When working with offenders, it is important to note that there isn't any one "cause" of criminality. This isn't chemistry or physics, where actions and reactions can often be reduced to exact measurements and precipitants. Human behavior is the most complex type of variable to measure. A great quote I once read, regarding the complexity of human thought, went something like this: "In order for human beings to be able to comprehend the question 'How do we think,' our brains must be so sophisticated that we will never be able to completely answer."
There have been thousands of studies looking at the causes of human behavior, including crime. Entire theories have been proposed in order to try and explain why some people break the law. An integrated theory that accounts for much of the diversity of thinking around this subject is described by Dr. Glen Walters in his book, The Criminal Lifestyle. He proposes a theory that, reduced down to its nuts and bolts, is comprised of "The Three C's." These "C's" are conditions, choices, and cognitions.
Conditions are variables thrust upon a human being, and can be broken down into two main categories: person variables, and situation variables. Person variables are those variables a person is born with - IQ, genes, temperament, etc. Situation variables are those environmental variables a person is exposed to: poverty, disease, education, etc. On a broad, group-level perspective, these variables obviously influence behavior, including criminal behavior. However, they do not "explain" an individual's behavior in totality (the difference between groups and individuals, and comparing one against the other, is a subject for another time). In addition, it is important to note that when providing treatment to offenders, a therapist should acknowledge the difficulties one might have grown up with, without allowing the individual to blame these conditions for their offending behavior (see this post on why blaming is a big no-no). This can be tricky, and requires some skill. What you want to do as a treatment provider is provide empathy while expecting accountability. What I have found myself saying to an individual who has had a fair amount of exposure to less than ideal conditions in their background is, "Yes, you have had a lot of bad things happen to you, and that wasn't fair. If we could go back and change it, I'd be on board in a second. However, we can't do that. So now, as an adult, you're a little bit behind in some areas, just like someone who missed school due to an illness. Your job, as an adult, is to figure out what you haven't learned that would be beneficial to you to learn, and then learn it. Again, it's more work than maybe a lot of people have to do. But really, what other choice do you have?" I have found that if an individual is truly committed to the process of change, they get this right away. With offenders, however, they usually are not very committed at first, and often get "hung up" on what others have to do, versus what they have to do. I then explain the situation to a group of offenders like this...
I draw a picture of a track on the board, with five lanes, a starting line, and a finish line. I then ask the group if there is any pride in finishing a 100 yard race - not winning, just running 100 yards. Generally everyone scoffs. Then I ask, "What about a marathon? Is finishing a marathon a worthy accomplishment, in and of itself?" Generally, everyone agrees. I then compare "Life" to a marathon, and point out the differences between achieving goals in life, and achieving goals in distance running - pacing, goal-setting, daily effort, etc. I then ask where everyone starts at the beginning of the marathon, which everyone gets. Next, I place five "X's" on the board, one for each running lane. In the first lane, I give the X a big head start. In the second lane, a small head start. The third lane, the X is at Start. The fourth lane, a little behind Start. The last lane, way behind Start.
"This," I point out, "is how Life's race begins. Some get a big lead, and only have to run 15 miles to accomplish their goal. Others have to run 40 miles." However, I also point out: 1) The accomplishment is in finishing, not winning, so that means; 2) where everyone else is on the track is irrelevant, and; 3) just because someone got a head start doesn't mean they'll finish (substitute any celebrity catastrophe in this part of the explanation), and lastly; 4) no matter how far back you think you are when you start, someone else has started from farther behind and finished (I usually use Stephen Hawking as my example here).
This addresses the "Conditions" portion of criminal behavior. We acknowledge its impact on a group level, while refusing to use it as an excuse on a therapeutic level. Since there is no condition that correlates with criminality 100% (that is, causes crime), we know that there are other factors at work. Those factors are Choices and Cognitions, which will be the subjects in the next few posts.