There are different types of lawbreakers. Some commit heinous crimes such as murder, kidnapping, rape, drug trafficking, corruption, and treason, among others. There are also those who commit petty crimes such as petty theft, vandalism, possession of firearms without a license, and disorderly conduct. Some have even been reprimanded for committing traffic violations, underage drinking, jaywalking, and misrepresentation.
It is also worth mentioning that some people commit serious crimes out of passion while others do so out of necessity. There are those who stray from simple ordinances and rules in their given communities even though they regard themselves as responsible citizens and supporters of peace and order.
Nevertheless, regardless of the severity of the misconduct, the fact remains that people from different walks of life break laws every day. So, why exactly do people break laws? What are the common causes of crime?
The Common Causes of Crime and Delinquent Behavior: Understanding Why People Break Laws
Note that motivation is essential in understanding why a particular person breaks a particular law. For example, the concept of “mens rea” or “guilty mind” has been considered one of the important elements of a number of criminal behaviors. It specifically pertains to the state of mind of an individual or his or her intention to commit a crime willfully.
Most states or judicial localities in the United States require the identification of a particular mens rea to convict a particular offender, determine the severity of his or her misconduct, and define and bestow the degree of the applicable penalty.
The “guilty mind” essentially allows us to understand further and explore the motivation of lawbreakers. Some examples include a business person murdering his partner to have full control of the entire business, and a group of individuals robbing a bank to ransack its vaults. The intention behind the first example is business interest, while in the second example, it is the desire to steal and earn money.
Other examples include driving without a license, shoplifting several items from a local grocery store, submitting falsified documents, and underage drinking. Necessarily, these individuals are guilty. They have their motivations or reasons for breaking the law and they thought that they could get away from doing so.
It could be argued further that overconfidence accompanies motivation. Some individuals are confident that they would not be caught or that they could get away from lawbreaking. For example, when the businessperson murdered his business partner, he had a plan on diverting the attention and suspicion from him. Perhaps, he could make it appear as an accident or that the person died from a drug overdose.
The specific example about a person driving without a license might include premeditated considerations to include choosing the routes with minimal to zero traffic enforcers, driving within the speed limits to avoid getting the attention of these enforcers, or preparing an excuse to appeal to the emotions in case he got reprimanded.
Robbing a bank does not happen out of randomness. Robbery requires a calculated risk, and planning is essential among robbers. The same is true when someone submits falsified documents. He or she knows that this is illegal but still chooses to do so because he or she is confident that the documents would pass the scrutiny of others.
People who have motivations for breaking the law can have a full understanding of what they are doing. Most of them go as far as devising a plan that would enable them to get away from their misdeeds or divert suspicions toward someone else.
Those who are overconfident that they would not get caught may also be aware of the legal loopholes or specific shortcomings in law enforcement. This fact is observable among corrupt business owners and politicians who seem to have a substantial influence over the legal system or have relevant connections that free them from legal liabilities.
3. Costs and Benefits
Another cause of crime or reason why people break laws stems from the benefits of doing a particular misdeed outweighing its cost. Understanding the costs and benefits of a particular crime can help understand the driving force behind a specific motivation.
In most instances, it could be argued that motivation or intention alone is not enough for a person to break the law. Rational individuals would first contemplate the perceived consequences and compared them with the possible opportunities or advantages that could arise from a particular crime they intend to commit. Nevertheless, if the benefits outweigh the costs or if breaking a particular law provides advantages that make the consequences negligible, then an individual would have the incentive to act on his or her motivation.
Take note again of the example of a business person murdering his partner. Eliminating this person from the picture through murder would certainly land him in jail. However, if done right, it would provide him with better prospects of earning more.
The same is true for someone who is driving without a license. A person might risk doing so if there is an urgent need for him or her to arrive at a particular destination. Some examples of this urgent need include rushing to an important meeting, clocking in at work, rushing someone to a hospital, and escaping from danger, among others.
4. Law Enforcement
The absence of law enforcement agents promotes the benefits and reduces the costs of breaking a particular law. An individual would be motivated further to pursue a specific misconduct if no one is watching him or her simply.
A driver would not mind breaking the speed limits in a particular street if he or she knows there are no traffic enforcers in that area. The same person will not mind driving without a license if his or her usual routes are known for being complacent about enforcing traffic rules or apprehending traffic violators.
Locations with minimal to zero possibility would be ideal spots for thieves and other criminal offenders to thrive. Most murders take place in situations in which the victims were isolated from other people. Remember that overconfidence accompanies motivation. The absence of law enforcement agents would make individuals think that they would not get caught or that they could get away from lawbreaking.
Ignorance of the law is also a shortcoming in law enforcement. It might not be an excuse but it also demonstrates the failure of the government or specific law enforcement agencies to educate the people about existing laws or policies and regulations.
Considering the shortcomings in law enforcement as a cause of crime or as a factor that fuels further motivations and intentions to break a particular law is critical in studies involving crime prevalence and crime reduction strategies.
5. Poor Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is another concept important to understanding the causes of crimes or the reasons why people break laws despite being aware of the consequences of lawbreaking. The same concept is also critical in understanding the capacity of a particular community or an entire society to follow the rules and regulations.
The Shopping Cart Theory is a famous litmus test for determining the capacity of an individual to regulate his or her behaviors and decisions. This theory is based on the notion that returning shopping carts and baskets to their proper designated areas in grocery stores is a task that is both appropriate and convenient.
However, the theory further argues that most people would refrain from doing so simply because it is not illegal to abandon these carts or baskets. Nonetheless, it suggests that the behavior in response to discarding a shopping cart can determine whether a person is capable of doing right without being forced to do so.
The Shopping Cart Theory concludes that some people are predisposed to breaking the law or even committing misdeeds due to convenience. The same is true for those who consider themselves responsible citizens and supporters of peace and order. The theory demonstrates that leaving used shopping carts in the parking lot is more convenient than going back to the store. There is no incentive for them to observe norms or follow rules.
For other people, misconduct is more convenient than observing not only rules and regulations but also norms. There are instances in which following a specific ordinance could bring forth inconvenience. Examples of these include filing appropriate taxes, complying with business standards, and observing strenuous protocols, among others.
Some also have reduced capabilities to self-regulate their behaviors and actions due to their mental predisposition or cognitive impairments. This has been observed in people with certain medical conditions such as psychosis and antisocial personality disorders or those who are under the influence of psychoactive drugs such as alcohol and other illicit drugs.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Altikriti, S., Theocharidou, K., and Sullivan, C. J. 2020. “Specific Theories of Crime? A Longitudinal Assessment of the Competing Effects of Psychopathy and Self-control.” Journal of Crime and Justice. 43(5): 547-567. DOI: 1080/0735648x.2020.1727765
- Campbell, A. and Muncer, S. 1990. “Causes of Crime.” Criminal Justice and Behavior. 17(4): 410-419. DOI: 1177/0093854890017004002
- Lunden, W. A. 1962. “The Theory of Crime Prevention.” The British Journal of Criminology. 2(3): 213-228. DOI: 1093/oxfordjournals.bjc.a047923
- Matthews, P. 1983. “Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse?” Legal Studies. 3(2): 174-192. DOI: 1111/j.1748-121x.1983.tb00314.x