Discuss the ways in which public attitudes towards crime and criminals have changed over time. What causal factors have been prominent in any changes?
Over time there have been a lot of changes in public attitudes towards crime and criminals however, of course what has not changed is the fact that the majority believe criminals should be punished for their actions and crime is still viewed in a negative light. However ways in which criminals are treated and viewed has changed overtime. For example, at present in England the majority who commit a crime will gain a prison sentence or a punishments such as community service. However, in the past the majority who committed a crime would be sentenced to the death penalty, for example under the Bloody Code in the 19th Century two hundred crimes were punishable by capital punishment (Briggs, Harrison, McInnes & Vincent, 1996, p. 157). Along with this the way the public view why criminals are criminals has changed over time. For example in Elizabethan times they blamed the parents of the criminal whilst at the start of the 20th century it began to be believed that there was a criminal gene and therefore it was not an individual’s fault (Briggs, Harrison, McInnes & Vincent, 1996, p. 248). The view of what and what not is a crime has also changed over time. For example from 2003 it became illegal to “hold a mobile phone while driving in mainland Britain” (Rochford District Council). This has lead to the public disapproving of others driving whist using their mobile phone as they now see it as dangerous whilst, before 2003 it was expectable to hold a mobile phone while driving.
When looking in to the public attitudes towards criminals it can be seen how the stereotype of a criminal has changed over time. For example, in the 18th century there was little evidence of racism in the criminal justice system, for example towards immigrants. However, in the 19th century “Irish immigration was reaching a peak” which lead to many, possibly due to the media’s influence, as seeing the Irish linked to petty crime, violence and excessive drinking of alcohol (Godfrey, Lawrence & Williams, 2008, p. 111). In the 19th century there was no evidence that African immigrants were associated with the label of a criminal. However, by the 1990’s there is evidence that “young black men were far more likely to be stopped and searched without good cause than their white counterparts” showing their label has changed overtime. Godfrey, Lawrence and Williams (2008, p.120) suggested that a casual factor which may have prompted this change in the public attitudes as to what they expect a criminal to be may be due to the fact that immigrant minorities are more likely to live in “long-term social disadvantaged” areas which are therefore more likely to be policed more than other areas.
Public attitudes have also changed towards criminals in the concept of why they believe the criminals commit crime. Overtime the public, often through the media, have heard of many different ideas of why criminals commit crimes, many have repeated appearance overtime. There have been sociological, psychological, biological and economic explanations which appear to repeat themselves throughout history leading to debates if which, if any or a variety are correct. In the late eighteen century the idea of positivism was common. Positivism believed that it was not the criminal’s fault that they were a criminal but in fact it was due to biological factors. In 1859 Lombroso suggested “criminality was not a rational choice or a moral failing but could be the result of a hereditary trait passed through generations”. Lombroso also believed that physical attributes would allow a criminal to be identified. For example, “deviation of head size and shape” (Godfrey, Lawrence & Williams, 2008, p. 15). Hearing of Lombroso’s study and views would of change public attitudes in the way they see people, for example looking out for people with a “deviation of head size and shape” and labelling them a criminal, despite having known them not to be for years. Although today many would say you cannot decide who is a criminal just by how someone looks, Bull and McAlpine (1998, cited by Williams, 2004, p.141) suggests people do stereotype the appearance of a criminal which may lead to wrongful accusations and convictions. For example, Williams (2004, p. 43) suggests that many see a criminal as “not the sort of person one knows and is friendly with”. Williams suggests that this is due to the media’s influence and that many, if they do not a convicted criminal believe the criminal is not a true one but in fact as been “led astray by others”.
A further idea which was developed in an attempt to explain why individuals offender is strain theory. This theory suggests that people are more likely to commit crime if they lack a social bond to society. For example, a lack of social bond with their parents. A lot of the public have gone along with this idea of blaming the parents for many years. Simpson (2000, p. 108) believes that offenders turn to crime due to a build up of negative emotion within themselves. Committing crime is a way they can deal with the negative strain. There is evidence to support this fact that lack of emotional support from a child parents can lead them to be more likely to commit crime in the future. For example, Hall (2001) found that boys who lived without their biological father were more likely to offend by looking at Taylor’s study. Taylor compared boys who had biological fathers in their lives to those without them. She found that out of those who committed crime only 22% had their biological father in their life.