Criminology | Section 1.2

Fundamentals of Criminology

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Scott D. Bransford, Ph.D.


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The Mythology of Criminal Justice

Most of what we know we know from observation or authority.  Both of these methods of knowing are subject to inaccuracy.  To understand what causes crime, it is very important to understand what does not cause crime.  There are many myths out there.  That is, there are many assumptions about what causes crime that are simply wrong.  One of the best examples of the myths of crime theory comes to us from Professor Marcus Felson’s Ten Fallacies about Crime.  Felson points out that Crime often offends us so much that we lose our objectivity—terrible events stick out in our mind.  This has resulted in an imbalanced way of looking at the crime picture in most of us.

Felson’s Ten Fallacies about Crime

Many authors have considered the mythology of criminal justice.  In the world of criminal justice and criminology, misinformation abounds, and “common sense” leads us astray.  This causes bad operational assumptions, which result in bad policy.  Before we can move on and understand what causes crime, we need to understand what does not cause crime.

1. The Dramatic Fallacy

News shows and crime dramas have the same problem: They need to keep people watching.  TV and other media seek strange and violent incidents to keep ratings high.  This is the basis of the Dramatic Fallacy—the idea that more dramatic offenses are publicized and our view of the crime picture is skewed.

Felson’s “Horror-distortion Sequence”

The media distortion process:  1. Find a horror story.  2.  Entertain the public with it.  3.  Make money while creating a myth in the public mind.  4.  Build on that myth for the next horror story.  This distorts crime in the public mind.

Felson’s “Murder Matrix”

The public thinks of murder as a highly elaborate and typical crime.  Nine out of 10 Part 1 crimes are property crimes—not crimes of violence.  Relatively minor offenses outnumbered murders over 1,000 to 1.  The largest category of murder circumstances involves “miscellaneous arguments.”  The vast majority of murders begin as an argument over money or property.

Most murders follow the same pattern of development as a fight.  There is an argument, and things are resolved by violence—except that with a murder, someone happens to die.  Most murders have two central features: A weapon too close, and a hospital too far.

The vast majority of crimes are relatively minor offenses.  Youth drug use patterns are an example: Minor drug use (less dangerous drugs used infrequently) far exceeds regular drug use.  No drugs do as much damage to society in percentage terms as alcohol.  The challenge is to keep focused on the “plain facts” of criminal behavior.

Morality and Deterrence 

Almost everyone has been taught morality, but many still commit crime.  Felson argues that it is good to teach people right from wrong, but you cannot expect them to do what you tell them when you are not watching.

2.  The Cops and Courts Fallacy

The criminal justice system can have only a limited impact on crime.  People must commit crimes before the CJ system comes into play—with the exception of limited preventive measures.  Police are primarily responsive agencies.

The Nature of Police Work

“Police work consists of hours upon hours of boredom, interrupted by moments of sheer terror.”  A major explanation of police inefficiency is that most crimes are never reported.

Intensified police patrols are not noticed by citizens or criminals and have no impact on crime rates.  Less than 1% of offenses end with offenders caught in the act by police officers on patrol.  Doubling the number of police is like doubling a drop in a bucket.

Courts and Punishment

For most crimes known to the police, nobody gets arrested.  When there is an arrest, most do not lead to trial or a  guilty plea.  Of cases that go to trial, most do not result in a prison sentence.  Only about 2% of burglaries lead to a conviction, and fewer still to incarceration.

Our System in Perspective

Professor Felson asks us to consider what happens when you touch a hot stove:  The pain is quick, certain, and relatively minor.  After being burned once, you will not touch the stove again.  Our system is like a special imaginary stove:  It only burns you once every 500 times you touch it, and it does not start hurting for 6 months.  The other 499 times, you get a reward.  The result is that people keep touching the stove—this is consistent with psychology and common sense.

3.  The Not Me Fallacy

The not-me-fallacy is the idea that I could never do a crime.  We should not overestimate the differences between offenders and the rest of us.  Don’t ask “why did he do it?”  But ask “Why doesn’t everybody engage in crime?”  Most of us violate at least some laws.

4.  The Innocent Youth Fallacy

The innocent youth fallacy is the idea that being young means being innocent—youth are corrupted by bad adults.  What really happens is that criminal behavior accelerates quickly during the teen years, peaks in the early 20s, and declines as the offender gets older.  Felson’s conclusion:  The main corrupters of youth are other youth.

5.  The Ingenuity Fallacy

The false image of the criminal created by the media also created the ingenuity fallacy—the idea that criminals are all crafty and tough.  Most crimes today require no advanced skills.  Many of the crimes that did require skills—such as safe cracking—have become obsolete.

Lightweight durables—TVs, VCRs, CD players, etc.—are valuable and easy to sell.  A house full of these easily removed and valuable items makes bank robbery to risky and too much work.

Part of the ingenuity fallacy stems from the embarrassment of the victim.  It is a lot easier to stomach the idea of being a victim if we are the victim of a professional.

Felson’s conclusion:  Most crimes involve little planning, plotting, or creativity.

6.  The Organized Crime Fallacy

The organized crime fallacy points out the silliness of the “Sopranos” type crime organization.  Felson’s Three Basic Principles of Crime Conspiracy are as follows: 1. Act quickly to escape detection and minimize danger from other offenders.  2.  Have direct contact with as few co-offenders as possible to avoid betrayal.  3.  Work as little as possible to get a lot of money.

The “Family” makes no sense:  Given these principles, large groups and organizations make no sense at all for most types of crime.  Most criminal conspiracies work like a chain letter:  The illegal network may involve many people, but few of them know each other.  If one is arrested, only one or two others might be incriminated.

7.  The Juvenile Gang Fallacy

Juvenile gangs have a remarkable image of being cohesive, ruthless, organized groups of alienated youth who dominate local crime, do the nation’s drug trafficking, provide a surrogate family, and kill anyone who quits.  The research indicates that most gangs are disorganized, and only very loosely related.

A Sad Tale of Helping

According to one researcher, social workers who were supposed to help boys get away from gangs were actually keeping the gangs cohesive.  Gangs with no social workers to help them fall apart more often.  While gang members may sell drugs, most gangs are not organized to do it.  The point is that gangs may do evil, but it is not usually organized evil.

8.  The Welfare State Fallacy

Some people hate the welfare state and blame it for crime.  Others like the welfare state and attribute crime to not having more of it.  In general, it is a mistake to assume that crime is part of a larger set of social evils, such as unemployment, poverty, social injustice, or human suffering.

Several studies reveal that a stronger economy leads to more crime!  Maybe it’s because there is more stuff to steal.  America Does NOT have a higher victimization rate than other countries despite our reluctance to engage in social welfare practices.

In terms of overall victimization, America ranks 11, behind Australia, England, and Canada.  As professor Felson bluntly puts it, “British police may carry no guns, but big British kids still beat up little ones.”  We DO have a higher homicide rate.

Felson’s conclusion:  “we’re not more violent than Europeans, we’re just better at finishing people off.”

9.  The Agenda Fallacy

Moral Agendas—many people believe that declining morality is the cause of crime.  The basic moral sequence:  1. Teach and preach morality to people.  2.  They then do what’s right in practice.  3.  This prevents crime.

Almost everyone has been taught morality, but many still commit crime.  It is good to teach people right from wrong, but you cannot expect them to do what you tell them when you are not watching.

Religious Agendas

Many religious groups feel that conversion to their faith will prevent crime, and that failure to convert will lead to more crime.  Little evidence can be found to support this position, and what evidence we have seems to refute it.  For example, as Professor Felson points out, the most religious regions in the United States tend to have high crime rates, and young people in religious schools are just as likely to lie and cheat as children in public schools.

Those who attend church on a regular basis are less likely to engage in crime.  Professor Felson Suggests two reasons for the correlation:  Greater self-control and greater supervision.

Social and Political Agendas

The logic behind these agendas: if there is some political or social force you do not like, blame it for crime.  If there is something you favor, link it to crime prevention.

10.  The Whatever-you-think Fallacy

Many criminologists think that crime has no universal definition.  They see “crime” as a social construct with no basis in nature.  Law may vary, but it does not range freely.  While being specific in making theories may be a good thing, this goes too far.

Academic Fallacies

  1. Crime Happens to People Randomly
  2. The Naturalistic Fallacy
  3. You Cannot Blame the Victim
Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/04/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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