Social Control Theory

X. Policy Implications

Current crime control policy in the United States emphasizes the value of incarceration on the one side and treatment or rehabilitation on the other. Increased rates of incarceration have been encouraged by renewed academic interest in so-called “career criminals” and by the view that crime control requires swift, certain, and severe punishment by agents of the criminal justice system. The emphasis on punishment is encouraged by politicians, the media, an influential segment of academic criminology, and of course by law enforcement officials themselves. The crime problem is a blessing to all of them, and they do not fail to take advantage of it.

Increased levels of concern and punishment automatically produce greater numbers of potential offenders, probationers, inmates, and parolees—all of whom are thought to benefit from exposure to modern treatment and rehabilitation programs. The emphasis on treatment is encouraged by the belief that it provides a humane alternative to punishment. It is also encouraged by renewed faith in its effectiveness in reducing subsequent involvement in criminal and delinquent behavior. Where it was recently believed that treatment does not work, the question of effectiveness is now answered in advance by advocacy of evidence-based programs. An emphasis on treatment is a blessing for psychologists, social workers, and social service agencies.

Support for neither of these general policies is found in social control theory. Consistent with the theory, potential offenders are not influenced by the threat of legal penalties, and their behavior is not altered by changing the certainty or severity of such penalties. Consistent with the theory, the behavior of people exposed to the criminal justice system is not affected by such exposure. The level of punishment (e.g., the length of sentence) imposed by the system does not affect the likelihood that its wards will be seen again. Put another way, the criminal justice system receives people after they have committed offenses, but it has little or no influence on their prior or subsequent behavior.

Incarceration is sometimes justified on the grounds that it reduces the crime rate by incapacitating offenders. Even if punishment and treatment do not work, the argument goes, people in prison are not committing countable crimes while they are there, though a derivation of this argument from any version of control theory is not supportable.

The idea that crime can be prevented by treating or rehabilitating offenders is contrary to the assumptions of control theory. The theory sees crime as a choice that does not reflect illness or defective judgment but the social circumstances of the actor and the logic of the situation. The renewed enthusiasm for treatment is also not justified by research. As often as not, it seems, the difference between the treatment and control groups is disappointing, or even in the wrong direction. Given the investment in various treatment strategies and the felt need to counterbalance punitive policies, the return of a skeptical view of treatment in the near future is unlikely, but better evidence that treatment works will be required to make it a serious challenge to the control theory perspective.

Crime control strategies that go by such names as situational crime prevention, the routine activity approach, and environmental design are perfectly compatible with control theory. All assume that crimes may be prevented by focusing on the conditions necessary for their occurrence—by reducing their benefits, by making them more hazardous or difficult. Unlike control theory, these approaches focus on one type of crime at a time—burglary, robbery, assault—but they, too, see the potential offender as acting out of choice rather than compulsion. A choosing offender may attack a lone individual but will not consider attacking a member of a group; a choosing offender may enter an unlocked door but refrain from breaking down a door that is securely locked. The beauty of these approaches is that, to the extent they are successful, they eliminate criminals by eliminating crime. Situational crime prevention theorists like to say that “opportunity makes the thief,” but a more direct statement of their position would be that “theft makes the thief.”

Social control theories typically do not provide specific positive guidance about crime control policy. Those who attack their policy implications tend to focus on the odious implications of “control,” suggesting that control theorists favor selective incapacitation and value thoughtless conformity over individual freedom. It may be partly for this reason that control theorists are reluctant to play the policy game, but it may be that the policy implications of control theory are too obvious to bear repeating. If weakened social bonds are the reason crime flourishes, the straightforward way to reduce the crime problem would be to help individuals intensify their relationships with society. How is this to be accomplished? Control theory cannot provide particularly good answers to this question anymore than strain theory can offer unusual insight about how to improve economic conditions among the poor. We do know that stakes in conformity cannot be imposed from without, that society cannot force friends on the friendless. But we know, too, that some conditions are more conducive than others to the creation and maintenance of the natural bonds that make people consider the consequences of their acts for the lives and well-being of others. With such conditions in place, the theory claims, the need for crime control policies is greatly reduced.

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