission to jail, and many are incarcerated because of drug or alcohol law violations (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2010).


The responsibilities of the criminal justice system in terms of working toward a safer society through the provision of law enforcement services, the adjudication of criminal behaviors, and the punishment of convicted offenders are expanding every day. At the same time, the meanings of “safety,” “security,” “punishment,” and “rehabilitation” are perhaps as obscure and confusing as they have ever been. Does being “safe” require the incarceration of persons not even formally accused of a crime? Does “security” require the closing of borders and a heightened level of scrutiny of people who look different than White Americans, however that look is defined? Is there no place in a “rehabilitation” scheme for temporary relapses and second chances? Should juveniles who commit serious crimes be tried in adult criminal courts and sentenced to adult prisons? These are burning issues for social workers interfacing with persons who come into contact with the criminal justice system in the United States. Briefly, here are a few of the tensions that confront every social worker early in the 21st century.

Rehabilitation Versus Punishment. Rehabilitation and punishment are not mutually exclusive concepts or approaches. The evidence is building that in order to prevent criminal behavior, the risks and needs presented by the individual must be accurately identified and addressed for that interdiction to be effective. In addition to the assessment of risk and need, the individual’s readiness for treatment and likelihood of responding to treatment must also be appraised. This risk, need, and responsivity assessment process can be accomplished at any point along the criminal trajectory, even in the confines of a prison, jail, or detention center. Indeed, in a very recent publication, Osher et al. (2012) apply the risk, need, and responsivity rehabilitation paradigm to the management of persons with behavioral health needs.

Life Versus Death. Up-to-date information about every state's and the federal government's stance on the death penalty, including the number of innocent people freed from death row in those jurisdictions, can be found at the nonprofit Death Penalty Informational Center ( Little goes to the heart of the core social work values like the issue of life and death.

During its 2007–2008 term, the U.S. Supreme Court heard an important death penalty case that raised the issue of the constitutionality of using lethal injections in the administration of the death penalty. In Baze v. Rees (553 U.S. 35, 2008), two Kentucky death row inmates challenged the use of lethal injection as being in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” These petitioners alleged that administration of the lethal injection may result in pain, and that this infliction of pain stood in violation of Eight Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. While it was not the constitutionality of the death penalty being argued, such allegations of the experience of pain caused by the lethal injections found the courts, state legislatures, and the public at large questioning the morality of using this method to effect the sentence of death. Indeed, a number of states had already stopped their executions pending the Supreme Court's decision that was announced in the late spring of 2008. While the Court's agreement to review the assertion of an Eighth Amendment violation might be seen as another in a series of national expressions of uneasiness with the death penalty, in the end, the Court found that the possibility of pain that might occur during an inmate's execution did not itself constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The Aging Prisoner Population. An unanticipated result of the restrictive sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s and beyond is the graying of the prisoner population (American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], 2012). The threshold of "aging" in the corrections context is somewhat different than in the nonincarcerated population, and because of lifetimes of health disparities and health challenges, chronologically younger persons age 50 years and above are often included in this group (Higgins & Severson, 2009). Official government reports indicate that inmates ages 55 years and older constitute the fastest growing segment of the prison population in the United States (Felner, 2012), and some authorities believe that by 2020, elderly inmates will account for 21%-33 percent of the U.S. prison population (Neely, Addison, & Craig-Moreland, 1997). To be sure, constitutional mandates generating better access to and overall better prison health care have also contributed to the graying of the population. While many prisons now offer hospice services, those efforts alone will have little effect on the enormous financial and institutional costs of caring for elderly inmates. Early release is being offered as a humane, fiscally sound alternative to the continued incarceration of the increasingly unhealthy, aged population (see, for example, Chiu, 2010), but suggestions of early release always meet with resistance from policy makers who anticipate that political fallout is inevitable.

Retributive Versus Restorative Justice. The present-day criminal justice system is largely organized around the principle of retributive justice: the idea that the person who has done wrong, that is, broken the law, must be responded to with an appropriate and commensurate level of punishment.

An alternative to a system of retribution through punishment is one that emphasizes restoration—restoring the persons involved, including the offender and “victim” and their communities, to their preharm conditions. Restorative justice (sometimes called transformative justice) principles emphasize healing, wholeness, forgiveness, and the development of behaviors and attitudes that signify these states of being. In the effort to promote a balanced response to criminal behavior and harms that result from it, the work of social workers like Mark Umbreit (see and social scientists John Braithwaite, Howard Zehr, Gordon Bazemore, and others is important. Their efforts keep the philosophical, moral, and normative values that underlie the concept of restoration alive in the discourse that occurs in the criminal justice context.

Roles and Implications for Social Work

Although once recognized as an important venue for social work practice (Pray, 1951), only a very small percentage of professional social workers are currently working in the criminal justice system (Chaiklin, 2007; Reamer, 2004). Certainly, the many components of the criminal justice system—law enforcement, victims' rights, prosecutory and defense organizations, courts, detention centers, jails, prisons, and probation and parole agencies—are part of a dynamic and evolving universe where every single subject of concern to social work is situated. Social workers can and should be found working in all of these venues, providing mental health and supervisory transitional services, and filling advocacy, policy-making, and evaluation roles. Traditional social work populations - the poor, the aging, persons in poor physical and mental health, victims of violence and neglect, the homeless, jobless, and aimless alike - find their way into this system. Their incarceration impacts their families and places their children, who often end up in foster care, at risk for incarceration as well (Courtney, Dworsky, Lee, & Raap, 2009; Courtney, Piliavin, Grogan-Kaylor, & Nesmith, 2001). Whether focused on persons or functions, males or females, mental health assessment, crisis intervention, reentry planning, organizational operations, or system-wide change, social workers have important roles to play in criminal justice. Certainly policy advocacy efforts are needed to secure a fair, equitable, and responsive justice system. Evidence-based practices must be developed and implemented at all levels of system involvement, that is, with families and individuals, perpetrators and victims, legislators and judges. Finally, communities must be involved in the effort to welcome back their previously ostracized members, and to offer them the positive supports necessary to live as healthy and productive citizens.


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                                                                        Further Reading

                                                                        Bernard, T. J. (1990). Twenty years of testing theories: What have we learned and why? Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 27(4), 325–347.Find this resource: