This is an old debate: Free will and choice versus structural conditions. Nature versus nurture. Conservative (aka: classically liberal) versus liberal. Classical versus Positivist. Punishment versus prison. You could even go back to Old Testament versus New Testament.
So do people commit crime because they're criminals or because society made them? The wishy-washy answer, alas, is: yes.
Sociologists emphasize "root causes," the idea that racism, poverty, unemployment, poor school and housing--the social and environmental factors--cause crime. This doesn't ring true to cops and non-criminal poor. And nothing makes "root causes" seem more suspect than talking about in front of students who, at least according to the "root causes," should all be criminals but aren't.
But there is a basic truth to "root causes," especially if you replace "caused by" with "correlated with." You certainly will not be mugged on the street by a rich man (yeah, I know the boardroom is something else).
This was all inspired by Jay Livingston's post on David Brooks. Compare your beliefs about crime with your beliefs about suicide. Is suicide just a matter of choice and free will or is it caused by the "root causes" of sadness, depression, and rough times? Livingston, building on Durkheim, writes:
Explanations of individual facts (like who gets ahead and who doesn’t) often aren’t much help in explaining social facts (like the overall degree of inequality and poverty in a society).Nobody makes you kill yourself. But clearly suicide--one of the most personal, selfish, and inwardly directed choices a person can make--is influenced by social and cultural factors beyond one's control. Why is crime any different? Read the above but replace "suicide" with "violent crime" and "sadness" with "poverty" and things get deep... or at least confusing. Oh, the real world... she is complicated.
In explaining suicide at the individual level, sadness is a pretty useful concept. People who commit suicide are, no doubt, sadder than those who don’t. The surest way not to commit suicide is to be happy, not sad. But does knowing about these individual differences help us understand why the US has a rate of suicide nearly triple that of Greece? Are Americans three times as sad as Greeks? And within the US, are whites twice as sad as blacks?
But if you believe in police and crime prevention, you really have no choice but to emphasize the power of choice and free will. It's part of the premise behind Broken Windows and the crime drop in New York: root causes matter, but because there's nothing we (as police) can do about them, we're going to focus on what police can do: order maintenance, compstat-based deployment, hot spots, outstanding warrants, situational crime prevention, anything but sitting back waiting to respond to crime after the fact.
Effective crime prevention is a bit like like a suicide barrier on a bridge: a piece of metal won't get to the root causes or make people any less sad, but it might stop them from killing themselves.