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What Really Causes Crime?
A Look at Crime Through the Lens of a Criminologist
What Causes Crime? Criminologists have taken this age-old question and flipped it on its head, asking instead: What causes people to NOT commit crime. It’s these answers we find more collective, easy to gather, and less widespread.
On the way home from her weekly jog, Sasha passes a shiny red car, the keys left humming in the engine, the door cracked open and no one around. She scans the deserted suburban block, wondering were the idiot who left their sports car up for grabs has so urgently run off to. She shake’s her head, continuing on towards home; towards the family that waits for her to eat dinner, all of them chatting around the cheery wood table. The thought of taking this car doesn’t even enter Sasha’s mind, she’s got too much to lose; there’s the 401K and her solid steady job, years of friends, acquaintances, resources, and her wonderful husband who owns a local dentistry practice. There’s nothing worth risking a perfect life for.
Just down the street a man saunters in the shadows, he too sees the unobserved car, he also sees the lady in spandex jogging away. Mark hasn’t been able to find a job in two years, since the shoe shop he worked for closed its doors. Back then things were at least okay, Mark never would have thought of doing something like this then. For the last year Mark has been taking care of his bed-ridden mom and little sister after his father skipped town. He tried dealing drugs, anything to keep food on the table, to keep his mom’s medicines stocked. When he was robbed point blank last week he found himself in a world of trouble: get $5,000 for the dealer who fronted him, or God only knows what. He has to meet the dealer with big buff arms, each one sleeved in spider webs, thirty minutes from now. He can’t believe his luck; a car just ahead with her door all tossed open, an empty street with no one around. Mark looks left then right before ducking inside the car, snatching the abandoned wallet off the front seat.
The difference between Mark and Sasha is obvious: Mark has nothing to lose and therefore everything to gain. Sasha, on the opposite end, has everything to lose and very little to gain, especially from a simple automobile and its inner-possessions. Rational Choice Theory analyzes crime as a serious of checks and balances; if a crime economically makes sense for someone they are more likely to pursue. What are merely desperate attempts at survival become criminalized for less fortunate social groups.
In our society it’s a constant battle for success, power, and respect. The regular methods of obtaining these statuses include going to school, seeking a higher education, writing a novel, picking up a great job, being promoted, buying a new house, and the list goes on and on. For someone like Mark (discussed above), these options are not readily available and often they are all together unknown about. I knew a professor from UCSD a few years back, she had done a lot of work in urban schools where she found families living ten minutes from SDSU did not know anything about college or enrollment. Mark is so busy caring for his family he hardly has time or resources to maintain status in the traditional fashions. His neighborhood is littered in small gangs, ones that he’d rather be with than against. They provide him with a family feeling, something he doesn’t get at home- at home it’s only sadness; the walls melting yellow from the brown stains in the shadowed corners.
Human nature is not to lie down and die, we are survivors by instinct; not even poverty can crush our will and egos. The poverty-stricken crave the same things those college grads with their prideful degrees easily enjoy, they only must obtain it down a different avenue.
Taking this into account, doesn’t the TV show Bait Car seem a little twisted? They don’t put these crappy bait cars in La Jolla or The Hamptons, or even in any middle class neighborhoods! They selectively stick these cars where people who have absolutely nothing to lose live. Time and time again they “catch” a thief, gladly arresting them; a process that costs our State a great deal of money. It seems like a grave case of backwards logic to me, using reactive methods instead of proactive. If we spent more money fixing our issues with poverty, I argue- along with many further qualified scholars- that we would eventually see our justice system budget reduced.
Although this ‘bait car’ routine is bragged to have reduced car thefts by 55% in some areas, these numbers are truly un-telling. Of course public knowledge of bait cars will decrease eager thieves. But this does nothing to address the social problems that cause people to steal a car in the first place. Instead of taking a car, that desperate individual will just take something else; perhaps the next show we will see is, “Bait Purse.”