16. Environmental Criminology

16.9 The Strengths and Limitations of Environmental Criminology Theories

Antonio Robert Verbora


Environmental criminology theories can help shed light on our understanding of the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples have been systematically oppressed and colonised through use of laws, policies, and systems, including the Canadian criminal justice system. This is evident with the imposition of the Indian Act and legislated poverty. Environmental criminology theory can help explain why incarceration rates are higher amongst Indigenous peoples and why they over-represented in the canadian criminal justice system. There are powerful social forces that cause so many Indigenous peoples to be incarcerated in Canada. These include institutional racism and discrimination sanctioned by the police, courts, and corrections against Indigenous peoples. As a result, Indigenous peoples are more likely to be apprehended, prosecuted, and convicted. This is because of the many ways Indigenous peoples are policed, patrolled, and monitored. Further, Indigenous peoples commit crimes that are often more visible than those committed by non-Indigenous peoples. For example, street crimes (e.g., burglary) are more visible and charges and convictions are higher than for white-collar or suite crimes

Environmental criminology has been praised for the shift in its focus from criminals to conventional people (those who did not break the law), aiding in a better understanding of crime events and their prevention. Second, it has also rejected the evil-causes-evil fallacy by arguing that offenders make rational choices in crime situations and are born with similar natures. It challenges the view that evil is a condition that generates crime. Lastly, it also shows the benefits of a situational perspective and rejects the “nothing works” doctrine that suggests, the state can do nothing to reduce crime through the criminal justice system (Bruinsma et al., 2018). Environmental criminology theories have played a pivotal role in challenging the idea that it is impossible to reduce crime by embracing this goal and then identifying an array of effective prevention strategies (Eck, 2002). These theories have helped in illustrating that there are fresh ways of thinking about crime; still, there are some key limitations to be discussed.


Environmental criminology theories can hinder our understanding of the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples. First, they have neglected the study of motivated offenders, treating them as a given in the crime event. These theories fall short in understanding the underlying and possibly motivating factors of committing a crime: systemic oppression, colonization, and legislated poverty within the settler state. A more detailed study of offenders could perhaps demonstrate the ways in which people become involved in crime events. That is, what are the conditions present that create an environment in which crime is most likely to occur, and how do these motivations differ for Indigenous peoples. For example, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI), the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women movement all do this from a first-person narrative of Indigenous peoples.

The complete disregard of Indigenous experiences or ‘motivations’ is a particularly troubling aspect of these theories of crime.  Second, environmental criminology theories need to develop a fuller understanding of the risk of victimisation. There are many individual-level factors related to risk exposure. These theories fail to look at why some individuals are less exposed to risk. For example, what about Indigenous peoples and the neighbourhoods that some are born into? Explanations of why different individuals take specific steps to avoid risk under certain circumstances are deficient. This can be connected to the colonisation, systemic oppression, and legislated poverty that have occurred under the Indian Act. Some Indigenous peoples leave their reserve and relocate to a neighbourhood or town to try to build a better life; however, systemic oppression is widely distributed in each institution of Canada. This is another reason why it is challenging to implement the universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world: the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Indian Act is one of the oldest pieces of legislation in Canada and it applies to First Nations as an Indigenous group whether on or off reserve. This is important because the neighborhood cannot be the only link or risk factor of crime as laws and colonial policies  play a pivotal role in crime.

Lastly, environmental criminology theories neglect to look at the role of inequality in the broader social environment. Here, we can look at the distribution of resources across Indigenous peoples. The experience of colonisation, systemic oppression, and imposition of the Indian Act have imposed a reservation system and the removal of traditional territory within the nation-state of Canada Further, what about money? Money can be used to purchase security systems to maintain safe households. What about the recognition of crime in impoverished areas? Here, looking at Indigenous peoples’ vulnerability to victimisation would be useful. Paying attention to the role of inequality in shaping key elements of opportunity is paramount. The laws of Canada under the Indian Act work are in tandem with breaches of inherent and treaty rights and a lack of recognition of human rights resulting in a push for the implementation of UNDRIP.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Antonio Robert Verbora is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book