Positive Criminology

Theoretical Background

More often than not, the study of crime, violence and related behaviors emphasizes the negative aspects in people's lives that are associated with, or lead to, deviance and criminality. A common, however partial, understanding is that human relationships are affected more by destructive encounters than by constructive or positive ones. Prominent criminological theories tend to exemplify the dominant role of "the bad" in criminology: neglect; social rejection and alienation; association with a strong criminal influence; reaction to social strain; lack of self-control; past trauma and conditions of risk and criminal careers. Consequently, from this perspective an expected and reasonable response to crime, violence, and deviance is a negative one – a stronger force that attempts to solve criminality and its effects by removing offenders from society, by punishing or by retaliating. But does it really solve the problem effectively – can it stop people conducting violent or criminal behaviors? Can it really bring relief to the pain and suffering of victims of crime? Can it improve the quality of the life of societies? Unfortunately, the power of "the negative" in solving crime and its outcomes is partial and temporal. It is a solution of the same order. However, positive criminology argues that another step can be taken, a step of a different order. And there is where positive criminology can play a part in changing the picture.

Positive criminology is a new concept that represents the flip side of the purely negative reaction to crime, that is, it explicitly focuses on positive experiences of "the good" that may assist individuals, groups, and communities in shifting away from criminality and its consequent infliction of harm, pain and suffering. This perspective is oriented to human strengths and positive encounters that may assist offenders to desist from crime and deviant behaviors (Ronel & Elisha, 2010). It balances the excessive negative targeting of the traditional criminological field, through emphasizing positively experienced aspects in the context of criminology. Positive criminology places an emphasis on social inclusion and on unifying and integrating forces at individual, group, social and spiritual dimensions (see figure 1).

Figure 1: three dimensions of inclusion, integration and unification

The inclusion, integration and unification vectors are central to positive criminology and in effect indicate its positive direction. An individual, who is involved in criminal activity that causes harm to others or to him or herself, usually exhibits an increased degree of self-centeredness (Ronel, 2000). The higher the involvement in criminality and deviant behavior, the more expanded the self-centeredness. Self-centeredness contains a sense of existential separation from others in which others are experienced as object-like, to the point of loneliness and social, existential and spiritual alienation. Being together with a peer group of alike individuals (e.g., a gang), does not reduce the sense of existential separation from Humanity at large. On the other hand, individuals may choose to be isolated from society without being existentially separated (e.g., spiritual hermits). Therefore the separation – unification vector is a basic one in understanding criminality and rehabilitation, where overcoming separation and moving towards unification represents positive progress. It designates an additional meaning to the term "positive criminology", that is, the criminology of integration, inclusion and unification. On the social dimension, the movement towards social inclusion represents the positive vector, and it is at times the first source of transformation. It marks an initial reduction in self-centeredness and alienation. Consequently, the direction of an existential integration of the self within Humanity, where others are less object-like (Shoham & Adda, 2004) and there is a construction of an integrative consciousness center of pro-social norms (Timor, 2001), is another dimension of a positive unification that denotes a reduced self-centeredness. Finally, the direction towards unification with a spiritual power greater than the self represents the positive vector in the spiritual dimension.

Positive criminology is a perspective associated with different theories and models that refer to integrative influences which share two common features: first, they are commonly considered as good and experienced by targeted individuals as positive, and second, they may assist these individuals in refraining from criminal or deviant behavior. The first feature also appears in positive psychology (Gable & Hadit, 2005; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). A fundamental postulate of positive psychology is that positive experiences are not secondary to negative processes and they might have a lasting impact on helping people to refrain from engaging in criminal conduct. In the positive criminology context, crime desistance is a desired outcome of positive experiences. Positive criminology acknowledges the ability of offenders and ex-convicts to be reformed and rehabilitated under certain circumstances, and highlights the importance of positive, humanistic encounters for any effective rehabilitation process. Positive criminology holds for various resources and means to attain this wished goal, some are directly psychological by nature (as positive psychology indicates) but others represent other-than psychological spheres and issues (e.g., law-enforcement issues, sociological processes).

Positive criminology concentrates on disturbed individuals and groups, who often report experiencing challenging and adverse backgrounds. These developmental factors include exposure to a wide range of negative experiences. It is suggested that it is helpful to take into account the complexity of offenders in terms of their personal, environmental, and cultural characteristics, including their strengths and potential for personal, social and spiritual growth. Positive criminology conceptualizes risk factors as containing the potential for growth and development, rather than simply as indicators of vulnerability and destruction. Likewise, it stresses the importance of the development of resilience factors in preventing reoffending (Antonovsky, 1979; Ward & Maruna, 2007; Ronel & Haimoff-Ayali, 2009). Studies associated with a positive criminological perspective (e.g., Biernacki, 1986; Harris & Maruna, 2005; Maruna, 2001; O'Connor, Duncan, & Quillard, 2006; Ronel, 1998; Sampson & Laub, 1993) have found that several personal strengths are evident among different types of rehabilitated offenders, for example, taking personal responsibility, finding new meaning for their lives, and maturation. These findings are in addition to variables such as obtaining external assistance (e.g., family, treatment, voluntary support groups such as NA, religious organizations). These studies, and others, emphasize the importance of attending to positive human strengths following risk and crisis events, in order to achieve higher levels of well-being and positive growth (Ai & Park, 2005; Frazier, Tashiro, Berman, Steger, & Long, 2004; Ronel, 2006).