Crime and punishment

Henrik Eli Almaas

 Crime and punishment

We define crime as a breach of the current social rules or laws given by some sort of governing authority. Throughout the ages, crime has occurred in all societies and the most common reaction has always been some sort of punishment. In our modern society there are many possible reasons given to justify or explain why someone deserves punishment: Rehabilitation, incapacitation, deterrence, restoration, retribution and denunciation are typical reasons and types of punishment. However, there is a significant difference between the punishments given in our modern society, compared to the punishments during the Victorian age. In this paper I’m going to take a closer look upon crime during the Victorian age and the most common punishments used at the time. I am also going to find out more about the modern Norwegian society, and how it reacts to crime today.

The Victorian era

The Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to her death 1901. It was a long and prosperous period in Britain and is characterized as a period of peace, referred to as the Pax Britannica. Britain was the greatest superpower in Europe at the time and dominated the sea. England experienced a massive population growth at the time, almost doubling the number of citizens from 1851 (16.8 million) to 1901 (30.5 million). At the same time approximately 15 million emigrated to the United States, Canada and Australia. The politics of the Victorian era was divided by two parties in the House of Commons, the “Whigs” who were liberal and the “Tories” who were conservative. The development and improvement of railways, canals, steamships and other communication links, made trade and travel faster and easier, for those who could afford it.

Poverty was one of the greatest problems during the Victorian era. The industrial revolution and improvements in health and medicine stimulated a huge population growth and a rapid urbanization. The growing numbers of city dwellers, both skilled and unskilled looking for jobs resulted in very poor wages people barely could make a living off. Housing was also a problem as there were too few available houses to support the growth of citizens and very few could afford these houses. The overcrowding resulted in large slum areas with terrible poverty, crime and prostitution. There was no police force at the time similar to what we got today. Instead they used a system called “The privatized system”. This system encouraged individuals to become vigilantes, or “thief takers”. These bounty hunters could earn as much as 40 pounds turning in a highwayman. Some of the law enforcers were a part of the criminal underworld, earning large amounts of money by betraying their partners in crime.

Crime and punishment 

The crime rates during the Victorian era were very high as many people had no other choice than turning to crime. When work was in short supply or a person was unemployed because they were sick or pregnant and unmarried there was nowhere to go except workhouses. But the conditions in the work houses were so harsh that children often died within weeks. As crime spiraled, property owners started to panic and judicial penalties were made harsher in a desperate attempt to lower the crime rate. In 1850 there were 222 capital offenses you could be hanged for. Pick pocketing, cutting hop binding and sending threatening letters are examples of these capital offenses. However these harsh punishments didn’t have any great effect upon crime as those who were breaking the law only did it because they had no other choice. Prisons were constantly overcrowded, and were not expected to reform criminals, but simply holding them. The prisons were never cleaned and many prisoners died before they could be trialed. The prisoners were often set to do pointless work as for example walking on a treadmill  for 10 minutes, then having a rest before walking another 10 minutes or picking oakum /separating strands of rope). This was repeated every day and was supposed to break the spirit of the prisoners. As an alternative to hanging, the government started sending criminals to the colonies to serve their sentences.  This was much cheaper than holding them in English prisons, as they only had to pay for the traveling expenses.

Compared to the punishments and treatment given to criminals in the modern Norwegian or English society, these harsh punishments seem inhuman, and are definitely violations of the established human rights. At some point during the last 200 years there has been a huge change in mindset. Capital punishment was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1969, and the last hanging occurred in 1964. Norway Removed capital punishment from the penal code as early as 1902, but the last execution occurred in 1948 as a result of provisional arrangements, the crime being treason during the Second World War. Execution was abolished completely in 1979.

The Norwegian bureaucracy


In modern Norway all criminals are trialed and punished according to the current penal provisions. These rules of punishment are meant to secure equal treatment of all criminals in the legal system. The penal provisions are divided into “Punishment Frames” who determine the minimal and the maximal punishment that can be given for a specific offense according to the seriousness of the offense. The punishment is supposed to prevent the condemned from doing new offense and at the same time be a reminder for others, that crime will get you punished. Because of the complexity of modern societies a condemned person might encounter difficulties even after getting out of prison or another type of punishment. This person might for example have difficulties finding a job, as employers have excess to his or her criminal record. Obviously the employer will think twice before hiring someone who has been trough the legal system. A person like this might also have difficulties finding somewhere to live, as house owners might by suspicious to the person’s behavior.

Norwegian prisons are quite different, as there are open and closed prisons. Closed prisons are the most traditional and are surrounded by high walls, locked doors and small cells. 63% of Norwegian prisoners are contained in closed prisons while 20% of these prisoners live in cells with up to 4 other inmates. There are no toilets or showers in the cells at these kinds of prisons, and a limited amount of items allowed. The prisoners are allowed 20 minutes of telephone usage each week. Open prisons have a lower security level, but still have a fence around the compound. The prisoners are not allowed to leave the area, but they are not locked up at night. Bastoey prison is an example of an open prison. Bastoey is an idyllic island 45 miles south of Oslo and contain approximately 115 prisoners including murderers, rapists etc. The prisoner at Bastøy work from 8:15 to 2:30. The island is a farm, which means there are cattle to tend, timber to cut and crops to grow. Many inmates also spend their time restoring small wooden houses on different locations on the island. Bastoey is based on the theory that hard punishment is the only way to threat wrongdoers. Øyvind Alnæs, the prison governor at Bastøy believes the exact opposite. Big closed prisons are criminal schools and you need to treat people good for them to behave. However, all inmates start their sentence in a traditional prison before they are sent to an open one. Prison is of course not the only punishment given in Norway. In many cases were the defendant is under 18 years old child services are contacted. However the most used type of punishment are fines which can be given by regular police officers and are usually only given as a result of minor offenses.

Reasons for crime


There are different reasons for people committing crimes in today’s society. When looking for these reasons it’s natural to look at the individual’s social environment. However this is not necessarily the main reason to criminal behavior as two people from the same social environment might end up doing completely different things. Each individual is a social product but at the same time an independent being. Therefore it’s important to research the individual as a social product and an individual. The main reasons for criminal offenses vary according to the different types of crime. Many of the offenses are results of the individuals desire to possess materialistic values which it can’t obtain on a short term, or legally. The lacking of these benefits in society can be looked upon as a cause of criminal behavior. To simplify reality there are two models who explain the causes of crime.

The first model is called: “the individual model” and is based on the individual’s actions, and not the environment. This model looks upon the individual as a being with free will, who is capable of taking responsibility of their own actions. The individual made its choice when committing the crime, well aware of the consequences which might follow. Therefore the individual is guilty and shall be punished. The individual model is also used in the opposite direction often referred to as the illness model. This model is used when the individual is psychological ill. This person might me socially disabled and is therefore not responsible for his/her own actions. This person needs treatment not punishment. The second model is called: “the social model”. This model takes a close look at society and the environment surrounding the criminal, looking for social reasons for the criminal’s behavior.
The criminal’s social environment is used as an extenuating or aggravating factor during the sentencing.

Preventing criminal acts


If we are to prevent criminal behavior, we need to initiate both preventing measures and subsequent measures to stop new offense. However we will probably newer completely rid ourselves of crime. If it was possible to prevent or stop crime, wouldn’t we already have done that? Experience tells us that no measures will reduce crime with certainty.  In many cases society will depend on politicians to actively work for crime prevention. But politicians often need fast concrete results, not the slow results with few connections to each other which is expected from a anti crime campaign. Teenage criminals often develop a criminal record and grow into a criminal environment. Initiating measures in this areas and helping the youngsters early on might be the way to go. Social activities like sports etc would have a positive effect as it would keep teenagers minds on other things. Visible policing will deter potential offenders. But more police in one area might just move the problem to another area. Reducing alcohol trough steeper prices and forbidding it in certain areas would result in less violence and probably help many families troubled by alcoholics.

If we are to compare the modern treatment of criminals to the Treatment during the Victorian era, there are two and a half worlds between them. The punishments during the Victorian era were long and often death sentences, while the longest prison sentence in Norway is 21 years. The Victorian prisons were overcrowded and a harsh environment resulted in many dying before they were trialed. This is not the case today. All victims have the right to be heard, and nobody is punished any harder than necessary. Criminals also have the right to a fair trial, and a lawyer to represent them. The victims also have the opportunity to talk to someone about what their criminal behavior has done to them psychologically. If we experience major changes like these the next 200 years, I would be surprised, and dead.






Bok: Fokus Mennsker og Samfunn sosiologi og sosialantropologi (Aschehoug forlag 2007)

Bok: Fokus sosialkunnskap (Aschehoug forlag)


Martha Hestnæs

Crime and punishment

The Victorian period in England lasted for approximately 60 years, and is named after England’s queen of this age, Victoria. The Victorian period lasted from 1837 to 1901, and it was in this period that the Industrial Revolution started in Europe and first of all, England. New technology and machines had been developed through the Enlightenment, and was now being put to use in the industrialization. This had a great impact on English society. Cities grew larger, more people became factory workers, and society moved further and further from the previous agricultural society. At the millennium change, more than 80 percent of Britain’s population lived in cities. The crime rates grew as the mass density of the population rose in cities.

Crime is defined as behavior which conflicts with the formal norms and laws that are attached to penal provisions. What is defined as criminal behavior, depends on the current norms and laws of a society, varies from society to society and changes over time. This means that the view on crime and punishment has changed from Victorian England until today. I am going to base this essay on the novel Oliver Twist written by Charles Dickens in 1838, in the cradle of the British industrialization, and try to explain why crime was so prevalent during this period. I will also concentrate on the reactions to criminal behavior in this period as well as link this up to current Norwegian society’s reactions and how this is related to the UN’s Human Rights.

As seen in Oliver Twist, the most common crimes in Victorian England were drunkenness, prostitution and theft, which were also often connected to violence and murder. In Oliver Twist we meet the orphan Oliver who is too naughty to be allowed to stay at a workhouse, and is since involved in a group of young boys who are taught to pickpocket by the gang leader Fagin. We also meet the burglar Bill Sites and the prostitute Nancy.  All in all, Charles Dickens paints a realistic image about the criminal situation in the early industrialized Britain. Statistic from 1856 show that, in all, 73,240 persons were taken into custody, of whom 45,941 were males, and 27,209 females; 18,000 of the apprehensions were on account of drunkenness, 8160 for unlawful possession of goods, 7021 for simple larceny, 6763 for common assaults, 2194 for assaults on the police; 4303 women were taken into custody as prostitutes. To compare, in 2012, 271 000 crimes were committed in Norway, and the most common crimes were theft, crimes in connection with traffic and drugs and practically none in connection with sexuality according to The big gap between the numbers has a lot to do with the fact that it was still uncommon to record crimes, and because there was a general opinion of distrust towards the Metropolitan Police Force. Victims of crime didn’t notify the police and thus there are bound to be great inconsistencies with the real numbers. Despite these low numbers, historians seem to have a shared opinion that East End London was an unsafe place and flourished with crime in the 19th century.

The severity of punishment in Victorian England was changing because people were unhappy with the strict punishments such as hanging for petty crimes. Gaols, or prisons became more frequently used, petty crime sentences became lighter, and fewer crimes carried a compulsory death sentence. Punishments used were hard labor like quarrying or building roads, physical punishment like whipping, imprisonment, fines, hanging or transportation to British colonies to work, or even to the armed forces such as the navy. Physical punishment became less used, and fines were mostly used for wealthy citizens, as the majority of criminals were poor.

In Norwegian society today, the punishments for crimes are relatively light. The most severe punishment is involuntary commitment, which involves assessments on the criminals’ ability to function in society, and can be prolonged until the prisoner dies, unless found fit to be released. Other punishments which are more common for petty crimes are fines and community work. If Oliver Twist lived in Norway today, he would be taken care of by the Children Welfare, and obviously not punished like they did with criminal children in Victorian England. Today’s method of punishment has a basic difference in the way that it aims at improving and rehabilitating the criminal, instead of ridicule and the sense of shame the offender must feel with the punishments of the Victorian period. Today’s reactions to crime leans more towards the wish to improve and help rather than punish. The punishment is meant to form moral and be of an educational nature for the criminal as well as being preventive to society at large. Punishment is supposed to work both individually, but also publicly preventive. The public should be deterrent from committing offences when they learn what the punishment for said offence is.

The reason for the high crime rate has a lot to do with the development of society and country at this time. There was an explosion in population, and there was competition for the resources at the time. This was also one of the reasons why many migrated to North America. The social well fare system was not developed, and neither was the education system. Social mobility did not exist in the manner in which it does today, and there were a privileged upper class consisting of nobles, royalty, traders and the clergy. If one was not born into a high social layer, it was difficult to improve one’s living conditions. Crime can be explained with the coherence of different levels, both individual, and societal. The factors mentioned above fall under the societal level.

On the individual level, parenting and primal socialization plays a great role to a person’s development. Oliver Twist was an orphan and spent his childhood in an orphanage until he was nine years old and thus old enough to stay in a workhouse. The material, psychological and social factors required for a good upbringing were, in Oliver’s case, absent. The matron, Mrs. Mann who took care of him was both violent and repellent towards him. He didn’t experience the feeling of love or support, and didn’t even have his basic physiological needs covered in the orphanage, as he wasn’t fed enough and was poorly dressed. According to Erik Homburger’s theory of phases in life, he should have developed a basic distrust, doubt and guilt. However, Oliver seems to be a trusting child, since he trusts both Fagin and later on his unknown grandfather, Mr. Brownlow, pointing to a compensation for the lack of trust earlier in life.

Oliver Twist was socialized in a criminal environment by the other members and Fagin, the leader. Prior to this, he had already been branded by the board of the workhouse as a criminal as they all agreed that “that boy will be hung”. Here we can see that the criminological branding theory clearly fits in Oliver’s case. Oliver’s surroundings respond to him as a criminal, and he is seen as a deviant.  This clearly affected his self-image into that of a criminal, and the road to organized crime became shorter. His self-perception is a psychological factor which triggers his actions into matching with the brand of being a criminal which he had received at the workhouse. This made it harder for him to fit in to a regular social network, and he sought, instead, to a criminal subculture where he could relate to the other members. This lead to stigma and was an amplifier to socialization into the role as a criminal. G.H Mead’s socialization theory of symbolic interactionism also suits with this explanation of the importance of interaction with others to form the basis for a development of his personality.

Criminological role theories explain how the expectations and sanctions of a social system affect criminal behavior. Oliver experienced social pressure by the criminal group he became a part of, and the sanctions afflicted upon him when he disobeyed resulted in his adaption into the criminal subculture. A criminal subculture is defined by a well-organized hierarchy with clear roles and structure as well as the distribution of power within the group. In Oliver’s gangs we clearly see who is the leader, and who are the gang’s clear labor division. The Artful Dodger e.g. has a high position within the hierarchy due to his expertise as a pickpocket.

To explain the social issue of crime, we can use different behavioral theories. Albert Bandura’s theory of imitation can be used to explain Oliver’s criminal behavior. This theory involves a likeliness of imitating the actions of others when we experience positive sanctions. When Oliver learned how to pickpocket, he experienced positive confirmation and reward in the shape of kind words, a sense of community, security and positive confirmation, which he, as an orphan, was undernourished with. This way he learned the criminal behavior because he met needs on a high level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He developed a sense of comfort and safety, community and love, as well as positive recognition and self-perceptions which are important to a person’s sense of happiness and satisfaction.

Developments in the area of human rights connected to this issue are very positive in the way they aim to raise the living standards of people globally. 44 years after the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, in 1945, the United Nations were founded, and with this organization followed the declaration of human rights, which nearly all countries in the world, have agreed to commit to. This means that with a higher living standard, and more social and economic equality, societal levels are much less likely to stimulate social issues which lead to crime. To secure individual rights, one also secures the possibilities of a positive and stimulating individual development, which will have a preventive effect on the possibility of developing social issues, which, as I’ve written earlier, can lead to criminal behavior.

Measures, such as the UN’s Declaration of human rights, are a good way to prevent crime. Other measures that can be taken are meant to direct the reactions to crime in a direction that stimulates positive behavior. Frederic Skinner’s behavioral therapy, where positive behavior is rewarded and negative behavior ignored, is an effective way to learn and stimulate the wanted behavior. The most effective way to treat crime is to teach a new and positive way to behave. If one has been branded as a criminal, the reactions of the surroundings to the criminal will make the criminal have a higher relapse percent. So to achieve the most effective behavior therapy it is important not to let a criminal commit several offences, but to intervene with the first offence to change the negative behavior. With this in mind, one can imagine that prison is not the most suitable institution for behavioral therapy, as it is considered a negative enhancer or amplifier. A new type of institution to rehabilitate criminals could be a way to prevent further crime.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s