27 May




Criminal Behavior

Review of Theories, Offenders and Case Studies

Kelly A. Burton

Walden University



This paper takes a look at reasons for criminal behavior, covering the big three, Biological, Psychological, and Sociological factors.  Four main types of offenders are outlined, Mentally disordered offenders, Sex Offenders, Violent Offenders and Family Violence Offenders.  The definition of what is a crime is covered, with a definition set for use in the case studies.  Case studies are analyzed in accordance with this theories and type of offenders and determined if they fit the patterns to be considered a criminal, and answer the question, “Is this person a criminal?”

Criminal Behavior

Review of Theories, Offenders and Case Studies

In order to talk about criminal behavior, one must be able to define who is a criminal, and in order to define who is a criminal, one must be able to define what is a crime.  This is where the dilemma starts, as there is such a wide range of what is a crime.  Durkheim back in the 1800s, as cited by Burkhead (2006), defined crime as whatever behavior society is willing to punish for.  For modern purposes crime can be defined as the laws that we have enacted as a society. Laws enacted by the majority is not always the case, as those with power and wealth can enact laws that work to protect their assets at the expense of those who are powerless.  For the purpose of this paper, I will define a crime as, the actions of one person against another that allows gain for the criminal at the expense of the victim. My definition falls in line with the definition give by Walsh (1995) as cited in Scheider’s (2002) article “ Teaching Criminology Theory, Presentation According to the Dependent Variable”, which is, “Criminality is a property of individuals that compels them to seek their own interest with little regard for interest of others.” My definition also is based on Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious, which is the belief that we all share a common set of core beliefs and knowledge, those that engage in criminal behavior are not in alignment with the collective unconscious and whose moral compasses are misaligned.  My definition for the purpose of this paper covers crimes such as murder, assault, sexual assault, child abuse, theft, etc.

Now that a definition of what is a crime has been set, this study will illustrate theories of criminal behavior, outlining risk factors associated with each of these theories.  The types of offenders that one will face when working in the criminal behavior field and then a sample of case studies to illustrate the theories and risk factors associated with each type of criminal.  The final outcome of reviewing these case studies will answer the main question and theme of this paper, “Is this person a criminal?”

Reasons for Criminal Behavior Theories

Could someone be born a criminal?  Does their upbringing and social environment make them into a criminal? Could it be there is an imbalance in their personality as a result of psychological problems?  These questions are asked as they are based in the current criminal behavior theories, of biological, psychological, and sociological.


From early on there have been many different theories of criminal behavior based on biological factors.  Early researchers like Dr. Lombroso and Dr. Gall based a whole theory of biological criminal behavior called phrenology, based on the size and shape of skulls and jaw bones, linking those who more resembled early man as criminals (Burkhead, 2006).  Today these theories might seem quaint and absurd, but back in the early nineteenth century a lot of effort went into this science.

Today’s efforts of looking at biological factors for criminal behavior are more rooted in solid science, such as neurological deficiencies, environmental factors and other biological anomalies as a basis for abnormal behavior that can lead to criminal involvement.

Bartol & Bartol (2011), points out that the malfunctioning of neurotransmitters can lead to factors that increase the chances for criminal behaviors.  Specifically the neurotransmitter for serotonin, when it does not supply enough to the frontal lobes can result in increased aggression and lack of impulse control.  Testosterone when not balanced properly in the body can result in increased aggression in males and females, leading to violent criminal behavior (Dabbs, Carr, Frady, & Riad, 1995; Dabbs, Riad, & Chance, 2001, as cited by Bartol & Bartol, 2011).  Behaviors that are linked to biological factors are the easiest to modify, as they can be adjusted chemically.  Medication in order to control behavior has a limitation of the person not taking the medication. Only in a prison environment can a person be forced and monitored to take medication, those that are directed by a court to remain on medication as a result of their release or probation are still allocated free will, allowing them to stop their regiment at any time.  This allocation of free will can be considered a factor in the high recidivism rates among those who are left to monitor their own medication (PBS, 2005).

Environmental factors, such as exposure to toxins and substance abuse, have been correlated to criminal behavior. Specifically children in the womb who are exposed to toxins are at a higher risk for antisocial disorders and conduct problems, then their healthy counterparts (Dodge & Pettit, 2003, as Cited by Bartol & Bartol, 2011 & Carpenter & Nevin 2009). These factors can be considered biological factors, due to the change is physical make up of the person.  Toxins are different from substance abuse, as toxins are normally not voluntarily introduced to the body, substance abuse is introduced to the body by the individual. Substance abuse is a wider problem then toxins as reasons for the substance abuse can have roots in psychological and sociological factors.  Because the unborn child has no decision in what their mother exposes them to during prenatal development, they are victim to the behaviors of the mother.  Mothers who choose to expose their unborn children to toxins and chemicals related to substance abuse, in my definition are criminals.


Psychological factors related to criminal behaviors are mental disorders.  A majority of criminals have some type of mental disorder, this is not to say that all people who have mental disorders are criminals.  One of the reasons that so many criminals have mental disorders is the fact that there are not mental health facilities to properly treat everyone.  As the mentally ill are left untreated they can fall into behaviors that lead them into trouble with the law.  For some mentally disordered, the only way for them to receive any treatment for their disorder is for them to go to prison, our prisons have become the new mental asylums (PBS, 2005).

Some disorders seem more prone to criminal behavior then others, for example anti social personality disorder.  Studies have shown that there is a strong link between antisocial personality disorder and criminal behavior (Moffitt, 1993). Additionally anti social personality disorder is one of the traits of a person who has psychopath tendencies, which is another mental disorder with strong ties to criminal behavior.

Mentally disordered offenders, which will be covered later in this paper, is one type of criminal offender.  For most people with mental disorders there would not be any risk associated with the disorder as long as the person is able to be treated.  The breakdown of the system is that when the person is not able to be treated their disorder causes their behavior which leads them into conflict with the law.


The sociological aspects of criminology share a common thread, it’s the collective society that determine the level of criminal activity in an area.  Durkheim explains this behavior as series of the have and have-nots, those that do not have will do whatever it takes to equal the haves (Burkhead, 2006).  Burkhead (2006), shares Tarde’s theory of learned behaviors, pointing out that people imitate one another and that the poor would imitate the actions of the wealthy, including criminal behavior.  The common thread of the sociological aspects of criminal behavior is that it is a learned behavior and a method to obtain ones needs.  The movie “Blood and Crypts, made in America” (Peralta, 2008), points out that membership in gangs is not a violence based system, but one of family, protection, and lineage.  Often members of gangs are members simply because they are not getting needs from their home lives, or their families have been in gangs for generation.

In this area of study is Social Control Theory, which is a way for neighborhoods to monitor and control the level of criminal activity in their neighborhood with working with the police and sharing common beliefs for what constitutes proper behavior in the neighborhood (Silver & Miller, 2004).  When the level of beliefs in the community is not in harmony with the collective, there is a situation of Social Disorganization, which allows criminal behavior to run rampant, as the community is not working as one (Warner, 2003).  Additionally the theory of Rational Choice falls into this category which is the the theory that everyone is capable of weighing their choices and selecting the best outcome, factoring in the punishment for not making the rational choice (Bouffard & Wolf, 2007).

Types of Offenders

Criminal offenders can be placed into categories in order to make them easier to define and study, according to Bartol & Bartol, (2011), there are four main groups of offenders, mentally disordered offenders, sex offenders, violent offenders and family violence offenders.

Mentally Disordered Offenders

This category of offenders are criminals who suffer from mental illnesses, and as a result of their illness turn to criminal behavior.  As a result it is estimated that approximately half of the prison population fall into this category of having a mental disorders (PBS, 2005). This is one category of offender that if treated would be reduced from the penal system, as they are only criminal offenders due to the un-treatment of their disorder.  Often times the only place the people in this category are able to obtain treatment for their disorder is in prison, which is the result of the supreme court ruling of 1976 in the case Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S 97, stated that the state must provide health services, including mental health for all prisoners (JRANK, 2012 & PBS 2005).  One of the case studies in this paper will cover this area of offender.

Sex Offenders

Sex offenders can fall into many different categories according to Bartol & Bartol, (2011), sexual assault, pedophiles, and juvenile offenders which can be sexual assaulters and pedophiles.   Those that are pedophiles are considered to have a mental disorder according to the DSV-IV.  Two of the case studies in this paper will outline the behaviors of sexual offenders.

Violent Offenders

Violent offenders are classified as those crimes of violence against others, which according to Bartol & Bartol (2011) are, murder, aggravated assault, forcible rape and robbery.  While not all violent offenders have mental illness, there are those who are mentally ill and commit violent crimes.  According to a study by Graz, Etschel, Schoech & Soyka, (2009), of violent offenders with mental illnesses, those with manic disorders commit more crimes than the major depressive disorders which was quite low in the study.

Family Violence Offenders

This category can include the other offender types, however this one is based on acts committed against people of the same household.  This category covers child abuse, spousal abuse, and abuse towards the elderly.  One of the case studies in this paper covers this type of offender, as we outline a female offender who abuses her children as a result of substance abuse.  Substance abuse is common family violence cases, however only as a correlation, there is not causation proof available to substantiate this as a root cause of family violence (Frieze & Bowen, 1989, as cited by Bartol & Bartol, 2011).

Offenders – Case Studies

Having defined the theories for criminal behaviors and the types of offenders, this paper will take a look at three case studies from the book “Forensic Mental Health Assessment – A Casebook” (2002), by Authors Heilbrun, Marczyk & DeMatteo.  Coverings the history of the offender, biological, psychological, and sociological risk factors, and make the determination, “Is this person a Criminal?”

Sexual Offender – John D.

This case study is of a Sexual Offender, specifically a sexual predator who is being evaluated for the court to determine if this offender is dangerous and should be categorized as a sexual predator.

John D., a 24 year old, white male convicted of sexual battery of another male.  John’s child hood is littered with sexual abuse from his father and his mother, along with his parent’s substance abuse problems.  Additionally he acquired a foot fetish early on that leads to his erotic sexual fantasies, which includes violence and homosexual behavior. John remembers this early on as being afraid and in the dark and playing with and smelling someone’s feet.  John’s early sexual abuse and inappropriate relationship with his family including his grandparents has not allowed him to develop the skills necessary to sustain a normal healthy adult relationship with any partner.  Additionally proper sexual behaviors have not been learned as his exposure to sexual abuse stems from his whole family.  In his teenager years he started his acts of violence and predatory behavior with hitting a male friend in the head with a shovel so he could play with his feet.  This behavior escalated into more violent behavior towards victims for the purpose of his own sexual gratification.  John states that he has sexual fantasies that involve violence and killing others by strangulation or drowning in a garbage can, obtaining his sexual release as the person dies, and he is not sure if he has actually killed anyone as his line between reality and real is often times blurred.  John D. Has been in and out of mental health care facilities since his early teens, suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and relationship problems. When medicated John is better able to control his behaviors, however he purposely stops taking his medications so he can act out on his fantasies and consume alcohol and drugs which enhance his sexual releases.

Biological Factors:  None that can be determined from the case study.

Psychological Factors: Early sexual abuse as a child,  no system of normal family bonding, his wanting of approval from his step father but never getting it because of his sexual orientation. Substance abuse, suicidal attempts, and bought of depression.

Sociological Factors: From the family aspect of social factors, there are many, John D. Did not grow up in a normal household therefore never learned how to handle himself properly among his peers.  His early sexual trauma from his parents leaves him unable to have a normal relationship with his peers and sustain a long time relationship.

Is John D., a criminal?

In order for one to be prosecuted as a criminal, they must have an understanding that their behavior was wrong.  In John’s case, while he has many factors that attribute to his behaviors, he does in fact know that what he is doing is wrong. Starting with him first encounter for hitting his friend in the head in order to play with his feet for sexual gratification, John knew it was wrong but acted anyway.  Additionally John purposefully goes off his medication in order to carry out his sexual fantasies, this coupled with the fact that his fantasies are of killing people for his sexual release, fits my definition of what is a criminal — “the actions of one person against another that allows gain for the criminal at the expense of the victim.”   John cares more about his own sexual gratification than his victims, and purposely avoids treatment in order to complete his acts. John D., is a criminal and needs to be categorized as a sexual predator and given a sentence that is appropriate for his crime of sexual battery.

Mental Disorder Violent Criminal

This next case study is of a John H., born in 1999, currently on death row for the murder of two people. John H. Was raised by his mother after a divorce when he was 4 years old.  John H. Has an extensive history of narcotic substance abuse during his developmental years and into adulthood.   As a result of his substance abuse John developed psychotic symptoms mostly from his use of LSD.   He is sexually promiscuous with multiple partners simultaneously both male and female.  He was married briefly and fathered two sons who he has no contact with.  Prior to his conviction for murder he was involved in a disability scam, where he purposely fell off some pallets at his job and faked injuries in order to collect unemployment and disability payments.  At approximately age 15 he was diagnosed with anti-social behavior, mood disorder, substance dependency and psychotic symptoms.

Various times during his life he was admitted to care facilities for his mental disorders and substance abuse, after successful treatment he would be discharged, stop taking medications and start abuse drugs again, starting the destructive cycle all over again.  His mental disorders has been attributed to his extensive drug abuse from several clinical write-ups from various doctors. The circumstances and aspects of his murders have been noted to be unorganized and uncharacteristic of his non-violent past.

While on death row under clinical supervision and medication, John H. has had only one relapse of his psychotic episodes, but only when he was told that his case would be retried.  Once the second trial was complete and he remained on death row, he has displayed no relapses of psychotic behavior.  In fact the opposite is true, he is very organized and took up a new religion which has seemed to work in a calming effect.  John H. Is fully aware why he is on death row, how the procedure is to be completed, and has made extensive plans the disposition of his personal belongings and the cremation of his body and spreading of ashes by his mother and spiritual leader after his death.

After psychological assessment of John H., while on death row found his level of depression is slightly higher than before, but no other psychotic symptoms or behaviors were found.  One item that does stand out is the lack of compassion for his victims, or any sense of remorse in John.  As his needs in the after life have been fulfilled by his faith he seems to be at peace with his situation and pending death by the state.  The Case notes from Dr. Cunningham, PhD., find his calm demeanor and acceptance of his death as an indicator of psychosis, however I do not find this to be the case.  As John’s belief in his new religion affords him the comfort that while his physical body will die, his soul will continue on in the afterlife under better circumstances.  If this is a sign of mental illness than those that practice any type of organized religion would be considered mentally ill as well.

Biological Factors:  Possible brain damage from extensive drug abuse during developmental years and adulthood.  His psychotic behaviors to seem to stem from his extensive use of LSD and other mind altering drugs.

Psychological Factors: Lack of a positive role model for John H., could have some bearing on his situation and his motivations for drug abuse. Additionally his father leaving at a young age could be the cause for his sexual promiscuousness and lack of commitment in relationships, however this is not the genesis of his psychotic behaviors, which are clearly from his extensive drug abuse.  His early mental disorder diagnosis could be cause for his later behavior, however this was avoidable as he responded to medication and treatments several times during his life.  His reasons for relapsing into drug abuse and stopping medication regiments is unknown.

Sociological Factors:  John H., from his case does not demonstrate any sociological factors that would perpetuate his behaviors. While he was raised only by his mother with infrequent visitation from his father, the case notes show no adverse factors stemming from this environment.

Is John H., a criminal?

John H., is a criminal because he is a substance abuser.  All the indications in this case point to his behaviors stemming from his extensive use of drugs.  John had several interventions during his development to stop his patterns of drug abuse, yet chose to stop medications and continue on the track of substance abuse.  Additionally with the exception of his drug abuse, there are no risk factors that lead to him being mentally ill, confused, or delusion enough to satisfy his murders as a result of being insane.

Female Sexual Offender

This last case s interesting, as it is a child custody determination case, but I found that it has many criminal elements involved.  Mrs. Troubled Monroe, age 34 at time of case study.  Monroe was raised in family where her father was not around and her mother had a constant stream of men that came in and out of the picture.  Monroe’s mother was a drug abuser, seller and exhibited other criminal activities in front of her children.   As a result Troubled Monroe herself fell into a pattern of drug abuse, resulting in her difficulties in school and in relationships.  She has a long history of relationships with abusive men, who like her are victims of substance abuse.  Mrs. Monroe lives in poverty, never gainfully employed living off of movement assistance and disability payments.

Mrs. Monroe has two male children, with their father not around for helping in the parenting.  Mrs. Monroe even though she is a parent now, has not changed her patterns of abusive men or substances. Her addictions are carrying over to her two children, as they have developed emotional and psychological problems.  Her children have made allegations that Mrs Monroe, and her boyfriends have abused them sexually.  Giving details that are too specific for children that young to be fabricated.  Mrs. Monroe, is unable to verify these allegations as she is also under the effects of alcohol or drugs.

The children have been in and out of foster care, and Monroe has been directed by the courts to participate in parenting classes, AA and substance abuse treatment programs.  While Monroe seems sincere and participates for short periods, she always falls out of the program and resorts back to substance abuse and abusive relationships.  The case study is to determine if the children should be given back to Mrs. Monroe, however, like the other case studies, this paper will determine if she is a criminal or not.

Biological Factors:  Substance abuse is the only biological factor in this case, which in the base of Monroe, is probably a learned behavior from her mother’s addictions.

Psychological Factors: Poor childhood development could be the cause of her substance abuse. The lack of a positive male role model, coupled with a drug busing criminal mother, did not provide the needed support for a young person to grow into a functioning adult.

Sociological Factors:  Poverty, substance abuse, abusive relationships, during her childhood have followed her into adulthood.  While some people are able to overcome these factors, Monroe’s substance abuse does not allow her to change her situation.  This cycle started with her abusive mother, continued with Monroe, and now is being passed on to her children in the form of sexual abuse and child neglect.

Is Troubled Monroe a criminal?

While the case study is not looking at Monroe as a criminal, yet she falls into the category of female sexual offender. Monroe’s sexual abuse and neglect are rooted in her own abuse and neglect, however a larger portion of her behavior comes from the substance abuse, which is a controllable variable.  Even with her troubled past and upbringing, removing substance abuse from the equation would result in her taking a more active part in her children’s development and prevent her from any type of sexual abuse towards her children. However because Monroe chooses to abuse drugs and alcohol and place herself in relationships with men who abuse her and her children, she is criminally liable.


The study of criminal behavior from a psychologist view entails many facets that are not often considered.  Because criminal behavior is not healthy, looking at psychological factors is beneficial to getting to the root cause of crime.  If we are able to find a root cause for criminal behavior, the possibility is there for us to reduce or eliminate criminal behavior.  However criminal behavior can be seen in mankind from the earliest day of man up to current generations and have yet to find any root causes.  One category of criminal behavior can be eliminated now, that is those with mental disordered.  Allocating resources to treat the mentally ill could reduce prison populations by approximately half, which would be a great start in lowering the crime rates in the world.



Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2011). Criminal behavior a psychological approach. (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bouffard, J. A., & Wolf, K. (2007). Rational choice theory: A crime-related perspective. Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, doi: 10.1111/b.9781405124331.2007.x

Burkhead, M. D. (2006). The search for the causes of crime. Jefferson, NC: Macfarland and Company.

Carpenter, D., & Nevin, R. (2009). Environmental causes of violence. Physiology & Behavior, September 14, 2009

Heilbrun, K., Marczyk, G. R., & DeMatteo, D. (2002). Forensic mental health assessment, a casebook. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, USA.

Jrank.org, 2012, Mentally Disordered Offenders – The Mental Health And Criminal Justice Systems, Retrieved from http://law.jrank.org/pages/1590/Mentally-Disordered-Offenders-mental-health-criminal-justice-systems.html

Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescence – limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100(4), 674-701.

PBS, 2005, The New Asylums Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/asylums/

Peralta, S. (Director) (2008). Crips and bloods: Made in America [DVD]. Available from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0479044/

Scheider, M.C. Teaching Criminological Theory, Presentation According to the Dependent Variable. Journal of Criminal Justice Education. 13.2 (2002): 387-402.

Silver, E., & Miller, L. L. (2004). Sources of Informal Social Control in Chicago Neighborhoods. Criminology, 42(3), 551-583.

Warner, B. D. (2003). The role of attenuated culture in social disorganization theory. Criminology, 41(1), 73-97.







No CommentsCriminal Behavior, Forensic Psychology Tags: ,

No comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.