Concept of the Month -- October 2003

The Futility of Focusing on Causes of Criminal Behavior When Evaluating and Counseling Adult or Juvenile Offenders

The human mind tries to make sense of experience. Thus the "why" question is often at the forefront. Why did the person do what he did? Why is he the way he is?

Trying to determine motivation for a particular crime may be important in certain circumstances, even if it is elusive. But focusing on why a person is the way he is, why he has engaged in a life of crime is an exercise in futility and actually turns out to be a barrier to helping offenders change.

Anything and everything has been cited as a cause of crime. The list is endless: poverty, affluence, abuse, television programming, lead in one's bones, diet, and even such factors as physical unattractiveness and global warming. (Yes, I have articles documenting all of this in my files.)

There are many aspects of the human condition that we do not know the cause or causes of. That does not mean that we are powerless to address those conditions.

In working with offenders, they already have innumerable excuses for crime. If we focus on causality, we give them an open forum to divert their assumption of personal responsibility and focus on factors external to themselves. They then become victims rather than the true victimizers that they are. One man said, "If I
didn't have enough excuses for crime before psychiatry, I surely have enough now."

Even if we knew the cause or causes of criminal behavior, that in no way would guarantee that we would be equipped with better tools to help the individual change.

We need to leave the causal enigma on the shelf in working with offenders and focus on their thinking and on the choices they have made during the course of their lives. That will be far more fruitful than the endless conjecturing about causes.

Stanton E. Samenow, Ph.D.


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