What Causes Crime?
HUMAN nature in the postwar period will be pretty much what it was during the war, and before the war. If we should have a crime wave now, it won’t be due to anything new or strange. The same old forces will be operating, even though changed conditions may have altered the importance of some of them.
For the last hundred years we have tried to apply scientific methods of research to such a question as what causes crime.
We haven’t learned all the answers, but we have found out some things, and we have disproved other beliefs that used to be commonly accepted. We no longer believe, for instance, that a criminal is possessed of the devil or was born under an unlucky star.
One major discovery has been that virtually all of us form our moral standards from those with whom we come into closest contact during our formative years. We behave as do the people we like and admire, because we are eager to have their respect. That is why most of our elementary ways of thinking and living are formed by our home and neighbor-hood contacts.
In our cities the highest delinquency and crime rates are in the slum areas, for perfectly understandable reasons. Here are the poorest housing conditions, the largest families, the smallest incomes, the worst health problems, the largest number of homes with parents who have themselves been in trouble with the law, and the least supervision over children.
Boys and girls whose homes are overcrowded and have no recreational facilities have little choice except to play in the streets and alleys. Gangs are formed, and it is easy for their members to drift into petty thievery or worse forms of misconduct. Youngsters learn about the evil side of life too early.
Often the neighborhood toughs and gangsters become their heroes.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that in spite of these temptations, the vast majority of slum children grow up to be decent, law-abiding citizens. It must likewise be admitted that criminals do occur among all classes of society and that neither wealth, nor careful upbringing, nor high intelligence is a sure guarantee against criminality.
Nevertheless statistics prove that the majority of our professional and habitual criminals got their start in some city slum. The reason children of foreign-born parents and children of American Negroes have such high delinquency and crime rates is that a large proportion of them have been compelled by economic or other causes to grow up under slum conditions.
Slums aren’t the only crime breeders.
Poverty and the slum life which it causes are not the only sources of crime. Sometimes lack of intelligence or a disordered mind is responsible. Sometimes the emotional life of an individual is warped by conflicts, the nature of which we do not yet fully understand.
Sometimes the very punishments we impose upon an offender stir up the rebellions side of his nature and turn him into a confirmed criminal instead of reforming him. Sometimes the spectacle of supposed leaders of the community enriching them-selves by graft or financial manipulations leads to a cynical lowering of moral standards on the part of the rest of us.