Environmental Criminology and Theory Evaluation

One of the important areas of research in criminology is crime prevention. There are many concepts and theories that focus on the causes of crime, but little attention has been paid to the environment in which crimes occur. Despite this, spatial and environmental factors are often not only incidental but also determinative of criminal behavior since most crimes are committed in places that are perceived as inaccessible to observation. In the 1970s, a new branch of criminology emerged in the United States – it was named environmental theory (Burke, 2019). It appeared at the intersection of criminology and beautification design. The main idea of this approach is the possibility of crime prevention by designing the living space in a certain way.

This type of modern criminology attempts to identify elements of the environmental and urban environment that have a criminogenic impact on the individual. The importance of this strand is that it examines the potential for ensuring the safety and protection of victims available at the time of the crime. In other words, this type of criminology tries to identify environmental factors that affect or can affect the offender at a certain time and in a particular environment. Environmental criminology limits its subject matter to the time of the offense. It identifies common patterns of behavior and environmental factors associated with these patterns (Andresen, 2019). That is, the purpose of this theory is to discover the circumstances that can hinder or facilitate the perpetrator’s intentions.

The utility of the theory seems to lie in its practical orientation and its focus on the real reduction of crime. It is well known that many researchers limit themselves to developing a theoretical basis for a particular direction in criminology. Their scientific discoveries subsequently turn out to be inapplicable to the solution of practical problems. However, the same cannot be said about the analyzed environmental theory of crime.

The theory was based on the ideas of the American architect Oscar Newman, who believed that neglected and unprotected areas and the resulting increase in street crime are caused by high population density. In practice, it is manifested in the fact that the more landlords a property has, the more neglected it is. In addition, the views of George Kelling and James Wilson were crucial (Lanfear et al., 2020). According to them, a disorder in the streets generates a subconscious desire to make a mess, up to and including crime. Researchers have observed that even small destruction increases the likelihood of further property damage (Lanfear et al., 2020). Therefore, one of the methods of combating trespassing is the prompt repair of any destruction, precluding the creation of further disorder. These ideas have had a great impact on the practice of crime prevention.

As a result of the spread of the theory’s influence in the United States in the 1990s, the Crime Prevention through Environmental Management program was created. For the first time, this crime prevention strategy included law enforcement agencies and each member of society as subjects of crime prevention. In this way, the importance of the role of each resident in increasing control of the territory was outlined. Researchers of environmental criminology introduced the concept of social control, which refers to monitoring different neighborhood territories by certain groups of people (Lynch, 2020). Applying the provisions of environmental criminology in practice is not necessarily associated with a large population’s high costs and involvement. Combining the concept of protective space and broken windows theory, it can be concluded that social control is possible even in small neighborhoods through several measures. The latter includes, for example, replacing the iron doors of entrances with transparent ones.

However, the use of social control in residential neighborhoods does not exclude the commission of crimes in public places. Therefore, one cannot deny the importance of the role of local authorities in crime prevention. The implementation of social control by the population is impossible without proper incentives (Lynch, 2020). The latter should be carried out by planning the placement of architectural structures and creating conditions for increasing the general level of culture and education. It is known that street crime is most characteristic of the so-called disadvantaged areas, and such crimes are committed by people with a low level of education and well-being. The economic downturn and rise in crime in Detroit is a prime examples of the loosening of control by the authorities (McGuire, 2017). Due to a lack of social controls and necessary social policies, an advanced industrial center has, over time, become a center of crime, unemployment, illiteracy, and an extremely low standard of living.

Despite the progressiveness and effectiveness of the ideas of the analyzed theory, their application in practice is associated with several obstacles. For instance, as a related discipline, environmental criminology needs to be studied by lawyers and architects and designers. This is necessary for the possibility of applying the provisions of this theory in practice. In addition, the redevelopment of the urban environment requires significant modifications of the built environment. The need for members of different professions to work together makes applying the theory difficult. A weakness of this theory is also the inability to explain the cause of some crimes and the causal connection between them.

The advantage of the approach is that this theory seeks to establish the specific causes of crime and to take measures to eradicate it. This practical orientation cannot but be considered a strength of the theory. As already indicated, the realization of the theory of environmental criminology is possible only through the interaction of lawyers and engineers. Moreover, developing programs to improve residential space and applying certain theory provisions to the existing neighborhoods is important. If applied to the urban environment, such changes will increase the overall level of safety and reduce the number of certain types of crimes and anti-social actions in general. The proven achievability of such results, namely the reduction of crime, proves the validity of this direction in criminology.

Hypotheses and theories must meet several regulatory methodological requirements, compliance with which, although not ensuring their truth, at least gives them the right to exist in science. The most important requirements of this kind are logical consistency, verifiability, reputability, simplicity, and continuity (Marcum & Higgins, 2016). A theory can be considered logical if it has a coherent and consistent presentation of observations and conclusions. The hypothesis must produce corollaries that are available for experimental testing. Otherwise, it is fundamentally unverifiable; therefore, it can neither be confirmed nor disproved.

It is also believed that if any experimental data can only confirm a hypothesis and there can be no way to refute it, then it is uninformative. In addition, the theory must not only explain the facts for which it is created but also foresee new ones. The more unknown phenomena a hypothesis predicts and the less probable its predictions appear, the higher its predictive power and the greater the knowledge it can give. Simplicity is associated with a theory’s logical perfection, beauty, and elegance. According to this criterion, the evaluation of hypotheses and theories has a comparative character. Of several theories equal by other criteria, the simpler one is preferable. Finally, new ideas, hypotheses, and theories should grow out of previous scientific knowledge, further developing and continuing (Marcum & Higgins, 2016). Of new ideas competing with each other, the one that is the least confrontational with the preceding knowledge is preferable.

There are several scientific schools of thought that explain crime. Psychological theories of crime have, unlike biological theories, a rational basis. However, they can at best explain only some aspects of crime. Although a small minority of criminals do have personality characteristics different from the rest of the population, such characteristics are not common to all lawbreakers. Psychological theories are applied to justify the implementation of a step-by-step correction measure for the behavior of inmates. Lombroso’s biological approach, later criticized, will be briefly discussed in the following. Then Raffaele Garofalo’s augmented theory will be conveyed, explaining criminality from an anthropological, sociological, and cognitive point of view.

In the 19th century, the concepts and techniques of the rapidly evolving biological and behavioral sciences began to be used to study crime. For the first time, typologies of crime and criminals were developed, and attempts were made to identify samples of these typologies with various biological, psychological, and social characteristics of criminals. The credit for the founding of modern scientific criminology is usually attributed to the so-called Italian school and the works of its three main representatives, Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri, and Rafael Garofalo.

Lombroso argued that criminals belong to a special physical and biological type of person. A true criminal can be recognized by observing certain physical features or defects, including an elongated lower jaw, an asymmetrical skull, and other prominent features. According to Lombroso, these traits are not the cause of criminal behavior but only reveal an innate propensity for crime (Dunnage, 2018). Lombroso taught that the propensity to crime is an atavism, a reversion to a more primitive state of human development. The first edition of Lombroso’s most important work, L’uomo Delinquente, attracted enormous attention because it demonstrated the feasibility of a truly scientific study of criminal behavior.

Even during Lombroso’s lifetime, his theory was criticized. Not surprisingly, quite a few top government officials had appearances that matched the description of natural-born criminals. Many believe that the scientist exaggerated the biological and completely disregarded the social component in the cause of crime. Perhaps this is what caused Lombroso to reconsider some of his views at the end of his life (Dunnage, 2018). In particular, he began to argue that having a criminal appearance does not necessarily mean that a person has committed a crime – it speaks rather of his propensity for unlawful deeds (Dunnage, 2018). If a criminal appearance is prosperous, he falls into the category of hidden criminals who have no external reason to break the law. In general, this theory was criticized because it did not meet the criteria outlined earlier – it was illogical, unverifiable, and extremely radical.

The creator of the theory of the dangerous state of personality was Raffaele Garofalo, one of the leading theorists of the anthropological school of criminal law. He was a student of Cesare Lombroso and, like his teacher, rejected the classical view of free will. Therefore, it follows that Garofalo’s theory developed within the framework of pre-existing views on criminality, which means that there was continuity – one of the criteria for the validity of a scientific theory.

The time-tested theory of the dangerous condition provides for practical use a theoretically sound, comprehensive methodology for clinical work to prevent crime. According to this theory, in some cases, the crime occurs on the basis of a certain mental condition (Ziliotto, 2019). The latter inclines the individual to conflict with social norms. Usually, the dangerous condition is temporary and corresponds to an internal crisis of the individual’s personality. In assessing the situation, one takes into account, in particular, material conditions, influences from the environment, and the presence of traumatic experiences. The simplicity of the theory is one of the criteria of its scientific validity, and the content of Garofalo’s works is presented in a very clear and consistent manner.

The conceptual meaning of the theory of the dangerous state of personality is that there are defective people in society who are not amenable to the normal average motives for behavior that prevail in a given society. This defectiveness is determined either by some organic defect creating what is called diminished sanity or by a lack of social upbringing. Organic vices include morbid propensities such as alcoholism, mania, neurasthenia, and others. Defects of upbringing include situations in which people grow up to be debauched, addicted to idleness, and exploiting others. In all these cases, the effect of punishment based on motives of fear and calculation proves to be small.

There were seemingly different approaches to defining indicators of dangerousness within this school. For example, the Paris meeting of the Central Bureau of the International Union of Criminalists identified four categories of dangerous persons. There was also much debate among sociologists over the question of when to establish grounds for the application of preventive measures (Ziliotto, 2019). The possibility of disproving a theory, or minor differences within it, is also a criterion for evaluating theories. The analyzed criminological theory fits this benchmark and, therefore, has the right to exist in science.

In general, Garofalo created a theory that satisfies all the necessary criteria to be considered scientifically sound. Of course, it is very different from the previously described theory, according to which the external world surrounding people determines how they will behave. However, scientific hypotheses are subject to change over time. Each theory has its weaknesses, but there is also an evidence base. A possible solution to the question of what makes people commit crimes would be a synthesis of the current views. By analyzing the existing concepts, it will be possible to identify a super-theory that can explain why crime exists. It should also be noted that the Italian school made a valuable contribution to criminology, as it stimulated thought and contributed to the emergence of new works on crime and criminals. In addition, the Italian School focused on the criminal as a suitable object of study, something that the reformers of the 18th century lacked.


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LawBirdie. "Environmental Criminology and Theory Evaluation." June 12, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/environmental-criminology-and-theory-evaluation/.