Criminal Justice Essay Paper on Social Strain Theory

Social Strain Theory

Introduction

In the recent past, the media has been awash with news of juveniles committing serious crimes, some of which include murder. One of the most serious crimes committed by a juvenile involved 12-year old Jasmine Richardson, who together with her 23-year old boyfriend murdered Jasmine’s parents and eight-year-old brother. Jasmine committed the murders as a way of getting back at her parents who did not approve of her relationship with the man twice her age. The murders, which occurred in 2007, are still Canada’s worst murders by a juvenile, while Jasmine remains as the youngest person ever charged with multiple counts of murder (Zickefoose & Herald, 2007). A six-year-old boy who saw a body lying on the Richardsons’ floor and informed his parents discovered the bodies of Jasmine’s parents (Marc and Debra Richardson) and younger brother (Jacob). At the center of the murder was the disapproval of Jasmine’s parents over her relationship, which prompted Steinke, Jasmine’s boyfriend, to murder the Richardsons. The two were later arrested 100 miles from the Richardsons’ house where they had committed the murders (Zickefoose & Herald, 2007). The murders did not, however, go to trial until 2007 when Jasmine was 16 years old and pleaded not guilty for the three counts of first-degree murder. The two were however convicted for the three counts of first-degree murder, and Jasmine was sentenced to serve a 10-year jail term, with an additional four years of the psychiatric institution after her jail term and four and a half years of conditional supervision.

Jasmine’s conviction paints a grim picture of the society, particularly the delinquents. It is, however, possible to explain her actions using delinquency theories, which in particular help to understand the causation of such heinous crimes committed by delinquents. While many theories may offer an explanation to Jasmine’s actions, social strain theories are far better off in explaining Jasmine’s actions. In Particular, Merton’s theory of Anomie provides a better understanding of the actions of the girl who murdered her parents and younger brother to be with the man she loved.

Merton’s theory of anomie develops from Durkheim’s concept. In his study, Durkheim indicated that anomie is “the condition of a society or group with a high degree of confusion and contradiction in its basic social norms” (Regoli, et al., 2010, p. 191). From Durkheim’s anomie concept came Merton’s concept of anomie as “as a state of dissatisfaction arising from a sense of discrepancy between the aspirations of an individual and the means that the person has available to realize these ambitions” (Regoli, et al., 2010, p. 191). In essence, therefore, Merton contends that with the imbalance and the lack of satisfaction of needs due to the discrepancy, it is easy, therefore for individuals to turn to crime as a way of satisfying/realizing their ambitions.  In Jasmine’s case, it is the strain put by her parents, their misgivings towards her relationship with Steinke, which ultimately caused her, in collaboration with her boyfriend, to end the life of her family.

Merton’s strain theory followed the social construction in America in which there is a stress on the success ethic. Within the American context, there is an internalization within the society for getting ahead, which in involves “making money, accumulating material possessions, and achieving high social status based on money and occupation” (Regoli, et al., 2010, p. 191). Even with such expectations within the society, there remains acceptable means to the achievement of the lofty objectives set by the society. The means herein posited as “acceptable” include hard work, higher education and prudent savings. The list of the conventional means involves living lives of virtue, forbearance, prudence and delayed gratification (Regoli, et al., 2010, p. 191). The ultimate goal for each individual within such a social contrast is therefore the accumulation of enough material wealth and an improved social status. These goals extend to include the availability of leisure time and comfort, which comes from being with the right people that the individual loves.

For Jasmine therefore, the authority came from her parents who dictated that she follows the accepted ethics in achieving her objectives. For her, being with her boyfriend was her ultimate objective regardless of her tender age. Her parents however took issue with her objective, especially in consideration of her young age. In reference to Merton’s theory therefore, they (Jasmine’s parents) expected her to delay her gratification for being, and ultimately marrying her 23-year old boyfriend at a time when she was only 12. The acceptable means of achieving her objective therefore involved patience and deterred gratification until she came of age. The Richardsons therefore saw her patience and working through education as her only means to achieve her desired objective.

Within such a societal construct, Merton indicated that there are other people, particularly those in the lower societal carders (the disadvantaged), who realize that they cannot achieve their ultimate goals through the appropriate means as endorsed by the society. In essence, these individuals “may lack the academic background and financial means to attend college, and the only jobs available to them may be unskilled, low-paying “dead-end jobs” that lead to neither promotion nor financial security” (Regoli, et al., 2010, p. 193). Even with such constrains, the drive for the achievement of the set goals usually persists with such individuals. The very juxtaposition of perceived, idealized and accepted societal goals and the certainty of reduced life chances and prospects for the attainment in communally accepted ways relegate many individuals in a situation of despair, also known as anomie.

Having been denied authentic opportunities to achieve the desired goals, such individuals may not see the necessity of upholding the rules of the game. The bottom line for such individuals therefore becomes not the way of “playing the game,” but whether the game is “won.”  Ultimately, therefore, “under such circumstances, some persons will turn to illegitimate means to attain the culturally approved goals” ”(Regoli, et al., 2010, p. 193). However, Merton did indicate the possibility of other individuals not succumbing to these pressures and therefore conforming to societally accepted goals and means for achievement of the goals, while others resort to criminal behavior.

Jasmine in all senses comes metaphorically from the lower cadres of the society being under her parents’ authority. Her parents’ disapproval of her relationship therefore is reminiscent to constrain in achieving her objectives. Lacking authority and her own means of being with her boyfriend, and the constant desire to be and even marry her boyfriend caused a lot of frustration for Jasmine. To achieve her goal therefore, Jasmine’s means entailed killing her parents. As she enthused in one of her communications with her boyfriend, “I have this plan.  It begins with me killing them and ends with me living with you” (Zickefoose & Herald, 2007). Within Merton’s typology of modes of individual adaptive behavior, Jasmine’s typology refers to innovation in which due to the frustrations and barricades instituted by her parents, which prevent her from achieving her goals, she innovates into crime, killing her parents and little brother to achieve her ultimate goal: be with his older boyfriend.

One of the strengths of Merton’s theory of anomie is that although it largely centers on the financial aspects and strain between the higher and lower classes of society (poor and rich), it can also be used for situations that do not involve financial constrain, as is the case of Jasmine. The fact that Jasmines parents are above her, naturally as parents, and their misgivings for her actions and relationship with the 23-year old man already presents a situation of constrain, which leads to defiant behavior.

Yet another strength of the theory is a presentation of clarity to the fact that lack of opportunity and inequality stand as causal factors to delinquency and crime (Regoli, et al., 2010, p. 194). The nature of a parent-child relationship is one of inequality, in which the parents are above their offspring. In the case of Jasmine, this inequality, while legitimate, caused a strain in the very nature of the relationship, which prompted the criminal acts. The theory therefore helps to explain Jasmine’s actions, as a retaliation towards the inequality and lack of opportunity to achieve her goals. 

While Jasmine’s story is explicable using the theory, it is important to note that many more youths have not resorted to such adverse measures even after being denied the opportunity to be with the people they love or to do whatever they want. The theory therefore fails to account for the numerous instance when, even in the face of inequality, many people (both adults and youths) do not resort to criminal activities. Additionally in Jasmine’s case, there was no financial constrain or difference in social class between Jasmine and her parents, and therefore the theory falls short of explaining Jasmine’s actions.

Agnew’s general strain theory can also be used to enlighten on Jasmine’s actions. According to the theory, delinquency and criminality are an adaptation to stress. For Agnew, stress has three geneses, which include the discrepancy between results and expectations (anomie), loss of a positive aspect in someone’s life, such as parents, girlfriend or boyfriend and the presence of a negative circumstance, such as the surrounding conditions or personal stress that encompass victimization, sexual abuse among other things (Regoli, et al., 2010).  The theory is important in explaining Jasmine’s reactions since it does not limit its operations within the social status context. It also widens the scope of the reasons for Jasmine’s actions, apart from anomie to the loss or threat of loss of a loved one and presence of a negative circumstance.

Jasmine remains the youngest person ever to be imprisoned for several homicides in Canada. Her actions can be explained using the social contract theories, especially Merton’s anomie theory. It is however considerable to note that while the theory is largely used in the explanation of delinquency actions among the lower classes, it can also be applied in Jasmine situation, particularly the hindrance towards achieving her objective. Agnew’s theory on the other hand, sheds more light on the geneses of the stress that prompts Jasmine’s actions. It goes beyond anomie, to expand the scope of the causes of stress, giving a deeper understanding on the cause of delinquency and crime.

References

Regoli, R. M. et al. (2010). Delinquency in Society, 8th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers

Zickefoose, S. & Herald, C. (2007). Naïve, love-struck teen or cold-hearted killer? Jurors given very different portrayals of 13-year-old girl. Canada.com. Web. 04 Jun 2014. Retrieved from http://www.canada.com/news/Naive+lovestruck+teen+cold+hearted+killer+Jurors+given+very+different+portrayals+year+girl/6386957/story.html