What leads young people to commit larceny?

Dear Editor,

While there is no single theory that can explain all crime, we can certainly find a perspective that can explain specific forms of crime. For example, a large percentage of robberies and larceny by young people from poor communities can be explained by use of the Strain Theory that was popularised by Robert Merton.

This theory grew out of Durkheim’s concept of anomie. Durkheim had argued that sudden changes in people’s experiences gave rise to depression, which in turn leads to suicide. For example, a rich man who suddenly turns poor is abruptly thrown into an unfamiliar way of life.

Suddenly all the way of coping he knows are no longer useful and he feels incompetent to respond to his new reality. Thus, he kills himself.

Merton sees things a little differently. For him the real problem is created not by sudden social change, but by a social structure that holds out the same goals to all of its members without giving to them equal access to legitimate means to achieve them. This lack of integration between the socially approved value and the socially approved means can cause norms to break down, because they are no longer effective guides to behaviour for some groups. Thus, these groups must create their own means to achieve the socially approved ends. Now let us see how this argument can be used to explain some robberies and larceny in Guyana.

This theory would argue that in Guyana the definition of success for a man is for him to have a comfortable house, children who attend the best school, a car, a solid bank account, to be able to, along with his family, take a holiday in a foreign land at least once per year. The socially approved means for him to achieve these things is by doing well at school and obtaining a well paying job. However, the child from a depressed area in Guyana sometimes does not grow up in a home that offers the support needed for him/her to have a reasonable chance of succeeding at school. The average poor home does not have a study room, a library to supplement what is taught at school and it usually does not have parents who are able to help the child with his/her homework. The parents of poor homes do not have the contact to get their children into the “better schools” when they fail the Secondary School Entrance Examina-tion. Hence, according to Merton, young persons from poor homes can do one of the following:

a) Conform: This is what most of us do. We accept the society’s values and means. We work hard, live honestly and do the best we can. Some of us will do well, some would not.

b) Ritualism: This talks about those who abandon the goals they once believed to be reachable and resign themselves to their present life styles. Example, these play by the rules. They work the same job all their life, they line up and catch the bus every day, they collect the same pay check every month and they look forward to their two weeks holiday every year.

c) Retreatism: Here persons give up on both the means and the goals. They retreat into the world of drugs and alcohol.

d) Rebellion: These persons reject both the socially approved goals and means. These persons substitute their own goals (get rid of the establishment) and their own means (protests). They have an alternative scheme for a new social structure, however ill defined. Some would see the Rastafarians as examples of this group.

e) Innovation: These accept the socially approved goals, however since the socially approved means are not available to them, they innovate or devise their own means to get ahead, example robbery.

To some extent, it is this latter response that best explains theft in its various forms, committed by some young citizens from poor homes. Thus, police action alone will not solve the crime situation. Perhaps we would be better able to respond to crime if we see it as a symptom and not the problem. In this regard a quote from Adler, Mueller and Laufer is useful.

They said “Strain theory assumes that people are law-abiding, but under great pressure they will resort to crime; disparity between goals and means provides that pressure.”

If we accept this theory as a reasonable explanation for some crimes, beating and killing of persons accused of criminal acts would be reduced.

We would begin, as a society, to ask ourselves some serious questions about our values and consider how we can best build a harmonious society. One in which none can justly feel denied of the possibility of achieving success by socially approved means.

The beating of persons arrested by the police or army must never be condoned and shame on those of us who seek to make this matter a trifle. Years ago in the USA some communities (if my memory serves me well including Orange County) had a similar problem. Residents were afraid of the crimes that the drug trade was giving rise to in their community.

They continuously voiced their dissatisfaction with the police’s inability to bring the crime spree to a halt. In response the police asked permission to be given them to, without a warrant, enter the homes of persons suspected of dealing in illegal drugs.

They argued that when warrants are served occupants of the house have enough time to get rid of the evidence.

The citizens in most of these areas in which this request was made, opposed it. They gave as their reasons for doing so: (a) The right of a man’s authority over his home was a hard fought one, which they were not willing to give up, (b) The police could use this right to enter homes to harass persons they dislike, under the guise of “suspicion of dealing in drugs,” (c) That the police must do good police work to solve crimes, for example improve their intelligence-gathering capacity. You see, these citizens did not allow their desire for gratifying their anger and fear of crime to blur their sense of right and wrong.

Those citizens who give the impression of wanting us as a society to not be concerned about the mistreatment of persons suspected of involvement in criminal acts, are wrong. It is our courts that must find persons guilty and decide on their punishment, not the police or groups of citizens.

Lawlessness must not be condoned for any reason. Besides, when we stay silent or attack those who speak out against the beating of suspected criminals, what are we teaching our children about humane behaviour and justice? Could be that a recent event answers that question. On Friday 2 November some students of the Belvedere Primary School “beat up” some students from the Port Mourant Community High School, who they alleged, threw an explosive device at their school.

Report says that one of those beaten had to seek medical attention.

Yours faithfully,

Claudius Prince