Psychology of Criminal Behavior
In the contemporary world, not a day goes by without numerous reports of acts contrary to the law thus obliging the criminal justice system to play its indispensable role in comprehending and rehabilitating offenders into law-abiding citizens. Renowned psychologists such as John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner as well as Edward Thorndike through their theories in fields of behaviorism and operant conditioning exemplify the underlying concept by which the Criminal Justice System is founded. This paper thus seeks to describe the theories of behaviorism and operant conditioning in relation to the criminal justice system. I will succinctly analyze how these theories apply to the various elements of the justice system. In addition, I will be keen to note the common areas of focus with regard to conditioning and the measures that are implemented to fuel the conditioning.
Description of the theory of behaviorism
Behaviorism is a scientific approach that brings forth the notion that human and animal behavior is caused by external stimuli as opposed to the general perception that behavior is based on the mental state of individuals. Behaviorists such as B.F Skinner and Bandura believe that behavior can be shaped through the “stimulus – responses ideology” using positive reinforcement (by giving rewards), or negative reinforcements (punishment). Consequently, it is thought that the likelihood of a favored behavior to happen again will increase through positive reinforcement; whereas, the likelihood of unfavored behavior to happen again will decrease through negative reinforcement. (Behaviorism, 2007).
Description of the theory of operant conditioning
Operant conditioning can be best described as the process that tries to change behavior by using positive and negative reinforcements. This learning method results from the application of external consequences. In other words, learning occurs when certain responses are connected to positive and negative stimuli (McLeod, 2015). The father of Operant Conditioning, Skinner, expanded E. L. Thorndike`s earlier achievements in the field of behaviorism, as well as his law of effect” (Basic Principles of Operant Conditioning, n.d.). For his experiment, Skinner trained pigeons to peck at moving images and words. An example of positive reinforcement was when the pigeon was given the word “turn”, it would turn around and as a reward, bird seeds would be dispensed through a machine. Through this experiment, he was able to demonstrate the most basic principle of operant conditioning. On the contrary, an example of negative reinforcement was displayed when the pigeon performed an undesired action (Basic Principles of Operant Conditioning, n.d.). As a result, Skinner was able to train and shape the behavior of the pigeon through operant conditioning aimed at shaping complex behavior, (McLeod, 2015). More often than not people fail to distinguish between Operant conditioning and Classical conditioning. It is worth noting that operant conditioning integrates both positive and negative conditioning while classical conditioning only concentrates on one of the two at a go.
Application of operant conditioning in the criminal justice system
The enactment of criminal statutes basically refers to a legislative body`s act of passing laws. In a bid to achieve peaceful coexistence, federal governments and states must have statutes that help identify criminal behavior and stipulate the respective punishment. Operant conditioning is evident in the criminal statute enactment process where legislative bodies identify the possible causative agents of harm in society and set in place measures to prevent them by making an example out of those who attempt to do such criminal acts. To exemplify Operant conditioning in progress, Title 18, Part I, Chapter 51, Sec. 1112, of the 2010 U.S Code, categorizes homicide/manslaughter as one of the most if not the most heinous act punishable by law. Through this enactment, manslaughter is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being. It goes further to categorize manslaughter into two as elaborated below.
Voluntary— this is the premeditated act of taking another person's life.
Involuntary manslaughter—this is unintentional killing as a result of an unlawful act, negligence or recklessness such as driving under the influence.
Since the above statute applies to the US, it then follows that whoever is found guilty of manslaughter within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, shall be fined in a court of law or imprisoned not more than fifteen years, or both. On the other hand, whoever is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, shall be fined in a court of law or imprisoned for not more than eight years, or both.”(Justia Law, n.d.). This measure is effective in enabling the government to shape the behavior of the majority of its domiciles to shun from behavior and actions that may cause manslaughter as it is unacceptable. Such actions include driving under the influence as well as domestic violence. In addition, it aims not only to prevent people from committing manslaughter but to warn them of the consequence of breaking such laws and the negative reinforcement that will follow. The negative reinforcement/ punishment, in this case, is that if one commits manslaughter, he, or she will face time in prison. The unlawful act taking another`s life is the unwanted behavior while the imprisonment is the negative reinforcement aimed at discouraging it.
The enforcement of statutory laws is the process by which members of the society act towards the implementation of statute laws by discovering, preventing, rehabilitating or punishing wrongdoers. Law enforcement involves the efforts of ordinary civilians as well as police officers who comprehend wrong doers. Going by the above example of manslaughter, the fact that civilians are well aware that manslaughter is unlawful and, therefore, any US domicile caught by civilians during such an act is likely to face mob justice. This explains why crime is committed in the utmost discretion. Secondly, the police play an indispensable role in comprehending wrongdoers where civilians are incapable. Through investigation, the police establish the possible suspects. After the apprehension of the suspects, their guilt is then determined with the help of the rest of the justice system and law enforcement framework to be discussed in the subsequent paragraphs. Through consistent enforcement, one stays aware of their actions and behaviors, and the repercussions of breaking the statutory laws. This is operant conditioning in action since over the years we have learned to perceive actions such as murder and burglary as crimes. This explains why civilians who spot unarmed thieves or murders confront them. It also explains why police sirens send shivers through criminals. The two explanations manifest the success of operant conditioning in the enforcement of statutory laws.
Prosecution of criminal cases commences when the police report reaches a prosecutor. According to Neubauer, and Fradella, (2013) prosecutor then determines if the case should be charged as a felony or misdemeanor. If the case is declared to be a felony, it is presented in front of a grand jury. The suspect is entitled to have a defense attorney in charge of defending his/her innocence. The available evidence is then presented in a bid to evaluate the suspect's association with the crime. Among the key functions of the prosecutor include;
Handling prosecutions within his/her office`s jurisdiction
He/she is an officer of the court in charge of administering justice with sound discretion and due diligence.
The prosecutor seeks justice and not unfounded conviction.
It is the duty of the prosecutor to ensure that ethical codes and professional conduct is practiced. The prosecutor should also heed the advice of the advisory committee in controversial situations.
In light of the above, operant conditioning, in this case, is nurtured right from law school where the two attorneys are trained and expected to practice due diligence and aim at obtaining justice. The two should, therefore, ensure that no false witness is given and that all material facts are presented irrespective of the implications. Due to operant conditioning both attorneys are aware that unethical practices of unprofessionalism may result in negative reinforcement such as termination of their law practicing careers. Operant conditioning is successful in keeping attorneys on toes and ensuring that justice prevails (Neubauer, Fradella, 2013).
Sentencing of convicted offenders. Sentencing begins with the declaration of the final verdict from the jury and the judge. In line with the goal of ensuring justice, the jury and the judge are obliged to deliver their judgment professionally and void of any bias. The presence of any unprofessional behavior such as taking bribes is an offense since it obstructs justice. For this reason, those involved in such unscrupulous practices are likely to be terminated from offices and possibly prosecuted. The jury and the Judges are, therefore, less likely to engage in unprofessional behavior owing to the expected consequences. In addition, operant conditioning is manifested where punishments / negative reinforcements are administered in adherence to the magnitude of the crime such that penalties for murder and defamation or theft of pets should not receive the same punishment. The greater crime i.e. murder is more likely to receive greater punishment as opposed to the other petty crimes. Individuals will, therefore, be less likely to commit murder as opposed to petty theft cases, (FindLaw,n.d.). Despite the fact that some inmates in prison may be innocent, the success of operant conditioning is manifested by the fact that a majority of sentences administers justice in the end.
Inmate sanctions within correctional institutions. Correctional facilities are filled with violent inmates thus raising the possibility of chaos such as riots, prison violence, escape attempts and much more. Operant conditioning plays a key role through inmate sanctions whether positive or negative reinforcement aimed at rewarding inmates that abide by the rules and punishing those that do not. The reliance on punishment for controlling incorrect behavior from an inmate is undeniable (Burdon, Lore, Prendergast, n.d.). For instance, taking away privileges such as yard time, watching television and additional prison time can achieve the much needed results. On the contrary, inmates that follow the rules and behave appropriately, are bound to receive positive incentives in order to motivate them and others to continue good behavior. Such inmates are allowed frequent visits from their families, or can earn good time credit (US Legal, n.d.). The fact that a vast majority of inmates abide by the rules shows that operant conditioning during such sanctions works.
Conditions of community supervision. After the maturity of the prison sentence or before, inmates are released back into the free world. To prevent the reoccurrence of criminal behavior, the former inmates are subject to rules of community supervision as stipulated by the Department of Corrections. Among the eighteen key rules include, abidance to federal and state laws, availability for tests, and adherence to court condition among others. These rules shape the former inmates behavior by preventing them from committing crimes for fear of possible re-incarceration. Few inmates go back to their initial criminal behavior thus showing the effectiveness of operant conditioning in this regard.
As I conclude, many people are oblivious of the indispensable role played by operant conditioning in our daily lives. However, a keen eye will undoubtedly spot operant conditioning with a glance ranging from early childhood where parents nurture children in adherence to social norms and against wrong action such as stealing sugar and the like, to peaceful societal coexistence of adults in society. Whereas operant conditioning is evident in many fields such as education and early childhood, this paper paints a vivid picture of applications of operant conditioning within the criminal justice system.
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