Criminology For Dummies
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Immersing yourself in the behavioral science of criminology involves analyzing the tools and approaches for helping you, and society as a whole, understand and even control criminal behavior.

From interpreting the legal terminology of the various types of violent crime, to examining the important theories as to why people commit crimes, criminological research gives you the knowledge you need to follow crime trends.

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Different types of violent crime

In criminology, how a violent crime is approached depends very much on how the crime is defined. So many different legal terms exist for various forms of violent crime that it’s often hard for people to keep track of what means what.

Here are simple yet detailed definitions of some common types of violent crimes. (Remember, definitions of crimes may differ depending on which state you’re in.)

  • Homicide: The killing of one person by another (regardless of the circumstances).
  • Murder: The intentional killing of another human being.
  • First-degree murder: A term some states use to refer to an intentional killing.
  • Second-degree murder: A term some states use to refer to an unintentional killing in which the killer demonstrates “extreme indifference to human life” or “wanton disregard” for the life of the victim.
  • Felony murder: A term some states use for a death that occurs during the commission of a serious felony, such as robbery or kidnapping. (All participants in such a felony can be charged with murder.)
  • Manslaughter: The unintentional killing of another person, where the killer engages in reckless conduct that causes a death.
  • Negligent homicide: The causing of someone’s death through negligence.
  • Battery: The act of making offensive physical contact with someone.
  • Assault: The threat of a battery, or an attempted battery, without actual physical contact.
  • Simple assault or battery: The act of causing someone low-level — not serious — physical injury.
  • Aggravated assault or battery: Serious felony conduct that involves the use of a dangerous or deadly weapon or that results in serious injury.
  • Vehicular assault: Dangerous driving that results in injury to another.
  • Spousal assault (also called domestic assault or intimate partner violence): Violence between domestic partners.
  • Rape: The act of forcibly compelling someone to have sexual intercourse, or sexual intercourse between an adult and a partner under the age of 18, or the act of having intercourse with someone whom the law deems incapable of consent because of a mental handicap.
  • Sodomy: The act of having forced anal or oral sex with someone, or the consensual act of participating in those same acts between an adult and a juvenile.

Important theories in criminology: why people commit crime

In criminology, examining why people commit crime is very important in the ongoing debate of how crime should be handled and prevented. Many theories have emerged over the years, and they continue to be explored, individually and in combination, as criminologists seek the best solutions in ultimately reducing types and levels of crime. Here is a broad overview of some key theories:

  • Rational choice theory: People generally act in their self-interest and make decisions to commit crime after weighing the potential risks (including getting caught and punished) against the rewards.
  • Social disorganization theory: A person’s physical and social environments are primarily responsible for the behavioral choices that person makes. In particular, a neighborhood that has fraying social structures is more likely to have high crime rates. Such a neighborhood may have poor schools, vacant and vandalized buildings, high unemployment, and a mix of commercial and residential property.
  • Strain theory: Most people have similar aspirations, but they don’t all have the same opportunities or abilities. When people fail to achieve society’s expectations through approved means such as hard work and delayed gratification, they may attempt to achieve success through crime.
  • Social learning theory: People develop motivation to commit crime and the skills to commit crime through the people they associate with.
  • Social control theory: Most people would commit crime if not for the controls that society places on individuals through institutions such as schools, workplaces, churches, and families.
  • Labeling theory: People in power decide what acts are crimes, and the act of labeling someone a criminal is what makes him a criminal. Once a person is labeled a criminal, society takes away his opportunities, which may ultimately lead to more criminal behavior.
  • Biology, genetics, and evolution: Poor diet, mental illness, bad brain chemistry, and even evolution have been proposed as explanations for crime.

A sampling of crime stats

Crime trends are very important to policymakers who must decide how much money to commit to public safety. The charts included here show the long-term trends in funding police through 2017 and in crime rates through 2019. (Preliminary statistics for the year 2020 indicate a significant increase in crime nationwide. This may be an aberration in the long-term downward trend, or it may signal a shift. Time will tell.)

cost of police protection

violent crime rates

property crime rates

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Steven Briggs is a nationally recognized expert on crime. He has worked in the judicial and executive branches of government, prosecuted cases at the local, state, and federal level, and run a statewide law enforcement agency. He has lectured internationally on a variety of criminal justice topics, and in his spare time is an award-winning writer of crime fiction.

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