In 1764, the Italian criminologist and philosopher Cesare Beccaria wrote an essay that changed the face of the criminal law system across Europe and influenced the thinking of Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. (Wikipedia contributors, 2020).
He not only advocated banning torture and the death penalty, but challenged social injustice, asking how to prevent, rather than punish, criminal activity (Du, Zhang, & Wang, 2020).
Today, positive criminology aims to reduce criminal behavior by focusing on offenders’ positive life influences and personal growth. This article explores the theories behind the approach and how psychology can support rehabilitation and the achievement of personally meaningful goals.
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What Is Positive Criminology?
For many years, criminology researchers’ focus has been on what goes wrong in people’s lives to cause deviant and criminal behavior. More recently, attention has turned to how people “cease perpetrating crime and maintain a life without crime for a long period” (Ronel & Elisha, 2010).
Positive criminology is a fresh approach to crime prevention and involves developing intervention programs to reduce criminal behavior and the tendency to reoffend. It does this by integrating existing models with newer, more positive approaches that minimize the impact of negative characteristics while promoting positive strengths.
Traditional criminology has successfully identified some of the causes of deviant behavior but has mostly failed to recognize how some would-be offenders avoid or stop such activities.
There may also be lessons to learn from studies on positive deviance. After all, if we can find individuals who stand out for their strengths rather than their failings, we may learn more about positive outcomes (Pascale, Sternin, & Sternin, 2010).
While it is clear that positive criminology is essential to reaching a complete scientific understanding of deviant behavior, it currently lacks a unifying definition. As such positive criminology is less of a single theory and more of a “broad perspective encompassing diverse models and theories” (Ronel & Elisha, 2010).
This multidisciplinary approach aims to distance the individual from behavior associated with crime through (Ronel & Elisha, 2010):
- Therapy programs and interventions (formal and informal, such as self-help)
- Emphasis on positive social elements (prosocial behavior, social acceptance, human kindness, reintegration)
- Positive personal factors (resilience, positive emotions, morality)
8 Theories and Models of Positive Criminology
While positive criminology incorporates multiple theories and models, they all share a common approach.
They focus on virtues and factors perceived as positive and capable of redirecting individuals away from criminal actions, deviant behavior, and, crucially, mental distress.
While there are many complementary models and theories, the following list includes several that closely align with the values of positive criminology, including, most notably, the ability to handle difficulties rather than resort to crime (Ronel & Elisha, 2010):
Factors of protection and resilience
Resilience is crucial to helping individuals cope with risk and stress, and recover from damaging environments and difficult circumstances. It requires a combination of emotional hardiness, positive adjustment, and significant social, family, and personal protective factors (Kobasa, 1982).
Positive criminology recognizes the value of resilience in the face of challenges and harmful situations. Indeed, it can facilitate growth rather than engagement in a life of crime for potential first-time offenders or possible reoffenders.
Growth out of trauma
Trauma can shake its survivors’ lives, damaging relationships, values, and beliefs, and for some, lead to socially unacceptable behavior.
Yet, through learning to cope with the aftermath, new skills and personal resources can develop. Indeed, such post-traumatic growth can lead to identifying new meaning in life or a renewed sense of identity. Such a view supports the salutogenic theory, where positive and negative experiences are seen as giving shape and providing coherence to our lives (Antonovsky, 1987).
Interpretation of risk factors
Individuals differ in how they experience risk factors such as verbal and physical abuse, failing school, and poor parenting. In a study of adolescents whose parents were drug addicts, the meanings they ascribed to the negative aspects of their lives influenced whether they began using drugs or took up criminal activity (Ronel & Haimoff-Ayali, 2009).
In line with the salutogenic theory, their later behavior depended on how they perceived their parents, themselves, and other significant people in their lives. The approach also supports the idea that the positive interpretation of stressful events can facilitate transformative change and active growth.
Exposure to goodness
Exposure to positive human values (for example, altruism and goodness) can help prevent at-risk individuals from choosing a criminal path (Ronel & Elisha, 2010).
Getting involved – such as by volunteering – can change adolescents’ views from being egocentric to forming a more healthy, expanded perception of the world. Further supporting the salutogenic model, the world as a place to survive can change to an environment where things can be given without expecting anything in return (Lavie, 2008).
After becoming involved in volunteering themselves, many of those at risk found meaning in what they were doing and became better at self-examination and making more positive life choices (Williams, Lindsey, Kurtz, & Jarvis, 2001).
While ‘classical’ psychology and criminology focus on the negatives, positive criminology explores the benefits of social acceptance.
Indeed, replacing exclusion with inclusion can have dramatic results. Rather than viewing those released from prison as morally disgraceful, mutual acceptance can improve reintegration into the community and reinforce ongoing behavioral change (Ronel & Elisha, 2010).
Desistance from crime
Rather than focusing on why individuals reoffend, positive criminology explores why individuals refrain from future criminal activity. Similar to research findings regarding drug addicts, the journey to full recovery is supported by a gradual transition from a delinquent to a healthier social network.
Research into ex-offenders found that the transition was not a single jump but a series of smaller steps leading to them stopping criminal activities. Along the way, they rebuilt their lives and successfully integrated into the community in which they live (Maruna, Immarigeon, & LeBel, 2004).
Criminology as peacemaking
Despite popular perception, crime in the U.S. has decreased considerably since the early 1990s (Statista Research Department, 2020).
Yet, to bring it down further, proponents of positive criminology wish to replace the punishment model of law enforcement with one of love and compassion while minimizing risk to the public. They aim to “reduce violent crime using peaceful, calm means, in other words, in a positive way” (Ronel & Elisha, 2010).
Such an approach depends on broad changes to social, economic, and political factors, leading to a more positive, humanistic society.
Restorative justice aims to right the wrongs created by the offense (rather than the perpetrator) by helping to heal and make better the physical and nonphysical damage it has caused.
This requires the perpetrator to take ownership for what they have done and the hurt they have inflicted. Mediation, rehabilitation, and conflict resolution all form parts of the reintegration of offenders in the community (Ronel & Elisha, 2010).
And restorative justice is proving popular.
Walgrave, Ward, and Zinsstag (2019) describe the success of restorative justice as having found “its place as an inspiration for innovating justice practices, a central issue in scientific research and in juridical and socio-ethical debates, and a ubiquitous theme in justice reforms worldwide.”
A Look at the Good Lives Model
Perhaps one of the most exciting and far-reaching models to come out of positive criminology is the Good Lives Model (GLM).
While GLM was originally created in the early 2000s in response to sexual offenses, it has since found its place in rehabilitating all types of crimes. In contrast to the Risk-Need-Responsivity model and its focus on risk management, GLM focuses on the offender’s strengths while indirectly reducing risks (Bonta & Andrews, 2017; Walgrave et al., 2019).
The starting assumption of the GLM is that offenders have the same needs and aspirations as other human beings. As such, the offender requires motivation (like we all do) to put the steps they need to take into action – in this case, rehabilitation.
Without realistic hope that they can ever reach their aspirations, the offender will have no motivation to change. Instead, GLM asks the question: What will help the offender work toward a personally meaningful and socially acceptable life?
The GLM is concerned with human dignity and universal human rights and therefore emphasizes human agency. The individual is encouraged to select goals, make plans, and act toward implementing them.
Each individual is recognized as having their own personal characteristics, states of mind, and experiences (known as primary human goods or PHGs) that are sought after for their own sake (for example, living and surviving, being good at work and play, being part of a community, peace of mind, etc.). Together they enhance the wellbeing of the individual.
Secondary goods provide the means to reach the PHGs (for example, completing an apprenticeship or joining a health club).
The GLM views offenders in more human terms, encouraging rehabilitation that provides the opportunity to better themselves and improving long-term prospects through skill building, gaining knowledge, and social support. But doing so also considers risk management and reduction and ensures the wider community is safe.
Mindfulness in Prisons: 5 Findings
Mindfulness is a popular and influential intervention in treating many psychological and physical health issues and provides crucial breathing space for growth.
To eliminate any doubt about the success of positive approaches to criminology, we only have to look as far as the research into the success of mindfulness in prisons. The findings below highlight some of the many achievements of using mindfulness as an intervention.
Yoga and mindfulness
Both yoga and mindfulness have had a positive effect on prisoners’ psychological wellbeing and behavioral functioning. Research has found that low-intensity, long-duration programs were more successful than shorter, lower intensity ones and “contribute significantly to improving prisoner quality of life, prison culture, and outcomes” (Auty, Cope, & Liebling, 2015).
Nonviolent communication and meditation
The Freedom Project, run by former inmates and volunteers in Washington, has successfully trained prisoners in nonviolent communication and meditation. Alejandra Suarez et al. (2014) found that prisoners engaged in the program were less likely to reoffend, less angry, and displayed increased feelings of self-compassion.
Suarez et al. (2014) also reported a striking difference in how trained versus untrained inmates communicated.
The incidence of mental illness in prisons is typically high and a factor in re-offense. Indeed, some ex-inmates are known to resort to crime to return to prison life. Mindfulness interventions have shown a reduction in somatic symptoms, decreasing the likelihood of returning to deviant behavior (Ifeagwazi, Nwokpoku, Chukwuorji, Eze, & Abiama, 2019).
Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation
Combining yoga, mindfulness, and meditation techniques in prison settings has had a profound effect across “key criminogenic variables—negative effects, substance use, anger and hostility, relaxation capacity, and self-esteem—as well as optimism” (Derlic, 2020). Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation have great potential to improve inmates’ lives inside and outside the prison.
Art and mindfulness
Art and mindfulness are incredibly powerful when combined. Together they can drive the process of healing and ultimately create healthier individuals and communities.
Jill Rosenbaum (2019) found that such programs “create an arena in which those on the inside can make connections and develop skills which increase their wellbeing and ease their transition back into the community.”
4 GLM and Positive Criminology Worksheets
While applicable to many settings, the following worksheets are based on the theories of restorative justice and GLM. They can be applied inside and outside prison settings (for example, schools and even work settings) to reinterpret what has happened more positively.
The four Rs of restorative justice
Restoration is built upon on:
Listening to one another’s opinions, remaining open, and learning from what is said
Taking responsibility for our actions
Developing the skills needed to identify and implement solutions and ensuring such behavior is not repeated
Resolve problems and enable individuals to reintegrate into the community
The following questions are simple and can be used to unpack many thoughts and emotions regarding an incident or wrongdoing.
Ask the individual (or group) to consider and then answer the following questions:
- From your point of view, what has happened?
- What were you thinking at the time?
- How have you and others been affected?
- What would you like to happen next?
If in a group setting, open up the questions for nonjudgmental discussion.
According to the Restorative Justice Council, there are five core restorative principles:
- Everyone’s perspective is unique.
- Our thoughts and feelings influence our behavior.
- Our actions have an effect beyond us.
- Our needs connect us to both people and purpose.
- The people involved are best placed to find the solutions.
Ask individuals or groups to consider each letter of the word RESTORE to understand difficult situations and events more clearly, especially if they have had negative consequences.
What are the different impacts and experiences of those involved?
How can we develop empathy for one another based on each person’s experiences?
What physical and emotional safety has been threatened and must be restored?
How can we process the trauma of those impacted?
How can we reshape what we do and how we do it?
How might we reconnect and rebuild (inclusive and responsive) relationships?
How can we engage with our health and wellbeing?
While often used in schools, the questions work well in many situations to broaden mindsets and discourage negative behavior.
Using the GLM
As we have already seen, recognizing and understanding primary human needs is vital to ensure reasonable and socially acceptable behavior.
It is crucial that the offender is engaged in developing their supervision plan and that it contains goals that are meaningful and motivating to them.
When putting together the plan, the practitioner should:
- Avoid confrontation and respect the offender’s feelings.
- Understand that stopping criminal activity may leave a gap in the offender’s life.
- Find a constructive approach to meeting the offender’s needs.
- Agree upon goals that are valuable to the offender.
- Set smaller practical steps that allow for positive feedback and ongoing success.
- View the offender’s needs holistically, focusing on a broad range of concerns.
- Work with the offender to prioritize their needs and goals.
The offender must have a clear understanding of what is important to them and what needs are being addressed.
Ask the individual each of the following questions:
- Do you have activities that you feel good at?
- Do you feel a sense of achievement?
- Do you understand your meaning in life? And if so, what is it?
- Are you at peace and comfortable with your life?
- Do you feel healthy? Do you take care of yourself?
- Do you have people who are important to you and to whom you are important?
- Do you feel heard? And do you feel you have some autonomy and control?
- Do you feel you know what is needed to feel okay in the world?
The answers can provide input that will help the individual follow interventions and prompt thinking about how they live their life.
PositivePsychology.com’s Useful Resources
The PositivePsychology.com Toolkit offers a range of over 350 worksheets and techniques that can help with mindfulness, develop strengths, and improve understanding of feelings.
A few examples of these worksheets relevant to positive criminology include the following:
- My Last Day on Earth is an excellent tool to assess how you live your life and the values you have adopted.
- Living in line with the personal values we hold requires us to understand and focus on the important things in life. Use the Caring About the Right Things worksheet to better understand your values.
- The Wheel of Awareness is a mindfulness meditation to help you become more aware of sensory, bodily, and mental experiences both within and outside yourself.
- The rhythm and type of breathing affect both our psychology and physiology dramatically. Try out Diaphragmatic Breathing (belly breathing) to see the difference that changing your breathing can make.
- Strength Journaling is a valuable technique for recognizing your strengths, using them, and reinforcing them.
A Take-Home Message
The power of positive criminology – like that of positive psychology – does not come from ignoring the negatives but instead recognizing them while focusing on the positives. As a perspective rather than a theory, it can incorporate multiple models that help individuals cope with risk and stress and transform them into opportunities for positive change and growth.
As a society, we must decide if we wish to take a more humanistic approach that seeks to change would-be or actual offenders’ lives while protecting potential victims. Although punishment is necessary, it would benefit all if a subsequent re-offense can be prevented.
Positive criminology opens the door for optimism and change and rejects the idea that nothing works (Ronel & Elisha, 2010). By identifying and building strengths, it is possible to avoid criminal behavior while ensuring positive outcomes for the potential offender.
Even though over 250 years have elapsed since Cesare Beccaria’s essay, it is within our power as a society to improve the criminal law system and the lives of offenders and victims alike.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download these three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish to access more exercises, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 350 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
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