Crime: The Unsolved Problem

Mr. Barger is a corporate public relations executive and writer in Toledo, Ohio.

What causes crime? Why do some individuals possess tendencies which lead them to commit acts of violence and predation: robberies, assaults, rape, and other felonies? What sets the habitual or occasional criminal apart from the mainstream of society? More important, what can be done to “change” criminals into productive, law- abiding citizens?

The theory that has partly governed public policy for many years is that crime is caused by an unjust society. A most eloquent spokesman for this point of view was Ramsey Clark, who served as assistant attorney general in the Kennedy Administration and attorney general in the Johnson Administration. Here’s how Clark described the crime problem in his well-known 1970 book, Crime in America:

If we are to deal meaningfully with crime, what must be seen is the dehumanizing effect on the individual of slums, racism, ignorance and violence, of corruption and impotence to fulfill rights, of poverty and unemployment and idleness, of generations of malnutrition, of congenital brain damage and prenatal neglect, of sickness and disease, of pollution, of decrepit, dirty, ugly, unsafe, overcrowded housing, of alcoholism and narcotics addiction, of avarice, anxiety, fear, hatred, hopelessness and injustice. These are the fountainheads of crime. They can be controlled. As imprecise, distorted and prejudiced as our learning is, these sources of crime and their controllability clearly emerge to any who would see.[1]

And how would such conditions be changed? In that same volume, Clark explains that it’s a “matter of will.” If society becomes willing, the conditions that cause crime can be changed, and then crime will be greatly reduced.

Clark’s theory has a plausible sound and anybody who visits a large state prison will find scores of inmates from deprived backgrounds. Some of them are not really criminals in the true sense of the word; they are simply badly adjusted and disturbed people who need to be institutionalized. There are others with personal problems which got them into trouble.

But if a visitor searches out the professional criminals—both in prison and out—he may find that the theory doesn’t hold up at all. There are men, and some women, who have numerous advantages in their lives and yet they seem to become criminals by deliberate choice.

For example, neither John Dil-linger nor the notorious Alvin Karpis really were deprived as youngsters, nor were they getting revenge on an unjust society. The fact is, the criminal life simply gave them power, excitement, and recognition that they couldn’t have found in most straight professions. Far from being driven to crime by necessity and despair, both men had fierce appetites for the danger and rewards of their lawlessness. It is even possible that John Dillinger would have considered his short life well spent, for his crimes brought him a dubious fame that he couldn’t have achieved in any other way. Even Karpis, who spent more than 32 years in Federal prisons for his crimes, did not seem to regret his choice of a criminal career. Indeed, his personal story published aider his release in 1969 carried few regrets and tended to glorify and defend his criminal career.[2]

In the introduction to that same book, a quotation from Ben Hecht sheds some light on the nature of the criminal mind. Hecht had been working on a biography of Mickey Cohen, and this portion was later published:

(Wrote Hecht): I have been talking to Mickey Cohen for a number of years and mingling with his underworld entourage. Out of my contacts has come what I think may be a major piece of anthropological lore. The criminal has no hates or fears—except very personal ones. He is possibly the only human left in the world who looks lovingly on society. He does not hanker to fight it, reform it or even rationalize it. He wants only to rob it. He admires it as a hungry man might admire a roast pig with an apple in its mouth.

I was pleased to find this out, for I have read much to the contrary. Society does not, as sociologists and other tony intellectuals maintain, create the criminal. Bad housing, bad companions, bad government, etc., have little to do with why there are killers, robbers and outlaws. The criminal has no relation to society to speak of. He is part of man’s soul, not his institutions. He is an old one. A thousand preachers, summer boy’s camps, plus a congress of psychiatrists can barely dent even a minor criminal. As for the major criminal, he cannot be touched at all by society because he operates on a different time level. He is the presocial part of us—the ape that spurned the collar . . .

The criminal at the time of his lawlessness is one of the few happy or contented men to be found among us . . .

Alvin Karpis certainly was that kind of criminal. In his biography, he discussed the few times he had accepted regular employment in the straight world. To Karpis, such a life was boring and pointless, and he quickly abandoned it for the lure of crime. He considered himself a professional thief, and he took considerable pride in his competence and in his standing among other gangsters. If he suffered any remorse for his crimes or saw anything evil in the robberies or kidnappings he carried out, it was not evident in his autobiography. In reading it, one almost has the feeling that Karpis would have selected such a life again if he could have returned to his youth and had choices to make.

Not all criminals have been as open as Karpis about the attractions of a criminal career. In any prison, it is always possible to find convicts who seem to have changed and who have shown appropriate responses to counseling and other supposedly rehabilitative programs. Some of them, of course, are sincere people who really have changed. Other convicts, however, are usually cynical about the motives of their fellow inmates. Quite ot’cen, the ‘~rehabilitated” inmate is really only a perceptive and cunning person who produces the responses that counselors and prison authorities are seeking.

This is not to say that brutal prisons are good institutions for society or that one should abandon hope in possible methods of rehabilitation. We should admit, however, that crime is a lot like cancer. We may know more about it than we did in former days and we may have some criminals who have dramatically changed for the better. Still, both crime and cancer are unsolved problems and nobody has answers that promise wholesale improvements in crime statistics.


One recent development is that some thoughtful people are beginning to question the belief that the criminal is simply the victim of bad social conditions. They are taking another look at the problem and are concluding that the criminal is, after all, responsible for his behavior. This was the conclusion of a psychiatrist, the late Dr. Samuel Yochelson, who with a clinical psychologist named Stanton Samenow studied 252 male hardcore criminals. They also interviewed people connected with the criminals, including prison and probation officials, families, girl friends, employers, and associates.

Yochelson and Samenow eventually made a basic assumption that flew in the face of popular theory about the roots of crime. This assumption was: The criminal can and does choose his way of life freely in his quest for power, control and excitement. Moreover, he can choose to change if he musters courage or will to endure the consequences of re sponsible choices.[3]

This assumption was surprisingly close to Ben Hecht’s thoughts after spending time with Mickey Cohen and his underworld friends. The criminal, like the rest of us, pos sesses a human will and is capable of making choices. Every human being is controlled by the fact that choices may lead to unpleasant or unwanted consequences. For many of us, it is often necessary to make hard or difficult choices because we want to avoid certain consequences. For example, many people choose to plod away at boring, unsatisfying jobs simply because they need to make a living and do not want to live in destitution or dependency. Most people, in fact, do not manage to find a great deal of power, control, or excitement.

It’s true that most criminals may not completely understand their own motivations. However, this too is changing. Yochelson and Samenow started a therapeutic program aimed at helping criminals understand themselves and voluntarily change their thought patterns and actions. The program was un-apologetically moralistic and was aimed at helping criminals change into responsible citizens. They had promising success with a small group of persons who were willing to change. In the process, they also discovered that a criminal who comes to the program has “to wean himself from the high-voltage jolts he got out of crime to a steady current of satisfaction from self-respect and responsible living.” This process may even produce withdrawal pains similar to those experienced by a recovering drug addict!

Helping the Individual To Help Himself

While the work of Yochelson and Samenow is still controversial among professionals in the mental health and psychiatric fields, it is likely to attract other disciples who have become disillusioned with the conventional deterministic theories about criminal behavior. Their findings also are consistent with the results obtained by self-help and religious groups which have worked with criminals. Prison inmates have been helped by voluntary efforts such as Alcoholics Anonymous and the Dale Carnegie speech training program. The significant element in these programs is that of personal responsibility. The individual is guided to understand himself and to take voluntary steps to change his own thoughts and behavior.

At this point, none of these programs have helped more than a small percentage of the criminal population. Crime is still an unsolved problem, and nobody has found ways of changing the majority of criminals. From time to time, the nation’s prisons come under attack for their failure to rehabilitate criminals; some of these institutions also are rightly criticized for their brutality and bestial living conditions. However, there is nothing about the prison system that should logically lead to recovery or rehabilitation of criminals. Prisons are state or Federally-run institutions with bureaucratic managements which are forced to respond to political pressures. The primary purpose of a prison is custody and in any conflict between that purpose and rehabilitation, custody always wins.

And until rehabilitation measures can produce a better record of results, custody will continue to be society’s principal way of dealing with criminals. Maintaining a prison is expensive and difficult, but there is a grim logic in the concept of custody. John Dillinger held up no banks while he was in prison at Michigan City, Indiana, and Alvin Karpis neither robbed nor kidnapped anybody after he landed in Alcatraz. There is also a strong feeling in society that violators should be punished. Even Jonathan Kwitny, a knowledgeable and seasoned reporter who writes on crime subjects for The Wall Street Journal, has stated that the main problem with criminal justice now is that the system doesn’t punish violators—organized or unorganized—after they are convicted.[4]

Punishment as Deterrent

Perhaps another arrangement in favor of strong custodial measures and swift punishments is to deter others who may be weighing the possible advantages of a criminal life. Whether it works this way or not, the public apparently believes that it does and supports the maintenance of prison systems.

But there is no reason why self-help programs cannot be offered even in maximum security prisons. And while no self-help program has produced spectacular results in helping criminals change their lives, some of the individual changes have been dramatic. The present author knows several persons whose lives were completely transformed in prison by accepting certain new ideas about themselves and society. One man made such a complete change that he was later named to head a prison camp in another state. Another person who once had been associated with the Detroit underworld become so completely rehabilitated that he was named deputy sheriff of the county where he lived (legally possible for felons if they receive a complete pardon). Still another person had been considered institutionalized; that is, he was believed to be incapable of functioning in society. However, he eventually met all the conditions of a parole and has lived an exemplary life for more than ten years.

Three greatly changed individuals would not be very interesting to the people who compile statistics about crime and criminals. Out of 1,000 men, for example, these per sons would be only .3 per cent of the total number. In their lives, however, the changes were 100 per cent. They changed completely from persons who had been irresponsible criminals to citizens who could live in peace with themselves and other people in society. How were they able to do it?

All of them reached a point of becoming dissatisfied with their past lives and desired change. Moreover, they realized that the old ways were wrong and that they had harmed other people. They also accepted full responsibility for their own actions. While they knew that they had been driven by wrong impulses and feelings, they did not place responsibility outside of themselves. Then they accepted new ideas and beliefs which resulted in change. They seemed to become different persons, and in a way they were. They thought differently, they felt differently, and they acted differently.

Probably none of these men had ever heard of Yochelson and Samenow. Yet they proved the Yochelson/Samenow thesis: The criminal chooses his way of life and can change it if he musters the courage or will to do so.

No Miracles Promised

It would be misleading and thoughtless to say that every criminal can be changed by the sparse self-help programs now available in state and Federal prisons. After all, few people in free society make dramatic behavioral changes, so why should criminals be any different from the normal population? Crime is an unsolved problem, but it is not the only unsolved problem.

It also is wrong to say that individuals can be expected to change their lives without help or assistance from others. Actually, all of us are part of society and we owe many of our best ideas and beliefs to others who have helped us, patiently instructed us, and guided us. There is no such thing as a good society without a great deal of human cooperation and voluntary problem-solving.

But this is not the same as saying that society is responsible for our condition or that the proper way to change people is to impose, by coercive means, a certain form of organization on society. The fact is, it works the other way around. People think and act in certain ways, and society becomes a mirror of their beliefs and actions. Criminals are sometimes called the victims of an unjust society. But criminals, like the rest of us, help make society what it is. In fact, the criminal helps destroy the very society that is blamed for his ills.

In dealing with crime and criminals, we still have no answers that promise broad, sweeping changes. We should, however, be very skeptical of any proposals for fighting crime that do not take into account the individual will and motivations of each person who is or might become a criminal. James Q. Wilson, a Harvard professor who has served on crime and drug commissions, makes an important statement about the general problem of crime in closing his book, Thinking About Crime:

. . . some persons will shun crime even if we do nothing to deter them, while others will seek it out even if we do everything to reform them. Wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people. And many people, neither wicked nor innocent, but watchful, dissembling, and calculating of their opportunities, ponder our reaction to wickedness as a cue to what they might profitably do. We have trifled with the wicked, made sport of the innocent, and encouraged the cal culators. Justice suffers, and so do we all.[5]

The professor seems to be saying that we should be very humble about our knowledge of crime and its causes. He does say that we still should make distinctions between innocence and wickedness. There are criminals whose actions need to be taken seriously, and who should be locked up in order to protect the innocent. The innocent person should not have to take the rap for the criminal’s actions.

One of the crucial questions in thinking about crime is whether or not the criminal is capable of making conscious choices that govern his actions. If he is incapable of making such choices, he should be adjudged insane and dealt with accordingly. If he is capable of choosing right or wrong behavior, then he also can choose a new way of life. Few crimi nals do make such choices. Perhaps that’s why crime still is the great unsolved problem. []

1.   New York: Simon and Schuster.

2.   Alvin Karpis, The Alvin Karpis Story (New York: Coward-McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1971).

3.   See “The Criminal Mind: A Startling New Look,” The Reader’s Digest, May 1978.

4.   See Jonathan Kwitny, “Ford Foundation Mulls Crime Fight,” The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 1976.

5.   James Q. Wilson (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p. 209.