Socrates once remarked that man is by nature good. Evil, according to him, is the result of man’s ignorance or the lack of knowledge. He added that a man who knows the difference between right and wrong would not intentionally do wrong. Applying this theory to the contemporary society, no man will intentionally commit a crime such as murder or rape or robbery.
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When a person commits a crime then it is because he does not know any better. When a crime is committed it is because of the limitation and imperfection of man’s present knowledge. Though it may be true that no man is morally corrupt by nature, Socrates’ explanation of the presence of crime and evil in our society does not suffice to answer the question why people offend and commit the crime. It is because of this reason that Sociologists have resorted to other explanations that may influence man into committing crimes. This essay seeks to answer the origin of crime from the point of view of two theories – Labeling Theory and Marxist Theory. In the course of this essay, reference will be made to the pressing issues and concerns in the contemporary society with the objective of proving that these theories are still applicable until now.
A brilliant philosopher once made a distinction between what the senses perceive as the reality and the real reality. He said that one should not think that both are the same since oftentimes a man’s perception is a mere reflection or an imperfect image of the reality.
George Herbert Mead, a Labeling Theorist, thought that there should be no distinction as there is only one reality. It is the reality that people create. It is the reality that is socially constructed by actors and institutions. Applying this theory to crimes, Labeling Theorists argue that all people are law-breakers and habitually engage in deviant behavior. For them, it is not a surprise to see people not paying the right taxes. Some people also drink and drive despite the laws against it. Adventurous youths may have experienced using marijuana during their student years. Others may have spray-painted on public walls and destroyed public properties in the spirit of youthful adventurism. All these acts are considered crime for which a person could be placed in jail. Yet not all persons are punished or labeled as law-breakers or deviants. Only those persons who are caught are punished by the law.
For George Herbert Mead, it is not the act of rule-breaking or law-breaking that makes a person a deviant. For him, a person is only labeled as a deviant as a result of the definition or perception given to him by other persons. To clarify, all persons engage in primary deviant behavior which is manifested every time a person breaks a law or rule or norm. However, breaking a law is one thing and getting caught is another thing. Labeling theorists called this the secondary deviance. Secondary deviance is the process that occurs when a person who has been labeled a deviant accepts that new identity and behaves and acts according to the socially-created identity.
In this system where perception determines who are deviants and who are not, the institutions, such as the police, the courts, and the penal institutions play an important role in creating stereotypes that force individuals to play certain roles. For example, a person who is charged with a crime and subsequently arrested by the police at work or at school is immediately labeled as a deviant by the rest of the society. This happens even if he is subsequently found innocent for the crime charged. A person who is convicted by the courts will also be considered by the society as a deviant even if such person was wrongfully convicted. Moreover, a person who has served time in penal institutions is also automatically labeled as a deviant. In these cases, the labeling as a convicted criminal offender stays.
It can thus be concluded that it is immaterial what a person really is or what he thinks of himself. What matters most is what other persons think he is as it is a powerful force behind the formation of a person’s self-identity.
The Labeling Theory proposed by George Herbert Mead is particularly helpful in explaining juvenile delinquency. The society is now afraid of a new breed of juvenile offenders which they call super-predators – juveniles who commit violent crimes. They have given up all hope for reformation and rehabilitation of these youths thinking that juvenile detention centers are not enough. Their solution is to transfer jurisdiction over these juvenile offenders to adult courts. They proposed that juvenile offenders should be treated and punished as an adult and placed in the same penal institutions as an adult. In these times when society has given up hope for juvenile offenders, labeling theory may be useful in understanding that the proper solution is not to place juveniles in prisons.
Using labeling theory as a paradigm, there are two main factors that exert influence on juveniles – formal labeling and informal labeling. Formal labeling pertains to the institutions that stigmatize juveniles such as the police, courts, and penal institutions. Informal labeling pertains to the role of parents, teachers and peers in the establishment of the child’s self-identity. From the point of view of labeling theorists, parents, teachers, and peers play an important role in the labeling process. During the child’s formative years, they help in establishing the child’s self-identity. No matter who the child thinks he is, the parents, teachers, and peers will exert a powerful influence on the child such that he will eventually see himself the way other people sees him. If the child’s parents, teachers, and peers see him as an industrious and law-abiding child, the child has a tendency to label himself similar to how others see him. The same is true if the child’s parents, teachers, and peers see the child as a juvenile, then the child has the tendency to behave like a juvenile. There is a number of researchers that will confirm that negative parental upbringing has an adverse effect on the child’s self-identity.
On the other hand, contact with institutions such as the police, courts, and penal institutions negatively labels the child resulting in more delinquent behavior. According to Mike Adams (2003), the results of numerous studies show that juveniles who are formally processed through the juvenile justice system and have formal contact with other social control agencies report greater subsequent delinquency.
Impliedly, research confirms that the right solution to the problem of juvenile delinquency is not to punish juveniles more. Considering the role of the parents and teachers in the identity formation of the child, the most proactive solution to crime is that the government should invest in parental education rather than create more prisons for juvenile offenders. The government should extend as much assistance to the parents especially those living in rough neighborhoods and teach them to spend more time with their children. They should educate the parents so that they may in turn help in creating a positive self-identity of the child. When a child sees himself positively then he is more likely to act positively.
Karl Marx was the proponent of the idea that all aspects of life are governed by the economic organization. Karl Marx saw society as based on competition, greed, and selfishness. He saw society as being composed of two groups. The first group is the capitalists who had control of the means of production and of the rest of the society. The second group is the proletariat who represents the working class. For Marx, the nature of capitalism is enough to create conflict, competition, greed, and selfishness.
The capitalists and the proletariat have different interests. The capitalists seek to maintain the status quo and retain the ideology of capitalism. Having control of the means of production, they seek for the society to remain as it is. For example, the need to maintain the status quo drives the board of directors of a company to cheat the stockholders of their investment. Selfishness and greed lead high ranking government officials to corruption. On the other hand, the proletariat’s interest is to overturn the capitalist regime and for the masses to rise to finally gain control of the means of production. For example, the working class commits robbery which is the only way they know to earn money. The competing and conflicting interest leads to conflict and crime.
For Karl Marx, society is basically a clash between the poor and the rich, the oppressor and the oppressed. The rich because of their ability to use their power in the society are the ones who emerge as the controlling influence of the society. Because of the great disparity between the rich and poor, conflicts and clashes exist. The poor wants to have a share in the property of the rich and the rich tries to maintain economic inequality by passing laws designed to protect them from the poor.
Karl Marx actually makes sense. Corporate crimes have existed as old as the creation of the corporation. Yet it is surprising that it is only very recently that corporate crimes are being punished. A proof of this is the enactment of Sarbanes-Oxley Act which was signed into law only in 2002. This law was passed in response to the corporate scandals that rocked the commercial business world in the 1990s which impose accountability on the part of the management of a company. It is very surprising that despite a number of funds being entrusted by the shareholders to the members of the board of directors and despite their high degree of accountability, it was only in 2002 that a law was passed making the board of directors criminally accountable for the funds entrusted to them.
Another proof is the complexity of the nature of the white-collar crimes. Unlike the blue-collar crimes such as murder or robbery where one can easily understand the nature of the crime committed, white-collar crimes such as credit card fraud or health care fraud are difficult to understand. Most the time the people involved do not have an idea that they have been actually victimized by a crime. Even if the public knows that a white-collar crime has been committed, oftentimes they do not know which agency to contact and report to for assistance. Or, even if a victim files a complaint and the guilty of white-collar offenders is actually proven in court, it is a general knowledge that compared to other crimes, penalties imposed for white-collar crimes are less strict compared to the blue-collar crimes.
Karl Marx provided a simple yet very logical explanation why there are few laws against white-collar crimes and why white-collar criminal offenders are not punished as severely as common criminals. He said that in a capitalist society, laws are passed not for the purpose of protecting the public but for the purpose of protecting the capitalist regime. It is therefore not surprising that we have few laws that will protect the public against white-collar criminal offenders. It does not, therefore, come as a surprise that judges and police officers are soft on white-collar criminal offenders.
Laws are biased in favor of the capitalists because they are the ones who make the law. Most of our legislators come from the rich family background and have big businesses and investment to protect. They also have strong associations with people who are in the upper class in the society. It would be highly unlikely that our legislators would turn against people of their own kind.
Moreover, the competing interest between the capitalists and the proletariat brings to mind a number of injustices that happen on a daily basis. One of these injustices is racial profiling. This is a reality that happens and continues to happen until now. In fact, cases of racial profiling have increased after the 9/11 attack. Statistics shows that approximately thirty-two million Americans have already been victims of racial profiling and approximately eighty-seven million Americans are at a high risk of being subjected to future racial profiling during their lifetime. This is a reality that happens and continues to happen until now. Racial profiling is objectionable because it is committed against the marginalized and underprivileged class. The people who become victims of racial profiling are almost always the minorities who are either the African-Americans or the Hispanics. According to Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics published annually by the US Department of Justice, in 1996, blacks, who made up approximately 12.8 percent of the nation’s population, represented 43.2 percent of the persons arrested for Part I violent crimes, and 32.4 percent of persons arrested for Part I property crimes. Part 1 violent crimes refer to crimes against persons such as murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault while Part 1 property crimes refer to burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.
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