With correctional populations at an all time high, the cost of maintaining the prison system has been breaking state budgets for years (Pew Center on the States, 2009). For example, the state of Kentucky was facing a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall in 2009 at the same time that it was being sued by its own counties for costs associated with jailing prison overflows. This growing fiscal crisis has been facing politicians, corrections officials, and criminologists for years with no easy solution in sight.
One possible solution to prison overcrowding is the widespread adoption of community- and problem-oriented policing (Maguire and King, 2004). These policing strategies identify locations that foster criminal activity and design interventions that change the environment in ways that discourage such activity; therefore, they are primarily preventive in nature. Common examples would be 'broken windows' and 'hotspot' policing. However, these policing strategies tend to ignore individual contributions to criminality. The emergence of community- and problem-oriented policing strategies therefore depend heavily on the theory that the structure of a community's lived environment is the primary determining factor for individual behavior (Savage and Vila, 2003), while at the same time holding individuals responsible for their offenses.
This report will examine the validity of the assumption that social forces control individual behavior and discuss the implications of current theories for future trajectories of the criminal justice system.
The Human Ecology of Crime
In the introduction to their article on the biological and environmental correlates of offender behavior, Savage and Vila (2003) contrast the concept of 'normal' people committing a crime due to extreme circumstances with the reality that half of all crimes are committed by repeat offenders. The former suggests that most crime is committed by everyday law-abiding people, who in a moment of exceptional duress commit a criminal act, while the latter thoroughly debunks that theory. This dichotomy is discussed at the beginning of the article because both miss the point that some human ecologists try to make, which is that all individuals are capable of criminal activity under the right circumstances and crime becomes a way of life for a few.
The human ecology factors believed to contribute to criminal activity are an individual's past and ongoing interactions with the home and community environment (reviewed by Savage and Vila, 2003). Individual contributions are primarily a product of 'behavioral strategies' that seek to procure resources, like family, property, money, or power. These strategies depend on an individual's ability to evaluate the value of a resource and retain it. Criminal behavior is therefore defined as the use of "… force, fraud, or stealth to obtain desired resources & #8230;" (p. 84). In essence, human ecologists equate human behavior with the foraging activity of animals, but with the additional characteristics of being highly intelligent, highly adaptive, and exceptional at acquiring new behaviors through social interactions. The latter trait represents one of the ways that the home and community environment can influence an individual's behavior.
The Impact of Social Injustice
From the human ecological perspective, social inequalities can be expressed through crime rates (reviewed by Savage and Vila, 2003). Racial disparities, which create community concentrations of poverty, unemployment, and social isolation, are cited as a credible explanation for differences in crime prevalence along racial lines. Some individuals, living within a society that emphasizes material wealth, will try to compensate for lower social status through theft. However, even a social system lacking injustice and having almost uniform conformity to social rules will still generate thieves because the market for theft is wide open (no competition initially). Human ecology theory therefore predicts that crime will eventually develop in any society, but will be aggravated by social injustices.
Etiology of Career Criminality
Savage and Vila (2003) draw a clear distinction between individuals who commit a crime because they are faced with an extreme situation and those who make crime a habit. Career criminals attract the most attention from criminology researchers, because a relatively few individuals (5-7%) are responsible for close to half of all crimes committed. Understanding why these individuals turn to a life of crime is viewed as essential to preventing repeat offending and theoretically reducing crime rates by half.
The dominant explanation offered for repeat offending is a troubled childhood (Savage and Vila, 2003). Evidence offered in support of this theory is the existence of a 'strategic style,' which represents a set of behavioral strategies used to obtain valued resources. However, the resource accumulating strategies of career criminals are no longer tied to a high rate of return in investment. Instead, the criminal strategic style tends to persist simply because alternative strategies for resource accumulation have never been learned.
The existence of a criminal strategic style implies a history of social influences that fostered criminal trait development (Savage and Vila, 2003). If these influences included the use of aggression when obtaining valued resources, then the crimes committed will tend to involve the threat or use of violence. From a human ecology perspective, a resource-poor environment which fails to teach non-criminal values or provide a way to obtain resources through legitimate means will tend to foster career criminals. However, this is a relatively simple view of the countless factors that can contribute to the development of antisocial behavior. A few of the other factors Savage and Vila (2003) mentioned include physical or emotional abuse, environmental toxins, a bad school, and interactions with criminal role models.
Early childhood is believed to be one of the most important determinants of career criminality (reviewed by Savage and Vila, 2003). If these habits are established by adolescence, then they will likely persist for a lifetime in the absence of effective interventions. This belief is supported by genetics research into the stability of personality traits, including criminal propensity. In a recent study by Barnes and Boutwell (2012), which examined the relationship between genetics and criminality, genetic contributions were found to be responsible for 97% of the stability in this trait over a 13-year period stretching from adolescence to young adulthood. This result suggests that if crime habits already exist by adolescence, genetics plays the dominant role in helping to maintain them for years into the future.
Do the results from this genetic study suggest that offenders cannot be rehabilitated? No, because the same study found that genetics, in combination with environmental changes, played a significant role in a young criminal's ability to shrug off their crime habits and become law-abiding citizens (Barnes and Boutwell, 2012). What this means is that a person's genetic material may make it difficult for them to change their criminal ways if they stay in the same environment, but that the same genetic material helps them to become pro-social when placed in a pro-social environment.
A recent review of the genetic evidence concluded that overall, genes do play a role in rendering some individuals more susceptible to developing antisocial traits (DeLisi, 2012). However, Savage and Vila (2003) caution that rushing to conclusions based on this kind of evidence is a mistake. For example, genes may influence behavioral tendencies, but so does the environment. Barnes and Boutwell (2012), in an attempt to explain their seemingly counterintuitive result that genetics also helps people change lifelong habits in combination with the environment, noted that the environment interacts with the genetic material by modifying how genes are expressed. In the words of Savage and Vila (2003), "… most biologists disparage the idea that biological factors are distinguishable from environmental factors -- since both appear to affect each other in a reciprocal manner" (p. 87). In essence, some children may be more susceptible to becoming a career criminal in the right environment, but no child should be viewed as destined for this fate a priori.