Criminological Theories and Practice

Criminological Theories and Practice



Criminological Theories and Practice

Theory is an important aspect of any profession as it serves to guide practice, more so if the practice is to be evidence based. The existence of theories therefore acts as theoretical frameworks upon which practice is based. Criminal justice is no different, as knowledge of the various theories not only helps in guiding professionals in their approaches to cases, but it also helps in the formulation of policies. Policies such as diversion programs, graffiti reduction programs, the three strike laws as well as the stiffer penalties such as the death penalty have all in one way or another been inspired by criminological theories of crime causation.

One means of sentencing that can be said to have been influenced by theory is the diversion program; a form of sentencing aimed at ensuring the offender does not get a criminal record. In this case, the offender is usually forced to meet certain requirements such as provision of community service, restitution, education in order to avoid future offenses as well as avoidance of situations that may result in another similar offence. The first theory that clearly influences the formulation of this approach to sentencing is the labeling theory. The labeling theory avers that the labeling of an individual as deviant usually results in lower self esteem, self rejection and consequently further engagement in deviant behavior. Further, it posits that once labeled gaining acceptance back into society may prove a problem, as majority of those who accept the labeling of others also have a hard time changing their opinions of them, even in cases where evidence has been presented to suggest otherwise. The newly formed status of “criminal” dictates how an individual is identified in the public, and may push the individual into forfeiting any further attempts they may have wanted to have towards conforming. (Macionis & Gerber, 2010). These programs, by ensuring that the individual does not get labeled as a criminal attempt to avoid the effect that labeling would otherwise have on the individual and push him/her towards engaging in repeat offenses. This principle also applies when it comes to the expunging of records, as by doing away with the criminal label, the individuals are not defined by their previous mistakes and are therefore able to avoid engaging in further criminal behavior due to the burden that the “criminal” label would otherwise have given them. Indeed findings by Bernburg, Krohn and Rivera (2006) in a study on adolescents to establish whether or not the labeling theory can be used to explain crime, find that adolescents who had been involved in the juvenile justice system were prone to engage in further delinquent behavior by associating with other delinquent peers or even joining groups of other delinquents such as gangs. This therefore means that diversion programs do help, as they ensure the individual avoids being sentenced and therefore avoids what would otherwise be a criminal label and the subsequent stigma suffered could drive them into associating with fellow delinquents, leading to further crime if looked at from the differential association theory.

The police athletics league, at times referred to as the police activities league, refers to the program through which members of the police force actually act as mentors and coaches for young people, in sporting activities, homework or other activities. The programs are mainly aimed at building character, keeping the youths off drugs as well as strengthening the bond between the community and the police department. This approach towards eliminating crime can be claimed to be linked to follow the concepts of the social control theory, more so when it comes to instilling self control thus achieving internal control. Another way, through which control is achieved by this program, is indirectly through the police officers who act as figures the children can identify with thus influencing behavior positively. By building close relationships with the children they mentor, the police officers are able to exert indirect control, as the children would be afraid of disappointing them by engaging in delinquent behavior (Hirschi, 2002). This approach is also based on the social disorganization theory, which argues that crime can be related to the breakdown of social institutions as well as communal relationships. As such the approach attempts to foster a sense of community, strengthening the communal relationships and creating a sense of organization within larger groups which according to the social disorganization theory, does deter crime (Bursik, 1988). The same issue of creating communal relationships as well as strengthening social institutions applies when it comes to the midnight basketball leagues, which were intended to foster good community relationships. Based on the findings by Sampson and Groves (1989) as well as the findings of Bursik and Grasmick (1993) that the community structure in terms of race, socioeconomic status, residential mobility as well as family disruptions indeed affect the crime rates due to the sparse nature of friendship networks, unsupervised youth groups as well as low organizational participation, programs such as the police activities leagues and midnight basketball leagues do affect these variables and are bound to reduce the crime rates according to the social disorganization theory (Kubrin & Weitzer, 2003).

The differential association theory could also be said to have played a very important role in the development of the “Weed and Seed” program, as it identifies the potential influence the company one keeps has on their behavior or their affinity to engage in criminal activities. The differential association theory posits that through interacting with criminals, individuals are able to learn new attitudes, values, motives and techniques for committing crimes (Sutherland, 1947). As such, it therefore seems prudent to try and separate the criminal elements from the rest of society in order to ensure that they do not influence the rest of society. This is essentially the main principle behind the weed and seed program, which attempts to weed out violent elements within various target areas through the help of members of the community, thus reducing drug trafficking, gang activity and violent crimes amongst other criminal activities. The program itself integrates community policing, law enforcement and prevention measures in order to reduce crime. By weeding out the rogue elements, the police department ensures that crime coming about as a learned behavior is at its minimum, as any relationships or associations these criminals might have with others are cut short. In addition, Matsueda (2000) further posits that according to the differential association theory of social organization, the crime rates within communities or groups are essentially affected by how the group itself is organized to fight crime compared to how it is organized in favor of crime commitment. The seed aspect of the program therefore attempts to ensure that the community’s organization against crime outweighs its organization in favor of crime, a clear application of concepts from the differential association theory. The findings of Kissner and Pyrooz (2009) on the influence of familial gang involvement on subsequent gang membership, serve to highlight the influence close relationships do have on the potential learning and subsequent engagement in criminal behavior, therefore justifying the need to “weed” out criminal elements in an attempt to prevent those around them from being influenced into engaging in delinquent behavior.

Stiff penalties such as the death penalty and the three strikes rule are founded on the classical school of criminology which essentially believes that punishment is actually a deterrent if it is proportional to the crime (Landau, 2002). Another theory which could also be used to explain the application of stiffer penalties is the social control theory. The theory argues that punishment or rewards can actually be used to bring about direct control over an individual or their criminal activities and ensure compliance. Aspects of the differential association theory could also be argued to influence the application of stiffer penalties, more so the three strikes rule, as it would ensure that the favorable definitions for breaking the law do not outweigh the unfavorable definitions, thus discouraging repeat offenders from engaging in criminal activities.

Overall, it is quite clear that theories and research inform the development of policies and programs used in the criminal justice department and as such cannot be ignored. They not only provide a theoretical framework for practice but actually lead to the adoption of evidence based practices, making the criminal justice department more effective when it comes to combating crime.


Bursik, R. (1988). Social Disorganization and Theories of Crime and Delinquency. Criminology26.

Bursik, R., & Grasmick, H. (1993). Neighborhoods and Crime: The Dimensions Of EffectiveCommunity Control. New York: Lexington Books.

Bernburg, G., Krohn, M., & Rivera, C. (2006). Official Labeling, Criminal Embeddedness,and Subsequent Delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency43(1), 67-88.

Hirschi, T. (2002). Causes of delinquency. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Kissner, J., & Pyrooz, D. (2009). Self-control, differential association, and gang membership: Atheoretical and empirical extension of the literature. Journal of Criminal Justice 37, 478487.

Kubrin, C., & Weitzer, R. (2003). New Directions in Social Disorganization Theory. Journal ofResearch in Crime & Delinquency 40, 374-402.

Landau, Norma (2002). Law, Crime, and English Society, 1660-1830. Cambridge UniversityPress. p. 118.

Macionis, J., & Gerber, L. (2010). Sociology. Canada: Pearson Education.

Matsueda, R. (2000). Differential Association Theory. Retrieved from HYPERLINK “”

Sampson, R. & Groves, W. (1989). “Community Structure and Crime: Testing SocialDisorganization Theory. American Journal of Sociology 94, 774-802.

Sutherland, E. (1947). Principles of Criminology. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott