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Learn about positive criminology

Positive criminology (not to be confused with positivist criminology) is a new conceptual criminological perspective. Positive criminology places an emphasis on social inclusion and on unifying and integrating forces at individual, group, social and spiritual levels that are associated with the limiting of crime. It studies individual and group encounters with external influences that are simultaneously: 1. experienced as positive and integrative (parallel to positive psychology); and 2. assist them to resist and desist from engaging in deviant activities and crime (an innovative emphasis of positive criminology) by various means of formal or informal interventions (e.g., therapy, self-help group, social acceptance, faith, goodness, altruism, reintegrative shaming).

Positive criminology aims to broaden our understanding beyond the usual focus of criminology on separating, excluding, and disintegrating forces and processes that lead individuals and groups to embrace deviant and criminal lifestyles and activities. Pioneering research carried out from this perspective is that of Ety Elisha, who examined the processes of change among incarcerated sex offenders in Israel and whose findings support the utility of a positive or strength based perspective.

Positive criminology aims to encourage scholars, researchers, and practitioners to use this balancing and complementary criminological perspective to enrich their knowledge of the complex aspects of criminality, which include successful cases of prevention, rehabilitation, and recovery. The main goal of positive criminology is to highlight and enhance the study and adaptation of "positive components" (e.g., acceptance, compassion, encouragement, faith, forgiveness, goodness, gratitude, humor, positive modeling, spirituality) with individuals and groups participating in prevention, rehabilitation, and recovery programs. It is anticipated that this focus might, in turn, lead those individuals to develop similar positive qualities and thereby increase their chances of turning their lives around, for the benefit of themselves and the whole society. Overall, positive criminology seeks to strengthen the unifying force between offenders and members of the normative community rather than emphasize, or privilege, the separating forces of law-enforcement (e.g., imprisonment, exclusion, shaming).

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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).

Theories and approaches that represent the positive criminology perspective
Positive criminology, as stated above, is a new conceptual criminological perspective that, encompasses several theories and models emphasizing individual strengths (e.g., protective factors and resilience, values, faith, morality, positive psychology, post-traumatic growth), and formal and informal interventions that highlight humanistic values and capabilities (e.g., compassion, love, forgiveness, social acceptance, human kindness, gratitude, altruism).

Reintegrative shaming.
A central theory included in the positive criminology perspective is Braithwaite’s (1989) reintegrative shaming, which calls for a clear distinction to be made between an individual's personal identity and his or her actions. Reintegrative shaming, partially implemented as rehabilitative practice, is based on the idea that rehabilitative interventions may be most effective when they include condemnation of the offense (shaming), along with the perpetrator's reacceptance by the community (reintegration). In contrast, disintegrative shaming occurs when the offender is functionally excluded from society after completing his or her sentence; in fact, the ex-convict is rejected by society and negatively labeled. The distinction between a person's identity and behavior, which allows for self-correction and social rehabilitation, can be found in spiritual and religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity and Zen (Brazier, 1995; Post, 2005), and more recently, in 12 step programs for addicts (Ronel, 2006), humanistic approaches and in the contemporary positive psychology (Gable & Haidt, 2005; Seligman, 2002).

Criminology as Peacemaking
Despite the progress in criminological knowledge and understanding, the rate of offenders and prisoners around the world has not decreased significantly in recent years, and in fact, has actually increased (Maruna, Immarigeon, & LeBel, 2004). Peacemaking criminology explains this tendency by the prevalence of a retributive approach by law enforcement systems. Peacemaking criminology calls for an alternative characterized by love and compassion. Accordingly a reduction in human suffering is thought to reduce crime (Quinney, 1991). It is a philosophical approach to crime and justice that combines a spiritual perception and the traditions of existentialism, Buddhism, pacifism, and socialism (Barak, 2005). Scholars holding this perspective suggest the use of positive humanistic tools such as mediation, problem solving, and mutual help instead of forced punishment, such as deterrence, penalties, retribution, or revenge (Sullivan & Tifft, 2001). In their view, violent or aggressive responses to offending, motivated by anger and the desire for retaliation, usually associate with feelings of alienation, humiliation, and shame. Peacemaking criminology attempts to reduce violence and crime by adopting positive criminological elements such as mutual help, contributing to the community (altruism), and restorative justice (Barak, 2005). This approach is based on the perception that peace and social justice can be obtained only when the social, economic, and political structure in which we live changes, so that the restoration of relations based on humanistic values replaces punishment, ostracism, and stigmatization.

Restorative justice
Restorative justice practices are based on non punitive approaches to conflict resolutions, problem-solving and violations of legal and human rights (Shachaf-Friedman & Timor, 2008). Restorative justice promotes reunion of those who are harmed, the wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships. Healing is crucial not just for victims, but also for offenders. Both the rehabilitation of offenders and their integration into the community are vital aspects of restorative justice. Offenders are treated respectfully and their needs are addressed. Removing them from the community, or imposing any other severe restrictions, is a last resort. It is thought that the best way to prevent re-offending is re-integration (Zehr & Mika, 1998). The practices of restorative justice represent the conceptual perspective of positive criminology that emphasizes the potential of positive, humanistic encounters for rehabilitation process, and acknowledges the ability of offenders and ex-convicts to be reformed and rehabilitated.

The programs included in the practice of restorative justice, such as victim offender mediation, conferencing and circles,
are characterized by four key values: (a). Encounter. Create opportunities for victims, offenders and interested community members, to meet and discuss the crime and its aftermath. (b). Amends. Expect offenders to take steps to repair the harm they have caused. (c). Reintegration. Seek to reintegrate victims and offenders to the whole, to be contributing members of society. (d). Inclusion. Provide opportunities for parties with a stake in a specific crime to participate in its resolution.

Desistance from crime
A focus on desistance from crime emerged out of the works of Shadd Maruna, John Laub and many others (see e.g., Maruna, 2001; Maruna & Immarigeon, 2004; Laub & Sampson, 2003). Desistance research focuses on individuals rather than on programs, and on offenders' own accounts rather than merely on official statistics. Desistance is defined as the process of abstaining from crime among those who previously had engaged in a sustained pattern of offending (Maruna, 2001). It is understood that individuals usually do not “quit crime” by making a decision and walking away in the same way they might resign from employment. Due to various reasons, including the stigma of having a criminal record, the cycle of crime and punishment can become a repetitive loop that is difficult to escape from. A better metaphor for desisting from crime is recovery from an addictive behavior such as gambling or substance use. Desistance from crime will probably involve some false stops and starts, sometimes called “relapses”.

The desistance literature has also inspired an applied school of thought, sometimes known as the “desistance paradigm” or “desistance-focused practice” (see especially the work of Fergus McNeill and Stephen Farrall). Farrall (2004) distinguishes ‘desistance-focused’ perspectives from ‘offending-related’ approaches on the basis that whereas the latter concentrates on targeting or correcting offender deficits, the former seeks to promote those things thought to be associated with desistance (such as strong social bonds, pro-social involvements and social capital). Others have argued for a shift from ‘deficit-based’ interventions (focusing on risk factors and ‘needs’ as defined by the experts) to ‘strengths-based’ approaches that seek to promote ‘good lives’ as defined by the person him or herself.

Until recently, desistance research has been more interested in how offenders give up crime in their own way, rather than how interventions can help them give up. Desistance research has not, as said, given much attention to the role of programs, but few desisters say that programs were part of what helped them give up offending. However, many modern correctional interventions have a strong evidence base, and they could be seen as “assisting desistance” by helping to develop the internal mindsets that are important to desistance. It has also been said that programs can help desistance by offering a “blueprint” for change. But the desistance research suggests that just doing a program won’t be enough without also paying attention to the important external desistance factors. In addition, interventions that label, that penalize and that exclude are likely to pose problems for and create obstacles in desistance pathways, impeding successful integration.

Desistance research makes clear that offenders are heterogeneous, their needs are complex and their pathways to desistance are individualized. Having this in mind, the desistance literature offers several suggestions for intervention with desisters that might increase the chances for prolonged desistance. These suggestions are represent the positive criminology perspective: focus on strong and meaningful relationships; give strong optimistic messages and avoid labeling; focus on strengths and not just on risks; recognize and mark achievements towards desistance; make practical assistance the priority; work with parents and partners; work with support communities.

According to the WHO definition of Health from 1946 that remains the most enduring, "[H]ealth is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." The literature on recovery, that originated in the addiction field but might be expanded to any domain in criminology, as positive criminology suggests, actually follows this definition to fully present a recovery from criminality. Accordingly, the process of recovery from criminality is not only reaching an abstinence from criminal conduct (which is an initial condition of the recovery process), but also getting closer into physical, mental and social well-being with a spiritual evolution (White & Kurtz, 2005).

emotions, and thoughts – to the point of an existential need to commit crime. This innovative theory describes a widespread human tendency of "more of the same," along with increasing offending. Sometimes it is described as a "slippery slope" or a "criminal drift" (Matza, 1964), in which a given deviation is followed by an inevitable, uncontrolled decline.

A criminal spin is a process were individuals' and groups' self-centeredness raises thus it more and more separates them from other members of society. A criminal spin is a process of exclusion, and denotes a need for an integrating force. When a criminal spin is detected, it is possible to identify gateways for breaking the destructive cycle and to offer an appropriate intervention (Ronel, 2010). For example, by exposing the offenders to positive human strengths of meaningful agents, such as social support and acceptance (Biernacki, 1986; Elisha, 2010; Maruna, 2001), that may enhance their recovery process, as positive criminology posits.


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