7. Psychological Theories of Crime

7.7 Cultural Psychology

Dr. Jennifer Mervyn and Stacy Ashton, M.A.

Cultural psychology looks at how individual behaviour is constructed by society. It examines flaws in society to better understand criminal behaviour through the lens of culture and cultural processes. Culture is not just one’s nation or ethnicity. Cultures organise around concepts like “masculinity” and “organised crime,” asserting their own ways of understanding social interaction and setting behavioural norms (Staub, 1988; Westen, 1985). Crime is socially determined by our collective beliefs, many of which are cultural.

Subcultures can create norms that contradict those of the society they live in, allowing complex and ongoing crime to be maintained over generations. Societies with inequitable access to resources needed for survival and inequitable experiences of trauma and criminalised behaviour are more likely to allow the emergence of deviant subcultures that have problems with crime than more equitable societies.

Culture also impacts how a society responds to crime. A “theistic” culture considers crime a violation of laws set by God, while a “law and order” culture considers crime a violation of law as mutually agreed upon by members of a nation. In both these types of cultures, the correct response  to crime is removal of the lawbreaker from society, which functions to punish the behaviour, provide an example to others to discourage lawbreaking, and keep the general public safe from the lawbreaker. An alternative to both these framings is much more restorative in nature and appears in many Indigenous cultures: criminal behaviour is considered a breakdown of community relationships, and the solution is to repair relationships with neighbours and the community, not impose exile through excommunication or incarceration.

As highlighted by cultural psychologists, poverty is a societal condition that increases vulnerability to criminality. Neighbourhoods with higher rates of poverty have higher rates of crime, and people living in poverty are far more likely to be victims of crime than those above the poverty line. The impacts of adversity, including the trauma of growing up in a home that struggled to make ends meet in a disadvantaged community, increase the likelihood of experiencing a number of different health and social impacts, including a higher chance of encounters with the criminal justice system. In fact, low-income Canadians significantly outnumber wealthier Canadians in the criminal justice system. They are more “at-risk” of participating in crime because of the social and economic challenges they face. They are also more likely to face significant barriers in accessing legal defence if they become involved in criminal justice processes.

Moreover, low-income individuals are more likely to be detained when they are arrested (especially if homeless), to be denied bail, to plead guilty and to be convicted. They also have fewer social and economic resources to support reintegration after incarceration. It takes most court cases between three months and a year to get to trial in Canada, creating an incentive to plead guilty and accept parole and a criminal record to get out of prison or to avoid a loss of child custody, jobs, or housing. When those who have been incarcerated are released from prison, low-income people add jail time to a history that is already more likely to reveal lower levels of education, inconsistent employment, and mental health and addictions issues. It can be incredibly difficult to attain any kind of employment with a criminal record. If you are lucky enough to find an employer who accepts that you have a criminal record, finding a landlord who will rent to you is another major hurdle.

These challenges result in higher levels of recidivism and a potential “revolving door” in and out of jail. One pilot project conducted in three predominantly Indigenous communities in north Saskatchewan revealed that a friendly supervision policing model may help in addressing this revolving door phenomenon (Akca & Jewell, 2022). The Northeast Youth Violence Reduction Partnership model examined in this study was based on maintaining a positive relationship between police and Indigenous youth rather than an adversarial one and focused on providing support, supervision, and rehabilitation as well as strengths-based, individualised interventions. The goal was to reduce the level of contact with police and instead to direct the youth to treatment options to address mental health and cognitive needs as well as prosocial activities and networks, including cultural activities. The findings reveal at least a short-term reduction in the frequency as well as severity of crime and speak to the potential of developing culturally responsive and effective policing methods within Indigenous communities (Akca & Jewell, 2022).

The alternative to diversion or rehabilitative approaches is the “get tough” approach regarding punishment in order to deter people from committing crime. Cook & Roesch (2012) asserted that “tough on crime” policies are not supported by research; early intervention, prevention, and rehabilitation are more effective in reducing crime in the long term. Since most people incarcerated in Canadian prisons will be released, rehabilitation to ensure successful reintegration into society is a key part of the justice system. However, many rehabilitation programs fail, often due to the use of a “one-size-fits-all approach,” which is less expensive than developing programs specifically designed to target the underlying causes of individual criminal behaviour (Cullen, 2017).

The Canadian criminal justice system does not necessarily target those most likely to commit heinous acts of violence and harm but instead targets some of the most vulnerable and traumatised people in our society—our Indigenous, our mentally ill, and our youth. Cook & Roesch (2012) label this as the “human cost” in a punitive justice system. Public institutions and service systems intended to provide services and support to individual offenders are often themselves traumatising. Harsh practices such as seclusion, restraints, isolation, and intimidation in the criminal justice system can be re-traumatising for individuals who enter these systems with significant histories of trauma. These policies and practices are not trauma-informed and can often make individual health and behaviours worse, not better.

In 2020, the Government of Canada’s correctional investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, reported that while only 5% of Canada’s general population is Indigenous, the number of federal sentences for Indigenous peoples has been steadily increasing, and custody rates in particular have accelerated. Although the overall prison population rate is stable, Indigenous inmates now make up a larger proportion. From 2010 to 2020, the Indigenous inmate population increased by 43.4% (or 1,265), whereas the non-Indigenous incarcerated population declined by 13.7% (or 1,549). The rising numbers of Indigenous peoples behind bars offsets declines in other groups, giving the impression that the system is operating at a steady state (Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2020). Dr. Zinger raised the concern that surpassing a 30% Indigenous inmate population clearly indicates a deepening and entrenched ‘Indigenisation’ of Canada’s correctional system. The numbers are even more troubling for Indigenous women, who now account for 42% of the female inmate population in Canada.

The plight of youth in conflict with the law is also concerning. A disproportionate number of youth interface with our criminal justice system. Youth make up 7% of our population but represent 13% of Canadians accused of crime. There is also considerable evidence that our criminal justice system applies its sentencing with racial discrimination: minority youth are more likely to be moved up to adult court than white youth (Males & Macallair, 2000).

As previously discussed, it is also highly debatable whether youth behaviour should be considered as “criminal” while a young person’s brain is still growing and developing and they may lack the impulse control and social/moral development needed to establish mens rea, a legal term referring to the capacity of an alleged offender to know what they are doing and that it is wrong. Given the plethora of research in the area of early adversity/childhood trauma and its relationship with risk behaviours and criminality, there is an urgent need for primary prevention and early intervention, including a decriminalising approach to ‘criminal behaviours’ for youth and young adults whose brains are still developing.

Heide and Solomon (2006) point out that “the criminal justice system is based on the foundation of a rational man who makes conscious decisions before acting” (p. 230) and suggest that the range of choices supposedly available to human beings may be compromised in certain situations for individuals who have sustained severe trauma and have been significantly affected by it. These individuals who have experienced adverse childhood experiences may find their range of choices compromised, especially if they have experienced co-occurring ACEs.

Seiler (2017) explored various elements of Canadian youth diversion programs, defined as “a program that works to hold youth accountable for their criminal actions and behaviours while diverting them away from the judicial system and reducing recidivism” (p.16). Seiler found that youth diversion programs were successful in reducing recidivism rates among youth when they ensured the following components: collaboration with community/stakeholders, mentoring, personal accountability and responsibility on the part of the youth, and police investment in the program.
If we look at the origins and current state of our Canadian criminal justice system, we can see little involvement of victims and offenders, which is a system that does not seem to work well at reducing crime. The restorative justice movement is gaining significant attention, especially when it comes to young offenders (see 17. Restorative, Transformative Justice). Restorative justice attempts to repair the harm caused by a criminal act: it is inclusive of both offender and victim and sees criminal behaviour through the lens of violating human beings and relationships with others. It offers victims a voice to name and address the impacts of criminal behaviour on themselves personally and encourages offenders to take personal accountability and responsibility for their actions.

Cullen (2017) addresses the need for public ceremonies or recognition of rehabilitation. Conviction and incarceration are often highly public acts involving media attention, whereas one’s rehabilitation is often a completely private process, including receiving a pardon. Cullen (2017) argues that public honouring or credentialing of rehabilitative efforts, even many years later, could go a long way in motivating rehabilitation and could potentially offset the negative impacts of having a criminal record.

In November 2020, Canada added support to restorative justice projects, especially in Indigenous programming. Minister of Justice David Lametti used Restorative Justice Week in June 2021 to announce that “restorative justice is based on respect, compassion and inclusivity. By providing a proactive alternative to incarceration in appropriate circumstances, it is about bringing opportunities for healing, reparation and reintegration. This week, in recognition of Restorative Justice Week, I am especially proud that our Government continues to encourage the use of restorative justice, and through this funding, supports various organizations rehabilitating Canadians who are in conflict with the law” (Department of Justice Canada, 2021). Canada also has the National Crime Prevention Strategy, which provides national leadership on cost-effective ways to prevent and reduce crime among at-risk populations and vulnerable communities by intervening to mitigate the underlying factors that put individuals at risk of offending.

Overall, then, it appears there is political and social will to work in culturally sensitive and restorative ways with offenders, allowing for collaboration with cultural representatives in order to develop a more responsive treatment process (Bonta & Andrews, 2007). If we are able to support and rehabilitate individuals while capitalising on the degree and potential for change—behaviourally, neurobiologically, and psychologically—there is the greatest capacity for change. This approach lends itself to upstream work, early identification and preventative support, in addition to having systems of care in place for those who are acutely ill and in crisis.



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Jennifer Mervyn and Stacy Ashton, M.A. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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