Education as Crime Prevention

It has become a truism among criminologists that there is an inverse correlation between education and crime: as the level of education increases the likelihood of committing crime decreases. One theory that helps explain this is known as “strain” theory.

This theory was originally articulated by sociologist Robert K. Merton in the 1930s and has since become one of the most popular theories of crime.  The basic thesis of strain theory is this: Crime stems from the lack of articulation or “fit” between two of the most basic components of society: culture and social structure.  Here we refer to culture as consisting of (1) the main value and goal orientations of a society and (2) the institutionalized or legitimate means for attaining these goals. Social structure, as used here, consists of the basic social institutions of society, especially the economy, but also such institutions as the family, education, and politics, all of which are responsible for distributing access to the legitimate means for obtaining goals.

This “lack of fit” creates strain within individuals, who respond with various forms of deviance. People who find themselves at a disadvantage relative to legitimate economic activities are motivated to engage in illegitimate activities (perhaps because of unavailability of jobs, lack of job skills, education, and other factors). Within a capitalist society like the United States, the main emphasis is on success; there is less emphasis on the legitimate means to achieve that success. Moreover, success goals have become institutionalized—they are deeply embedded in the psyches of everyone.  At the same time, the legitimate means are not as well defined or as strongly ingrained. In other words, there is a lot of discretion and a lot of tolerance for deviance from the means but not the goals. One result of such a system is high levels of crime, including white collar and corporate crime.

Another important point made by strain theory is that our culture contributes to crime because the opportunities to achieve success goals are not equally distributed. There is a high degree of inequality within our society, which means that some are extremely disadvantaged compared to others. Another way of saying the same thing is that the culture promises what the social structure cannot deliver. The strains of this contradiction cause people to seek alternatives, including crime.

One of the most critical institutions mentioned above is education.  It is well known that an investment in education results in a tremendous return.  Some have estimated that for every dollar invested in education society gets about $7 in return as measured by the fact that the educated person will be a consumer and taxpayer and a corresponding reduction in the cost of the criminal justice system and various forms of social welfare. 

This is also true for prisoners.  The more education they receive while incarcerated, the lower the chance of committing more crime upon their release (documented here and here).  In spite of this, few funds are invested for education among America’s prisoners.  Despite evidence that prisoners who increase their education have lower recidivism rates, policy makers ended Pell Grants in the 1990s and at least one report has recently argued for a reinstatement of these grants.  Then too there is evidence of a “school to prison pipeline” whereby youth who are expelled or suspended or who drop out often end up in the juvenile justice system and then later are funneled into the adult prison system.

As I have documented on my web site both public schooling and higher education are on the chopping block in many states.  Apparently those supporting these efforts either are unaware or don’t care about the long-term consequences of these cuts. 

© 2011, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.