Tough on Crime… con’t.

If the motivation behind public support for enhanced punishment is a symbolical denunciation of criminals and crime, this need to make a symbolic stand may not be closely linked to any particular set of outcomes1.

In other words, the current debate on criminal justice in Canada is really nothing more than political rhetoric couched in symbology.

Further, if there can be said to be a theoretical foundation for this, it cannot be found anywhere other than the various theories of offender deficit. The theories in all their many guises, boil down to the proposition that “there is something lacking in those that offend – they are somehow different from, and lesser than, those that do not offend”2.

“They were born to offend!”

With that as a foundation, the whole question of how to address crime, and those that commit crimes, is now framed within the context of the individual offender and the response to that offender3.

The entire theoretical framework that approaches understanding crime from a systemic or structural perspective is at best ignored, and at worst dismissed. Even though it was the subsequent scientific work in these areas that absolutely proved that theories of offender deficit are invalid in providing any kind of scientifically demonstrable explanation for crime and criminals.

This is not the forum to go through all the different theories that have a structural or systemic focus. A consideration of one such theory – strain theory, serves to illuminate how such theories provide an alternative framework for analysis of crime.

In 1938, Robert K. Merton published “Social Structure and Anomie” in the October issue of the American Sociological Review 3 (pp. 672-682).

In this paper, he presented his theory that:

“ . . . crime is a symptom of the gap between culturally prescribed aspirations and the socially structured means for realizing those aspirations.” 4

When Society legitimizes certain goals and aspirations, and indeed encourages the populace to aspire to those goals and aspirations (such as “unlimited wealth”), those for whom there are societal and structural barriers to the attainment of those goals and fulfillment of those aspirations through legitimate means are thereby “encouraged” to obtain those goals aspirations by illegitimate means.

Really, that’s what organized crime is all about – the acquisition of money and power, but through illegitimate means.

Our society daily sends a message, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, that:

  • It’s all about the individual, and never about the community;
  • It’s all about material possessions and status;
  • It’s all about doing what you can do, not what you ought to do.

Blatant examples abound in the popular and mass media, but there are other ways the message is delivered that give it the imprimatur of official sanction.

The current affordable housing crisis in Alberta serves to provide an example of the subtle ways that this message is delivered. Quite simply, for all to see, there are (albeit a minority of) landlords who are taking advantage of the near 0% vacancy rates to increase rents by 200% - 300% and more. They are “doing what they can do” in this market at this time, and despite calls from a plethora of constituencies, the
Alberta government continues to insist that it will not institute any form of rent regulation or control.


1. Zimring, Franklin E., Hawkins, Gordon, & Kamin, Stephen; Three Strikes and You’re Out in California, (2001) Oxford University Press, New York, p. 223 ff. The reference is specifically to the political situation in California in the early to mid 1990s, but the rhetoric in Canada today bears a remarkable resemblance to the rhetoric taking place in California at that time.

2. Likely the first to advance such a theory was Lombroso in the late 1800s (and whom we have mentioned in previous Issues of The Reporter). Pretty well all Introductory Criminology texts have a section devoted to discussion of these theories; see for example, Linden, Rick, Criminology: A Canadian Perspective 5th(2004) Thomson Nelson, Toronto, cap. 7, “Early theories of Criminology”.

3. Ironically, if one is developing policy guided by the theory that offenders are “born to offend”, whether explicitly or implicitly, then the whole notion of “tough on crime” as a deterrent is illogical and irrelevant.

4. Linden supra p.294