Criminologists are being encouraged to concentrate on the risk factors of crime rather than its causes

Dear Editor,

The Kaieteur News of 19th January 2018 reported on the handing over ceremony of the Security Sector reform report to President Granger by the British expert Lt Col (ret’d) Russell Combe. The very edition made note of an interesting observation and statement made by the President. First, the President was critical of the previous government, suggesting that they were concerned with the manifestations of crimes and not the causes. Second, The President, according to the said report, stated his “Government’s determination to address the root cause of crime …” This statement gives rise to the consideration whether knowing the cause of crime is essential to our efforts at reducing or eliminating crime?

Sometime ago I had started discussing with readers some of the more popular theories on the cause of crime. I had covered the biological and the psychological theories, but never got around to addressing the various environmental theories. So, let me quickly point out that the two most persuasive of these are (a) poverty and (b) socially disorganized communities. The argument against the poverty theory is linked to the observation of Dr Samenow, which I shared in my letter of 13th January 2018. The good doctor said, “most poor people do not commit crime while many wealthy people do.”  Here in the USA the Department of Justice statistics for 2010 indicate that theft committed by students from households earning $75,000 or more were nearly triple the rate of thefts committed by students from households earning less than $15,000.

Indeed, today we have a situation where wealth is being offered as a cause of crime. Recently a youth from a wealthy Texas family was found guilty of killing four pedestrians while driving intoxicated. At trial his lawyer argued that he was suffering from affluenza (one’s wealth giving one a sense of being privileged). The youth was given a light sentence. Observers believe that it was this argument that influenced the light sentence. So, now we have the uncomfortable and perhaps confusing situation in which wealth is being offered as a cause of crime.  But with all this confusion, modern criminologists have added a new twist to the discourse.

Recently they are beginning to shift their attention from ‘root cause,’ arguing that: (a) If indeed we could identify the ‘root cause” of crime it is likely there is little we could do about it, and (b) there is such a thing as a criminal personality. Personality we are told is “made up of characteristic patterns of thought, feelings and behaviours that make a person unique.”  Others have offered that “personality arises from within the individual and remains fairly consistent throughout life.” So, if there is such a thing as a criminal personality (there is a wealth of argument in support of this), then there is little one can do to erase this ‘root cause’ of crime. Thus, seen from this perspective, the search for ‘root cause’ becomes of little consequence.

Editor, the natural sciences have had a tremendous influence on the development of the social sciences. Nowhere is this influence more noticeable than in the language used by both sciences. For example, in medicine they talk of diagnosis and treatment. In social work the same language is used. For over a hundred years medical science has been seeking to uncover the cause/s of cancer, but to no avail. Today while some medical scientists still pursue this, others have focused on identifying what is termed ‘risk factors’ for developing cancer. For example, they have come up with risk factors such as poor dietary habits, lack of exercise, excessive smoking, etc.  The identification of risk factors is credited with having been responsible for the reduction in the number of deaths from cancers here in the USA since its peak in the 1990s.

Today, the social sciences are again benefiting from the lead of the natural sciences. Criminologists are being encouraged to focus on risk factors rather than cause/s of crime, if they are to make a significant contribution to the reduction or elimination of crime. My letter of 13th January offers a number of risk factors that I suspect, if addressed, would likely lead to a reduction in crime in Guyana.

Finally, if indeed the President still holds that seeking the cause of crime is important, I would humbly suggest that Lt Col (ret’d) Russell Combe will be of little assistance in uncovering same. He too does not know what the cause of crime is. If he did, reason suggests he would have certainly shared same with his homeland, and at least Britain would have been on its way to becoming crime free.

Further, if Lt Col (ret’d) Combe, is to provide Guyana with a programme that will inform the workings of our justice system, I have no faith in such a programme even without seeing same. All programmes designed to reduce or eliminate crime must take on board an understanding of the culture of the people they are intended to serve. Mr Combe cannot be expected to possess such an understanding of Guyanese. While living in Guyana I worked quite a bit with foreign experts.  Assistance from foreign ‘experts’ has its usefulness; however, for that assistance to be meaningful it has to be tempered by the knowledge of locals. Thus, the government might be well advised to have criminologists like Michael Parris and Tara Singh work along with Mr Combe.  I know both gentlemen are outside of Guyana, but I am confident if contacted they would be willing to assist.

Yours faithfully,

Claudius Prince

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