Influences And Societal Responses


Crime is one of the widely researched topics, especially by social scientists such as criminologists. Crime attracts a lot of attention because of its significant impact on individuals and society at large, making scholars to help in finding solutions to criminal behaviors. Criminal behavior is basically defined as an unlawful act that goes against the existing laws and societal values and norms. Criminal behaviors are also influenced by a number of factors such as childhood experience, physical environment, the genetic makeup of a person, and drug and substance abuse, particularly among young people. At the same time, punishment and labeling are other factors that influence criminal behaviors significantly. Conventionally, people believe that punishment is one of the strategies that law enforcement agencies and the society can use to discourage criminal behaviors. Nonetheless, some criminologists doubt the effectiveness of punishment in deterring criminal behaviors. Labeling is also associated with increased criminal behaviors, primarily among the target group. Contrary to the perception of many people, both punishment and labeling promote criminal behaviors, leading to increased rate of crime in racial groups like African Americans.


Punishment Enhance Criminal Behavior

Traditionally, punishment has been relied on as one the most effective way to deter criminal behaviors. The justice systems in many parts of the world have relied on punishment for decades to reduce crime as well as recidivism. The use of punishment to discourage criminal behavior is mainly based on deterrence theory, which is based on the assumption that threat to punishment has the high chances of reducing the likelihood of reoffending or embracing criminal behaviors. However, even though punishment can reduce crime to some extent, it has the the possibility of increasing criminal behaviors and activities significantly.

A number of studies have revealed that punishment does help in discouraging criminal behaviors, including crimes. Conversely, a substantial number of studies have revealed that punishment can motivate people to embrace criminal behaviors, resulting in a high rate of crime in a given area or locality. Specifically, a study that was conducted by Rao (2007) found that although harsh punishment can result in some conformity among young people, such kind of punishment encourages violence and delinquency in long-term. The study further revealed that adolescents who are severely and frequently punished have the tendency of developing anti-social and criminal behaviors as they grow up.

At the same time, according to proponents of learning theory, punishment is not one of the most effective ways to reduced criminal behaviors in individuals and the society at large. Punishment does not motivate people to adopt positive and desirable behaviors (Cherrington, 2007). Punishment is increasing criminal behavior because it creates negative feelings towards law enforcement agencies or the punishing agent. The negative feelings towards the punishing agents to engage in further criminal activities. Besides, punishment creates “we-feeling” among criminals, making them to embrace criminal behaviors. At the same time, punishment can cause frustrated behaviors, which can motivate people to engage in criminal activities. Particularly, people who feel that they are unfairly punished are motivated to commit further crimes or engage in anti-social behaviors. Cherrington (2007) argues that punishment can only reduce criminal behaviors if the threat to punishment is present. For instance, shoppers can only be discouraged from shoplifting if the security guard is physically present in the store.

Therefore, findings from many scientific studies confirm that punishment can increase criminal behavior instead of reducing them, especially when the threat to punishment is not physically present. The assertion or argument that punishment is deterring crime is not true, especially based on scientific studies and arguments by learning theorists. Aversive types of punishment such as fines and inflicting physical pain can lead to detrimental effects such as increased criminal behaviors, primarily when the reason for punishment is not adequately explained (Cherrington, 2007). Thus, the punishment should not be solely relied on to discourage criminal behaviors.

Labeling Promote Criminal Behavior

Labeling is a common thing in criminology. Any person who has engaged and convicted of a criminal offence is most likely to be labeled as a criminal, even if he or she has reformed and abandoned crime. The argument labeling increases criminal behavior is mainly supported by the labeling theory. According to the proponents of labeling theory, a person is likely to embrace a criminal behavior if he or she is labeled as a criminal. Labeling theory, which is largely based on symbolic interaction theory, asserts that facts are always directed by symbols and people are likely to do what is expected of them, even when it is undesirable. Thus, by labeling a person a criminal, he is likely to embrace criminal behaviors.

The argument by labeling theorists is supported by the findings of a study that was conducted by Besemer, Farrington & Bijleveld (2017), which found that labeling amplifies criminal behaviors. Based on the findings of a study by Besemer, Farrington & Bijleveld (2017), people’s behaviors are significantly influenced by the labels attached to them. Besides, labeling a group of people as criminals facilitates the transmission of criminal behaviors from one generation to another. The intergenerational transmission of criminal behavior is mainly influenced by labeling. The findings by Besemer, Farrington & Bijleveld (2017) explain why the rate of criminal activities is high among black people compared to their white counterparts, particularly in racially diverse countries like the USA. African Americans, for instance, are associated with criminality because they have been labeled as criminals. African Americans are more likely to participate engage in criminal behaviors than their white counterparts.

As a result, even though labeling African Americans as criminals may not be based on any tangible facts or evidence, it influences their criminal behaviors. African American is likely to be arrested of crime in the US due to labeling, which has resulted in a negative attitude towards the law enforcement agencies. The labeling also makes police to unfairly target black people, leading to frustration and desire to further embrace criminal behaviors. A lot of criminal activities are reported in black-dominated neighborhoods. Hence, labeling, which can be intentional or unintentional, can encourage criminal behavior. Labeling people as criminals cannot encourage them to embrace desirable behaviors as some people would want them to be. Like punishment, labeling increase criminal behaviors.

Punishment and Labeling Reduce Criminal Behavior

Although a number of studies have found that punishment does not deter crime, some criminologists have maintained that punishment is one of the best strategies that can be used to deter crime. Supporters of this school of thought argue that criminals are rational beings who weight both cost and benefits before making any criminal decision (Iglesias et al., 2012). For instance, a person may be discouraged from engaging in criminal behavior if the possible punishment is severe and can result in serious consequences. For instance, the death sentence is likely to deter people from committing murder and homicide. Besides, labeling is viewed as one of the ways of punishing people who engage in criminal activities. Labeling is a reaction to a criminal behavior and it has some social cost that can easily motivate people to shun their criminal behaviors. For example, labeling leads to stigmatization that results in social and psychological problems like isolation. People attempt to avoid criminal behaviors when they are punished and stigmatized by the society.

Nonetheless, punishment could be effective if the level of crime is reducing and many people abandoning their criminal behaviors. On the contrary, the rate of serious crimes such as murder and homicide continue to increase despite the severe punishment like life imprisonment (Spohn, 2007). Labeling has also not stopped blacks from leading in crimes, especially based on criminal reports released by government agencies. Therefore, the argument that punishment and labeling reduce criminal behavior is not true.

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Crime attracts a lot of attention because of its significant impact on individuals and society at large, making scholars to help in finding solutions to criminal behaviors. Criminal behavior is basically defined as an unlawful act that goes against the existing laws and societal values and norms. Criminal behaviors are also influenced by a number of factors such as childhood experience, physical environment, the genetic makeup of a person, and drug and substance abuse, particularly among young people. Punishment and labeling have been used for many years, even though they have not helped in reducing criminal behaviors significantly. Criminal behaviors such as homicides that attract severe punishment are still common in countries such as the US. At the same time, labeling facilitates offending and reoffending, as it makes people to embrace and internalize criminal behaviors. As a result, another technique of deterring criminal behavior should be used instead of punishment. Besides, to effectively reduce the level of crime in the society, negative labeling should be discouraged. Punishment and labeling are some of the primary factors that influence criminal behaviors and they should be factored in when formulating programs to fight crime in the society.


  • Besemer, S., Farrington, D. P., & Bijleveld, C. C. (2017). Labeling and intergenerational transmission of crime: The interaction between criminal justice intervention and a convicted parent. PloS one, 12(3).
  • Cherrington, D. J. (2007). Crime and Punishment: Does Punishment Work?. Scholarly Archive. Retrieved from
  • Iglesias, J. R., Semeshenko, V., Schneider, E. M., & Gordon, M. B. (2012). Crime and punishment: Does it pay to punish?. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, 391(15), 3942-3950.
  • Rao, T. S. (2007). Criminal behavior: A dispassionate look at parental disciplinary practices. Indian journal of psychiatry, 49(4), 231-232.
  • Spohn, C. (2007). The deterrent effect of imprisonment and offenders' stakes in conformity. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 18(1), 31-50.

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