Criminological Theory: A Long History

Subject: Law
Pages: 7
Words: 2007
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Criminological theory tries to explain why people commit crime. According to Waldron (2009), criminological theory has a long history that signifies the efforts of societies to declare certain modes of behavior immoral and against the law. Early customs and laws required compliance and punishment for the good of the society, group, or a nation (Thistlethwaite & Wooldredge, 2010). Criminological theory has been evolving with time.

In contemporary times, the designation or codification of behavior is universal. Besides, the process of distinguishing ethical behaviors from criminal actions does not follow complicated criteria. While it is common instinct on what defines unacceptable and punishable behavior, criminological theory in the modern world dictates that such acts constitute violation of penal law, offense against a state, or acts of commission or omission against public law (McCord, Widom & Crowell, 2001).

However, elaborate ways have been established to determine whether such acts are criminal. For instance, well laid down legal procedures are followed while investigating criminality and the subsequent actions such as punishment or acquittal. Different theories are used to determine and understand criminal behavior. Classical theories focus on individual’s free will of choices and behavior as central to criminal behavior (Crowe, 2008), while positivist school centers on determinism and scientific arguments that uphold the recognition of forces beyond an individual (Smartt, 2006).

The juvenile justice system is a relatively recent addition to criminal justice. It relates to how criminality in children is to be handled by society. Historically, there were no separate justice systems for adults and children. Codification of any acceptable and unacceptable conduct applied to all people from the age of seven years (Waldron, 2009). However, at the start of the 20th century, the criminal intent and behavior of minors became a great source of debate for criminological theorists. With time, it became apparent that there was a need to apply different approaches and processes in handling criminality in children. Accordingly, the current juvenile system focuses on what has come to be referred to as juvenile delinquency. Rather than punishment, the focus is on correction and rehabilitation of underage offenders (Crowe, 2008).

For instance, in the 1970s, the general feeling was that juvenile offenders were victims of societal neglect, poverty, racial, and gender discrimination. However, the upsurge of juvenile crime in 1990s cast doubt on the ability of the juvenile justice system to address such crimes. In the modern times, the juvenile justice system is made of elaborate legislations and approaches, including juvenile court systems through which such crimes can be handled.

The legal school of thought can be traced back to the ancient and pre-modern Greek and European societies where criminality was viewed as a private matter for families. However, the 11th century English common law has had the greatest impact and influence on the legal thought in the world (Smartt, 2006). For instance, during this time, the concept of ‘criminal intent’ became a common approach to proving whether an individual was guilty or not in legal proceedings. English common law was greatly influenced by the teachings of the Bible and Catholicism. In America, during the colonial period, the legal theory was inclined to Actus Reas (guilty act) and Mens Rea.

The modern legal thought has pushed the American jurisprudence further. For instance, the current legal system is not based on the traditional English common law that defined crime along two elements, namely guilty acts and guilty mind.

The traditional legal system emphasized crimes based on evidence that an individual chose to violate the law. However, such evidence brings about questions on the state of mind of the individual at the time when he or she committed the crime (Haugen & Musser, 2009). Further modern legal theory has focused on the minimization or total elimination of the requirements of Men’s Rea. In this case, it is a shift to ‘strict liability’ and conformity to the rule of law without requiring criminal intent.

The coverage of the juvenile justice in legal theory is limited. In pre-modern societies, the law that applied to adults, also applied to young people. According to Smartt (2006), this plan was based on the supposition that the factors and grounds of felony were undividable from unlawful causation. Hence, the conduct was equally disciplinable. For a long time, legal theorists have grappled with the question of why juveniles commit crimes.

For instance, whether such a behavior is a matter of individual choice or whether other factors play part has been a highly debated topic. In early times, legal theories on juvenile crime focused on criminal intent and free will, which were the same approaches that were used on adults (Haugen & Musser, 2009). However, in modern times, other theories have been established to address psychological, societal, and biological factors of juvenile crime. The culmination of this effort shows a different legal approach that is applied to juveniles. Currently, the approach is aimed at rehabilitation rather than punishment.


The criminal justice structure involves parties that make imperative decisions whose analysis makes them moral or disreputable. Ethical matters are central to the relevance of criminal justice since they precede all other processes that have culminated to the current state of criminal justice. According to McCord et al. (2001), ethical principles guide the society in determining what codes of behaviors are satisfactory or intolerable. Indeed, criminal justice came about due to the desire to create an upright humanity (Haugen & Musser, 2009).

In other words, without ethics, no moral reasoning will be exercised in defining criminal activity and acceptable punishment. In modern criminal justice, moral codes play an important role in all levels of the system, starting from the police, society, and judiciary.

They help in effecting morally acceptable actions and decisions that ensure that fair and acceptable justice is applied (Smartt, 2006). For instance, it is important for law enforcement agencies, such as police, to apply ethics in enforcing law and/or exercising discretion to ensure that the right people are arrested for wrongdoing. In addition, it is important for the judicial officials to ensure that they critically review evidence that is provided for the accused person.

In juvenile justice, ethical values are also highly applicable as an important part of criminal justice system. Historically, ethical considerations that were applied on young people were also applied on adults. Both children and adults were held to the same standards of morality and hence the same legal processes and punishment. However, in the modern times, with the emergence of the juvenile criminal justice, while underage people are held under the same moral expectations by the society, ethical considerations are applied differently from those of adults (Haugen & Musser, 2009). In this case, ethics for adults calls for fair and morally acceptable decision-making to guide punishment and deterrence of crime.

However, in the juvenile system, the focus is on rehabilitation of offenders (Thistlethwaite & Wooldredge, 2010). Ethics calls for consideration of the best options that will help the offender desist from such crimes through rehabilitation. When dealing with minors, it requires ethical considerations on the part of the law enforcers, the judiciary, and correctional facilities in ensuring that the accused people are rehabilitated in the best way forward to secure their future and/or serve their best interests in the society.

Juvenile Justice

The idea of a juvenile justice system that is separate from that of the adult population is a little over 100 years old (Thistlethwaite & Wooldredge, 2010). For a long time, juveniles were held to the same levels of moral obligation as any other member of the society. In the old system, the same policies, laws, and statutes were applied to all people, regardless of the applied punishments. For instance, youths and children were kept in jails together with hardened criminals, even when the committed offenses were noncriminal, since there were no better options (McCord et al., 2001). However, over the last 100 years, there have been drastic changes in how the society deals with underage offenders. These changes have led to the viewing of young offenders as people who have ‘lost their way’ rather than hardened criminals.

It is now accepted that juveniles who commit crimes are different from adults. As a class, they are less blameworthy and have a higher chance of changing (Thistlethwaite & Wooldredge, 2010). As such, the juvenile justice system has focused on putting measures that will guide young offenders towards the ‘right path’ rather than punishment as it is applied in criminal justice system that targets the other population.

The formation of a separate juvenile justice system has passed through different phases since the first juvenile court was established in Illinois in 1899. The formation of a juvenile court was a culmination of campaigns and efforts of social reformers who had advocated for new and better ways of addressing crime among the youth. The Juvenile justice system was built on what was referred to as parens patriae or “The State as a Parent” where the new court had the right to intervene on youths who were deemed in need of help through acts of delinquency (Waldron, 2009).

Rather than punishing the young offenders, the primary purpose of juvenile courts was to rehabilitate and protect youths. Initially, court proceedings were informal. Judges applied broad discretion while handling each case (Smartt, 2006). Although the effectiveness of the system has been questioned on various occasions, different reforms that have occurred throughout the century have made the juvenile justice system very elaborate with well-established court systems and rehabilitation facilities.

Constitutional History

In the application of criminal justice, the constitution serves an important role of ensuring that the processes of the criminal justice are applied justly. The constitution establishes the fundamental laws. Besides, it also guarantees basic rights to citizens of the United States. In America, the constitution has a long history since George Washington enacted it first in 1787 (Smartt, 2006). In criminal justice, the constitution protects the population from unfair treatment when accused of crimes. In this case, the constitution provides guidelines on the rule of law concerning criminal procedure by guiding how authorities investigate, prosecute, and decide crimes.

Specific provisions balance the power of law enforcers and the rights of citizens. For instance, the Fourth Amendment gives people the right to unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fifth Amendment prohibits the indictment of people for grave offenses without the examination of a panel of judges. It also forbids double jeopardy (McCord et al., 2001). Another important right that is enshrined in the constitution is the right to legal counsel under the Sixth Amendment. In this amendment, every accused person has a right to be assisted by a counsel for his/her defense. Lastly, the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments on the accused (Crowe, 2008).

In juvenile justice system, the constitution provides basic constitutional protection to the accused, although it is not as elaborate as in the criminal justice system that targets adults. For instance, just like the adult justice defendants, juveniles are afforded the right to counsel as dictated by the Sixth Amendment, right to remain silent, right to confront, advance notice of charges, and right to cross-examine adverse witnesses (Smartt, 2006).

Further, since the offenders are children with less understanding of law and are still minors, they deserve a special protection since they cannot be accorded all the rights that are accorded to adults. For instance, under the Fifth Amendment, young offenders are secluded from self-conviction, regardless of the non-criminality state of the court measures (Haugen & Musser, 2009). Just like adults, they are protected under the Fourth Amendment, which gives rights for the accused against seizures without a warranty. It has a provision of probable cause of hearing where there is no guarantee.

In another constitutional provision, a jury does not accord juveniles rights to trial since the law does not recognize juvenile delinquents as suspected criminals (Smartt, 2006). Despite the fact that juvenile justice is a recent branch of criminal justice, the constitution has made provisions to protect juvenile delinquents from unfair treatment in criminal proceedings and processes.

Reference List

Crowe, G. (2008). Legal Theory. Rozelle, N.S.W.: Thomson Legal & Regulatory.

Haugen, M., & Musser, S. (2009). Criminal justice. Detroit: Greenhaven Press.

McCord, J., Widom, S., & Crowell, A. (2001). Juvenile crime, juvenile justice. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Smartt, U. (2006). Criminal Justice. London: SAGE.

Thistlethwaite, B., & Wooldredge, J. (2010). Forty studies that changed criminal justice: explorations into the history of criminal justice research. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Waldron, J. (2009). The criminal justice system: an introduction. Tulsa, Okla.: K&M Publishers.