Criminology, crime and aetiology

Many years ago a criminology student thrust a word into my limited vocabulary – aetiology. I’d not heard of the term back then, but it perfectly captured a sentiment I’d had about things and actions, a sentiment that has plagued human beings since we first learned to communicate.

Religious folk know aetiology. Indeed religion – and certainly Christianity – is often premised on the question of: How did this thing come into being? Once each effect is traced to a cause, Christian theologians hit the end point which is the “prime mover”, God. For them God is the primary cause.

As an atheist I’ve never been much convinced by the prime mover argument, but the process of investigation is warranted. Indeed, it animates physics as well as religion. This process begs an important question regarding crime – if everything is caused by something else, then where does responsibility lie?

Aetiology of crime

Who is responsible for what and when? If a severely mentally disturbed person can’t make rational decisions, ought they be held responsible for crimes they commit? And what of children? Are they responsible to be locked up before they are considered responsible enough to drink alcohol?

Speaking to so many convicts, it is clear to see that no crime is without cause: The man who beat his wife after years of her abusing him, the woman who drove drunk because her mother died and she couldn’t cope, the man who dealt drugs because of a violent broken home. “It’s no excuse” is so often the response. But while of course there is nothing to “excuse” people of wrongdoing, neither is it the case that an action is isolated or “pure evil”.

Of course there are some who do such bad things that attempts to explain or understand are seen to almost re-enact the crime. But at the same time people say things like “must have been out of his mind”, “she’s beyond help”, “who could do such a thing”, and “he’s a monster”. Such common sayings suggest that even with the most heinous crimes, and despite the moralising from the press, people seem to understand that there must be something wrong, that the actions are not those of an otherwise rational person. There must be a cause.

What about prisons?

It is this sense of understanding that drives us to make this film. We can’t stop with reflecting on prisons being “bad”. We know they are bad. There are drugs, there’s violence, and other grave problems. But prior questions need to be asked: what’s its purpose? Why do people end up there? Who ends up there and who doesn’t? How are cases decided? What do demographics tell us about socio-economic, mental health and addiction problems that underlie many crimes? Do the courts function to ensure only guilty people are locked up? What happens to prisoners after release? Does prison do what we suppose it to do? Are all crimes really what we thing they are?

The question thus arises for the film-maker: how much can we include in the film? If the act of prison is caused by so many variables, and if many more variables have to be considered to understand its effects, then which should we include and exclude. There are no simple answers of course, which is both the delight and challenge of film making.

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