Criminology | Section 5.5

Fundamentals of Criminology by Adam J. McKee

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Substance Abuse and Crime

The criminal justice system, our broader society, and the mental health community have different ways of viewing the problem of substance abuse.  There seems to be an agreement among all stakeholders that addiction, including alcoholism, is a massive social problem.  The disagreement often comes down to the causes and effective treatments of addiction.  The mental health community regards addiction as a form of mental illness.  To make matters worse, there is a strong relationship between substance abuse and violent behavior.  One Canadian survey of inmates convicted of violent offenses revealed that 48% were under the influence of illegal drugs at the time the committed the offense for which they were incarcerated.  In the United States, it was found that 80% of individuals arrested for violent crime tested positive for illegal drugs at the time of apprehension.  Simply put, the vast majority of prisoners were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol when they committed the offense that landed them in prison.

Researchers have hypothesized three basic mechanisms to link drugs and anti-social behavior.  The first (and perhaps most intuitive) is that the drugs impair cognition, and there is a lack of judgement and foresight in the mind of the actor when the act occurs.  This is likely to result in increased levels of violent and other anti-social behavior.   When social inhibitions are reduced via the psychopharmacological effects of drugs and alcohol, impulsive behavior is more likely.  The counter-argument to this disinhibition effect is that the effect is culturally specific.  The anthropological literature on the social outcomes of alcohol consumption, for example, suggests wide differences between countries.  In some nations, the researchers suggest, there is no correlation between alcohol and violence, while in others it is a prominent feature.  The unexpected conclusion is that the effects of alcohol are to a large degree socially defined as opposed to pharmacologically defined.  Advocates of this position suggest that alcohol and drugs can be merely a rationalization (excuse) for violent and anti-social behaviors.  There is some evidence that we are more willing to forgive violent acts committed while the actor was intoxicated than we are violent acts committed while the actor was sober.

It has also been hypothesized that the economic needs spawned by addiction can be a cause of violent and other anti-social behavior.  Drug abusers often resort to crime to fund their drug habit, and crimes against persons such as robbery are often employed to supply the money necessary to fuel a drug habit.  There is also a well-documented link between competitors in the drug trade.  The clandestine market for drugs is a staggeringly large shadow economy, and the stakes make it attractive to ruthless individuals and gangs that are prone to violence.  The huge sums of money involved in the drug trade—most often in the form of cash—draws other criminals into the fray.  The normal mechanisms of formal social control are of little use since drug dealers are not likely to report victimization to the police.

Policy Implications

For a century or more, the psychological perspective has had a major influence on how society perceives the crime problem, and that has informed crime control and crime prevention law and policy.  Prevention programs often center on the use of psychological therapeutic strategies aimed at the identification and treatment of underlying psychological disorders that can ultimately lead to criminal behavior if ignored.  Substance abuse clinics, community health centers, school counseling programs, and myriad other disjointed efforts have attempted—and are still working—to alleviate the mental health problems that plague our communities and disrupt our criminal justice system.  When it comes to juveniles, there are a wealth of individuals that may make referrals to community mental health organizations, such as teachers, school counselors, and officers of the juvenile court.

The most logical conclusion to be drawn from these psychological theories of crime is that mentally ill offenders be treated as a mental health problem and not a criminal justice problem.  Aside from the thorny ethical issues of holding a person incapable of controlling their actions criminally culpable, there are some very important practical and economic concerns that must be considered.  We as a society also need to recognize that addiction is a mental health problem, and by definition, addicts are not rational actors.  A criminal justice system founded on rational choice models is doomed to fail.  Drug courts were a step in a positive direction, but these may still be too closely aligned with the criminal justice system.

An examination of the relationship between crime, mental health, and addiction suggest that the criminal justice system is ill-equipped to deal with the mentally ill, and criminalizing addiction has proven expensive, dangerous, and fruitless.  If we consider the criminal justice system as a social institution in need of “fixing,” then we must first examine its role with a larger system of social institutions.  One of the biggest issues facing our nation today is the seldom-discussed middle-class mental health crisis in the United States.  If you are very poor, social safety nets kick in and you can seek mental health services paid for by government healthcare programs.  If you are very wealthy, you can simply pay for the services that you need.  If you are a member of the working class, you simply cannot obtain services.  You do not qualify for federally funded assistance, and private health insurance is notoriously reluctant to pay for mental health.  Insurance companies only seem to consider things that show up on an MRI as a bona fide medical condition, and you are left to your own devices when it comes to mental health.

The criticisms of psychological theories of crime tend to come from sociological criminology, and they usually hinge on the argument that psychological theories are flawed because they tend to ignore important social forces such as poverty, inequality, and neighborhood crime and disorder.

Key Individuals and Terms

Sigmund Freud, Kate Friedlander, California Psychological Inventory (CPI), Ego, Electra Complex, Freudian, Id, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), Oedipus Complex, Personality Theory, Psychoanalytic Theory, Psychological Counseling, Psychological Theory, Superego.


Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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