What turns someone into a criminal?

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Serious crimes often provoke a public and media response of shocked disbelief – they appear simply inexplicable, unfathomable. Criminologists attempt to understand the reasons for the offences: what drives people to commit them? And how can criminality be prevented? Criminology as a field of study in its own right is comparatively young. It emerged in the nineteenth century as an auxiliary science of criminal law. During the course of the twentieth century criminology then evolved to become an independent discipline.

Franz von Liszt, a Viennese-born jurist and a cousin of the famous composer, played a pioneering role in establishing and developing criminology research in Germany. He was one of the first to come up with the idea of prevention and rehabilitation. In Liszt’s view, the purpose of punishment is not revenge but the prevention of further criminality.

A particular focus on young people

Criminologists study what makes someone become a criminal

Chairs in criminology these days are to be found primarily in faculties of law – such as at the universities in Cologne, Tübingen, Heidelberg, Münster, Bochum and Giessen. For the most part they are affiliated with departments of criminal law relating to juvenile offenders. And this is no coincidence: adolescents and young adults come into conflict with the law particularly often, even if they commit only minor offences in many cases. In Germany, young people are held legally responsible for their crimes from the age of 14. “One in five alleged criminals in Germany falls within the scope of juvenile criminal law”, says Professor Frank Neubacher, director of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cologne (only in German).

In 1990, juvenile criminal law in Germany underwent a reform that was based in part on the results of criminological research. Ever since, young persons who have committed a crime have tended to be “educated” in training courses rather than punished by imprisonment. “Imprisonment during this phase of life does not reduce the risk of reoffending”, explains Neubacher. “On the contrary, it actually increases it.” He goes on to say that criminology research conducted worldwide shows that minors do not automatically become criminals just because they steal or run riot, travel on public transport without paying or bully their classmates. “Those are perfectly normal manifestations of bad behaviour – that is no different in Germany than in other countries.”

Criminology also addresses topical issues, researching for example why young people become radicalised. A young German girl made the headlines internationally in the summer of 2017: she was arrested by Iraqi soldiers in Mosul following the city’s liberation from the “Islamic State (IS)” terrorist organisation. As it later emerged, the girl in question was a 16-year-old pupil from Saxony who had been reported missing. Without her family’s knowledge, she had travelled one year earlier from Germany to Iraq via Turkey. She is one of hundreds of youngsters recruited by IS in Germany alone – and who clearly underwent an extremely rapid process of radicalisation. According to figures from the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz – Germany’s domestic intelligence service – nearly 1,000 people have travelled from Germany to Iraq or Syria to join IS since 2014.

Eight research institutions in Germany, including the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cologne, are joining forces to study how such developments happen. "We assume that radicalisation processes have been enormously accelerated by the Internet", says Frank Neubacher. “In the experience of the security agencies, they often take only 18 to 24 months.” With a view to better understanding this process, Neubacher and his colleagues from universities such as Jena, Greifswald, Göttingen and Hanover are surveying radicalised young men and women. They are also interviewing staff of security agencies. The research forms part of a project entitled "Radicalisation within the digital age – risks, processes and strategies for prevention" that was launched in 2017. It is being coordinated by the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony.

Crime protected by digital anonymity

The Internet not only plays a key role when it comes to radicalisation, however. "The Internet is changing the way crime is committed as a whole", says Neubacher. Protected by digital anonymity, instances of fraud have increased, as have offences such as slander and libel. On the other hand, digital technologies are also used in criminal prosecution. At the Social Science Department at Hamburg University, Professor Susanne Krasmann is conducting research into predictive policing (only in German) that uses IT-based forecasting methods. The police in Germany and elsewhere are trialling such techniques with the expectation of preventing crimes before they are committed. The research project is exploring how technology is changing not only police work, but also the way criminality is perceived.

Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony

25 scientists from different disciplines work at the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony. They are experts in fields such as psychology, social science and law. The non-university institute explores different areas of criminology such as radicalisation in the digital age. Work on this project is being carried out at the Social Transformation research unit.