Lesson One
Crime Causation – Part I
3 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Two
Crime Causation – Part II
3 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Three
Offender Manipulation
3 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Four
Prison Culture: Feelings
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Five
Prison Culture: Perspectives
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Six
Special Populations: Overview
3 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Seven
Prison Culture: Dynamics
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Eight
Prison Culture: Engaging the Culture
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Nine
Lesson Ten
Poverty – Part I
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Eleven
Poverty – Part II
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Twelve
Poverty – Part III
4 Activities | 2 Assessments
Lesson Thirteen
Cognitive Behavior – Part I
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Fourteen
Cognitive Behavior – Part II
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Fifteen
Cognitive Behavior – Part III
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Sixteen
Motivational Interviewing – Part I
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Seventeen
Motivational Interviewing – Part II
3 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Eighteen
Motivational Interviewing – Part III
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Nineteen
Trauma and Attachment Theories
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Twenty
3 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Twenty-One
Anger Management
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Twenty-Two
Faith-Based Programs
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Twenty-Three
Reentry: Feelings and Perspectives
4 Activities | 1 Assessment
Lesson Twenty-Four
Course Wrap-Up
Course Completion
1 Activity | 1 Assessment


Welcome to Dynamics of Working with Offenders. I am glad you have decided to join us. In this course we will look at the different aspects of the offender and ministry opportunities both with the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated. I want to encourage you to create space in your week for class assignments so you will be able to keep up. Remember to engage in the discussion board so that you can learn from others. Thanks again for joining us.

Let’s pray. Dear Lord, we are so grateful for our salvation in you and your love for us. We thank you for this opportunity to learn more about those we serve so that we can be more effective in furthering Your Kingdom. Help us to pay attention to what you say to us throughout this course. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Let’s being with Lecture 1, Crime Causation, part 1.

Why do people commit crime? What are the root causes of violence and aggression? Are people basically good, or are they motivated only by self-interest? More precisely, we might ask, “Why does a particular person commit a particular crime on a given occasion and under specific circumstances?” The reality is that crime is very complex. If it was simple, we would have solved the problem and crime would desist.

In this lecture we will look at crime causation theories. In simple terms, theory is an explanation of something. Theories are useful tools that help us to understand and explain the world around us. In criminology, they help us to understand the workings of the criminal justice system and the actors in the system. Theories suggest the way things are, not the way things ought to be. They are not inherently good or bad; however, they can be used for good or bad purposes. A theory can try to explain crime for a large social unit or area (macro), or it can attempt to explain crime at the individual or smaller unit level (micro).

The goal of criminological theory is to help one gain an understating of crime and criminal justice. Theories cover the making and the breaking of the law, criminal and deviant behavior, as well as patterns of criminal activity. Theories can be used to establish treatments and guide policymaking; and they can be evaluated on a number of criteria including: clarity, scope, testability, practical usefulness, and empirical validity. The primary researcher for each of the theories will be included but will not be elaborated on in this lecture.

Before we begin, some brief definitions are in order:

Crime is conduct in violation of the criminal laws at the federal, state, or local level. The type of punishment for a crime depends on whether it is a felony or misdemeanor (American Correctional Association).

Deviance is a violation of social norms defining appropriate or proper behavior under a particular set of circumstances. Deviance often includes criminal acts.

In criminology, examining why people commit crime is very important in the ongoing debate of how crime should be handled and prevented. A number of theories have been developed to explain the causes of crime. These are categorized into classical, biological, psychobiological, psychological, sociological, social process, conflict, emergent, interdisciplinary, and biblical. One thing is for certain: There is no single cause of crime; it is rooted in a diversity of causal factors and takes a variety of forms. There will also at times be an overlap between theories.

While we will not explore understanding and describing criminal behavior for specific crimes such as white-collar, theft, murder, domestic violence, prostitution, and sex offense, it is important to recognize that there are unique causes or contributing factors with various types of crimes. In this lecture we will discuss the classical, biological, psychobiological, psychological, and sociological theories.

The classical theory of crime causation dominated criminology thinking during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It grew out of the Enlightenment and emphasized the role of free will and reasonable punishment. Classical thinkers believed that punishment, if it is to be an effective deterrent, has to outweigh the potential pleasure derived from criminal behavior. Cesare Beccaria was one of the first scholars to develop a systematic understanding of why people commit crime. His writings and that of others after him have shaped classical criminology.

Classical theoretical perspective suggests that:

  1. People have free will to choose criminal or conventional behavior.
  2. Crime is attractive when it promises great benefits with little effort.
  3. People choose to commit crime for reasons of greed or personal need.

Treatment is based on the beliefs that

  1. Crime can be controlled only by the fear of punishment.
  2. Punishment that is severe, certain, and swift will deter criminal behavior.

Neoclassical theories are the contemporary versions of the classical theories. Neoclassical theories introduced the idea of premeditation and mitigating circumstances as legitimate grounds for diminished responsibility, in other words, an insanity plea.

Rational choice theory purposes that people do crime because they want to. Criminal behavior is a result of careful thought and planning. The motivation for committing a crime is based on pleasure or pain. After weighing the potential benefits and consequences, the illegal act is the rational choice.

Rational choice theory is represented by a somewhat narrower perspective called routine activities theory. Routine activities theory argues that lifestyles significantly affect both the amount and type of crime found in any society, and they noted “the risk of criminal victimization varies dramatically among the circumstances and locations in which people place themselves and their property.” Lifestyles that contribute to criminal opportunities are likely to result in crime because they increase the risk of potential victimization. For example, a person who routinely uses an ATM machine late at night in an isolated location is far more likely to become a victim than someone who stays home after dark.

Classical and neoclassical theories are the basis of the criminal justice system in the United States. It is on the basis of these theories that we developed Scared Straight programs, boot camps, mandatory minimums, longer sentences, three-strikes laws, and the death penalty. But deterrence programs have mixed results.

If criminality is a rational choice, than criminal thinking must be addressed for rehabilitation to occur. The National Institute for Corrections or NIC has developed two programs that address thinking and choices. They are Thinking for a Change and Moral Reconation Therapy.

Thinking for a Change (T4C) is a cognitive-behavioral curriculum that concentrates on changing the criminogenic thinking of offenders. T4C is a cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) program that includes cognitive restructuring, social skills development, and the development of problem-solving skills. Three lectures later in this course are dedicated to cognitive behavior principles and treatment.

Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) is a systematic treatment strategy that seeks to decrease recidivism among juvenile and adult criminal offenders by increasing moral reasoning. Its cognitive-behavioral approach combines elements from a variety of psychological traditions to progressively address ego, social, moral, and positive behavioral growth. MRT takes the form of group and individual counseling using structured group exercises and prescribed homework assignments. The MRT workbook is structured around 16 objectively defined steps (units) focusing on seven basic treatment issues: confrontation of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors; assessment of current relationships; reinforcement of positive behavior and habits; positive identity formation; enhancement of self-concept; decrease in hedonism and development of frustration tolerance; and development of higher stages of moral reasoning. Participants meet in groups once or twice weekly and can complete all steps of the MRT program in a minimum of 3 to 6 months.

Biological theories suggest “criminal genes” cause deviant behavior. Criminals are identifiable through physical characteristics or genetic makeup.

Phrenology is the study of the shape of the head to determine anatomical correlates of human behavior. It is based on the premise that the skull reveals brain development and personality can be revealed by studying the skull.

Atavism is a condition characterized by the existence of features thought to be common to earlier stages of human evolution. Someone looks “sweet” or someone looks “criminal.” Lombroso identified characteristics such as long arms, large lips, crooked noses, large amounts of body hair, and prominent cheekbones that indicate criminality.

Another theory was criminal families, which was based on the belief that degenerate and feebleminded people are produced and propagated through bad genetic material. In other words, there is a “criminal gene.” Heredity studies were conducted but the studies failed to recognize any effect that socialization and life circumstances have on the development of criminal behavior.

Sheldon introduced using somatotypes to classify human beings into types according to body build and other physical characteristics. There are basically three body types: mesomorph— muscular; endomorphs—soft and round; and ectomorphs—thin and frail. He believed that mesomorphs were more prone to aggression, violence, and delinquency.

Under biological theory crime can be prevented by isolating, treating, separating, sterilizing, or killing the individual. Treatment is generally ineffective, but aggression may be usefully redirected through therapy.

Psychobiological is a combination of biochemical and physiological perspectives. Human DNA, environmental contaminants, nutrition, hormones, physical trauma, and body chemistry play important and interwoven roles in producing human cognition, feeling, and behavior—including crime.

The chromosome theory claimed that those with the XYY chromosomal pattern or “super males” were more aggressive than other males.

Heredity believed that a slow anatomical nervous system predisposed certain individuals toward criminality by limiting their ability to learn quickly and to choose to avoid behaviors that lead to punishment.

Ongoing research has revealed numerous biochemical factors associated either directly or indirectly with criminal or delinquent behavior:

  • Chemical, mineral, and vitamin deficiencies in the diet
  • Diets high in sugar and carbohydrates
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Ingestion of food dyes and lead
  • Brain dysfunction

Criminal behaviors have also been associated with hormone abnormalities, especially those involving testosterone and progesterone. Administering estrogen to male sex offenders has been found to reduce their sexual drives. Also, men are more violent than women (more testosterone).

Research has been conducted examining the effects of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder or FASD and crime. FASD has been found to damage the brain, and individuals who suffer from FASD often have a lack of impulse control; trouble identifying future consequences of their current behavior; difficulty planning and connecting cause and effect; difficulty empathizing with others and taking responsibility for their actions; difficulty delaying gratification or making good judgments; a tendency toward explosive episodes; vulnerability to social influences such as peer pressure and therefore may commit a crime or confess to a crime they did not commit in order to please others.

These are common characteristics also with those who engage in criminal behavior.

Treatment would include modifying body chemistry to produce desirable behavioral changes.

Drug treatments have been found to have temporary success with aggression and criminal behavior but not long-term results.

Psychological theory is where crime is the result of inappropriate behavioral conditioning or a diseased mind. Psychological crime causation theory includes associations with intelligence, personality, learning, and criminal behavior.

It was once thought that there was a relationship between IQ and crime—that crime is a product of low intelligence—but there is no support for this. Lower IQ is a risk factor for students who are not given help because they drop out of school and then that leads to criminal behavior, but there is not a direct correlation.

Behavioral conditioning is a psychological principle that holds that the frequency of any behavior can be increased or decreased through reward, punishment, and association with other stimuli.

Freudian psychoanalysis is a theory of human behavior that sees personality as a complex composite of interacting mental entities: the id, ego, and superego.

Personality has to do with psychopaths, sociopaths, or anti-personalities. Psychopaths are persons characterized by no sense of guilt, no subjective conscience, and no sense of right and wrong. They have difficulty forming relationships with other people; they cannot empathize with other people. And remember, antisocial personality patterns are a criminogenic factor.

During the time of state budget cuts, it has been said that the prisons are the new mental health facilities. Mental illness continues to be an issue for corrections. How do they classify and treat those with mental illness? A few of the mental illnesses found in the prison population are:

Psychotic: A personality marked by a complete loss of control characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and sudden mood shifts.

Disorders: Any type of psychological problem such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and conduct disorders.

Schizophrenia: A severe disorder marked by hearing nonexistent voices, seeing hallucinations, and exhibiting inappropriate responses.

Latent delinquency: A psychological predisposition to commit antisocial acts; impulsive and pleasure seeking. Seeks immediate gratification, satisfies personal needs over relating to others, and satisfies instinctual urges without considering right and wrong.

Bipolar disorder: An emotional disturbance in which moods alternate between periods of wild elation and deep depression.

Psychological theory posits crime is the result of inappropriate behavioral conditioning or a diseased mind, therefore, treatment necessitates extensive behavioral therapy and medication.

Implications for criminal justice policies and practices ask questions such as: Can past behavior predict future behavior? Are there identifiable characteristics that violent offenders have that could serve as warning signs to criminal justice decisions?

If crime is not the result of choice, biology, or psychology, then how can it be explained? Sociologists emphasize that human beings live in social groups and that those groups and the social structure they create influence behavior. Most sociological theories of crime causation assume that a criminal’s behavior is determined by his or her social environment and reject the notion of the born criminal. Characteristics of sociological theories include the structure of society and its relative degree of organization or disorganization are important factors contributing to the prevalence of criminal behavior and group dynamics, group organization, and subgroup relationships form the causal nexus out of which crime develops.

Sociological theories explain what contributes to violent or aggressive behavior.

  1. An event that heightens arousal, such as a person frustrating or provoking another through physical assault or verbal abuse.
  2. Aggressive skills: Learned aggressive responses picked up from observing others, either personally or through the media.
  3. Expected outcomes: The belief that aggression will somehow be rewarded.
  4. Consistency of behavior with values: The belief, gained from observing others, that aggression is justified and appropriate, given the circumstances of the current situation.

Two of the sociological theories are the social disorganization and anomie or strain theory. Social disorganization is the condition in which the usual controls over delinquents are largely absent, delinquent behavior is often approved of by parents and neighbors, there are many opportunities for delinquent behavior, and there is little encouragement, training, or opportunity for legitimate employment.

For Merton, the contradiction between the cultural goal of achieving wealth and the social structure’s inability to provide legitimate institutional means for achieving the goal causes a strain on people.

People adapt through:

  • Conformity—playing the game.
  • Innovation—pursuing wealth by illegitimate means.
  • Ritualism—not actively pursuing wealth.
  • Retreatism—dropping out.
  • Rebellion—rejecting the goal of wealth and the institutional means of getting it.

Additional sociological theories include subculture theories. A subculture is a group of people who participate in a shared system of values and norms that are at variance in those of the larger culture. Subculture explanations of crime posit the existence of group values that support criminal behavior. Maybe you have heard of the “broken windows thesis” where a perspective of crime causation holds that the physical deterioration of an area leads to higher crime rates and an increased concern for personal safety among residents. If a broken window is not fixed, it communicates that the neighborhood is vulnerable to crime.

Treatment is to have effective social policy that may require basic changes in patterns of socialization and an increase in accepted opportunities for success. I heard one speaker state, “Crime is not a social issue, but an economic issue. If jobs are available where people can live comfortably, then it will reduce crime.” As you can see, crime causation is complex and there is no silver bullet. Crime causation theories will continue in the next lecture.

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Lesson Materials

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