Getting at the social root of crime and violence

Prison abolitionism is often viewed as a utopian idea, but when we examine the root causes of crime, and the victims of the legal system, it’s clear that if abolitionism is utopianism we are living in a dystopia.

When a particularly heinous crime is committed it is the typical reaction of our society to treat it as an aberration, the result of the individual flaws, weakness or illness of the perpetrator. This is often manifested in the idea that the person or persons are mentally ill, that there could be no logic to their actions, and that they, as people, can be written off as “not like us” and locked away for good.

This distancing of the perpetrator from the rest of society by virtue of mental ill-health or “defect” is particularly common with men who enact violence against women. When we accept this narrative we reinforce the idea that these crimes are reflective of flaws in a person rather than flaws of the system of patriarchal capitalism. To revert to blaming crime on false outliers such as the mentally unwell is to scapegoat and other a population already marginalised in our society. It muddies the waters when we are trying to get to the root of the cause of crime and engage in prevention. This is doubly true when discussing violent crime.

The over-representation of mentally unwell people in the Irish prison population is matched by the rate at which people with intellectual disabilities are incarcerated. The commonality between these two groups is not a greater rate of innate likelihood to engage in crime but a higher likelihood of social isolation leading to criminal behaviour.¹ This rate of incarceration is more reflective of how these population groups are punished at a higher rate than other populations. Poorer familial or social networks, prior victimisation, lack of access to social supports and education, as well as substance-dependence issues, all increase the likelihood of a person falling through the gaps and relying on crime in order to survive.

The principal cause of crime, however, is poverty. Incarceration cannot be a preventive in these cases, as it is not a deterrent, and it is merely used as a weapon against the most marginalised groups in our society. It is another way the capitalist state uses the legal system in punishing the “undesirable”: the poor, the unwell, the working class.

These findings are particularly startling in regard to women, with the number of women being imprisoned in the last decade dramatically increasing. These women experience a higher rate of serious mental illness and drug addiction than incarcerated men. It is both stark and heart-breaking to see that most women who have ended up in the prison system are women who have already been victimised—physically, sexually, emotionally, or financially—throughout their lives.

Mental ill-health is much more likely to indicate a person’s higher risk of violent victimisation by others. It is important to note that this increase in mentally unwell or substance-dependent women incarcerated has not been linked to any increase in the number of women engaging in violent crimes. Simply put, mental ill-health or dependence are not the causes of violence. A far higher proportion of serious and violent crimes of all kinds can be accounted for by the gender, age and marital status of the perpetrator, with single young male people presenting the highest offending rate, regardless of their mental health.²

The men who commit violent crime—and they are men—are not an aberration of the system: they are built by it. We must ask ourselves why this is so, and how we stop it.

The majority of crimes that people are incarcerated for are non-violent crimes of deprivation and dependence: theft, and public-order and drug-related offences.³ If the prevention of crime and anti-social behaviour is the goal, accessible mental health services and supports will reduce a small percentage of the most violent crimes. A far greater number of people would be served, and a greater level and range of criminal behaviour reduced, if drug and alcohol treatment services were more readily available.

A larger and more startling proportion of criminal behaviour could be further reduced if such social issues as poverty, deprivation and homelessness were tackled effectively through the provision of housing, access to education, and the development of inclusive community. This has been shown in British Columbia, Canada, to have reduced arrests by 75 per cent over a ten-year period and proved effective even when people have been engaged in long-term and habitual criminal behaviour.⁴

However, these measures are not enough to reduce the most violent and heinous of crimes, in particular men’s violence against women. The majority of these men are not mentally unwell or outliers by any stretch of the imagination: in many cases they are the husbands, boy-friends, fathers and friends of the women they hurt.

To seek lengthy periods of incarceration for individuals found guilty of these types of crime is reasonable, but it is not a panacea for the problem of male violence. Longer sentences for violence against women mean nothing when they do not stop the violence or murder or rape from happening in the first place. Allowing women to arm themselves does not eradicate the danger they face: it only places more responsibility on them for keeping themselves safe.

To really change this we need to change our social fabric, one where concepts of masculinity are entirely reframed and reformed. This is by far the most difficult prevention measure to enact, often because of a refusal to accept the necessity of it. We need to build up forms of manhood that do not hinge upon notions of physical power or prowess, domination, ego, individualism, emotional simplicity, and perverted notions of “respect.”

These changes must happen on a cultural and society-wide basis; but men must also challenge their own internalised ideals of masculinity, challenge other men to “be better,” and challenge all forms of violence. It is not enough to not be the person who beats another when accepting the putting of a woman “in her place” in other forms. Men must lead other men by example, making and taking no excuses. Dangerous, violent men do not wear a badge to denote their threat level: they are cloaked in social acceptance and often wear masks of love.

Until we start honestly getting at the social root of crime and violence, discussions on criminality and incarceration are at best pointless, at worst dehumanising and demonising, while letting the actual dangers walk free and unfettered among us.


  1. Gautam Gulati, Alan Cusack, Shane Kilcommins, and Colum Dunne, “Intellectual disabilities in Irish prisons: Could article 13 of the UNCRPD hold the key?” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, vol. 68 (January–February 2020).
  2. Heather Stuart, “Violence and mental illness: An overview,” World Psychiatry, June 2003, p. 121.
  3. Central Statistics Office, Recorded Crime, Q3 2021, 21 December 202 (, retrieved 5 January 2022).
  4. Alison MacPhail and Simon Verdun-Jones, “Mental illness and the criminal justice system” (paper presented to Re-Inventing Criminal Justice: Fifth National Symposium, Montréal, January 2013).