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John Jay College of Criminal Justice
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Criminal Justice Academy (CJA) Instructor Toolkit: Criminological Theories

Whether you’re a new faculty member or a seasoned instructor, we hope you’ll find new ideas and practical resources for teaching criminal justice courses

Criminological Theories

Briefly stated, criminology is the scientific study of criminal behavior. The rich literature of criminology dates back to 1764, with the publication of Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments, in which he developed various principles of crime and punishment that remain key features of the modern system of criminal justice in America. In addition to covering the major criminological theories (e.g., differential association, labeling theory, routine activities, etc.), the course familiarizes students with the social science research evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of theories that explain criminal behavior. A key point to emphasize to students is that although developmental criminology comes close to approximating a “gold standard” in explaining criminal behavior, there is still no single, unified theory of crime.

Below is a model syllabus from LaGuardia Community College based on a 13-week semester. The learning objectives were developed by John Jay faculty and should be included on all syllabi.

Model Syllabus: Introduction to Criminology

Course Description:
This introductory undergraduate course explores the nature, causes, and treatment of criminal behavior with an emphasis on classical and contemporary theories. The biological, social, psychological, and environmental theories underlying crime and deviance are explored, as well as current approaches to punishment, treatment, and prevention. Course material will be analyzed through readings, lectures, discussion, activities, and assignments.

Classes are supplemented with a course website where you can obtain important information and study tools such as PowerPoints, chapter outlines, assignments, and announcements.

Required Textbooks:
Siegel, L.J. (2010). Criminology: The core. (4th ed). Los Angeles, CA: Wadsworth.

Learning Objectives:
Assuming active study and attendance, by the end of the semester students should be able to meet the following learning objectives:

  1. Students will demonstrate knowledge of the core literature and debates that make up the discipline of criminology.
    1. Students will be expected to show evidence of having read and understood the core literature and debates presented in the course, specifically those related to the socially constructed nature of crime and deviance, measurement, causes, and key aspects of crime control policy.


  1. Students will demonstrate an understanding of the key components of criminological theory and the ability to apply theory to specific contexts. Students will be expected to:
    1. Identify the main thinkers and leading classical and contemporary theories of crime causation.
    2. Understand how theory relates to definitions of crime, criminal behavior, and policy.
  1. Students will demonstrate the ability to make reasoned and informed judgments on issues relating to crime and punishment.
  2. Students will be expected to:
    1. Be able to challenge conventional wisdom about crime and punishment.
    2. Show the ability to put debates on crime and punishment and policies relating to the control of crime in their wider social, historical, political, and economic context.



Class participation, news-sharing


Midterm exam


Position papers


Final exam


Attendance is mandatory. If you have more than five absences, you will automatically fail the course. If you are not present when I take attendance (during the first five minutes of class), you will be marked late. Three “lates” equals one absence.

Position Papers:
You are required to write a series of one-page response papers to several case studies that you will find posted on Blackboard. The papers are due on the date noted in the syllabus. There will be a total of ten (10) position papers, one for each case study assigned. Papers should be typed, double-spaced, and approximately 500 words—maximum! Do NOT write more than one page. Do NOT use a cover sheet. Type your name in a header or the upper left corner, double-space twice, and begin. During class sessions, we will discuss selected case studies and relevant criminological theories related to the case. Position papers should present an argument/position in favor of or opposing the issue surrounding the case and should also defend the position assumed. No late papers will be accepted. Papers will be graded on content (comprehensiveness, accuracy, etc.) and writing (punctuation, style, and grammar). This is an exercise in meeting deadlines, writing with correct grammar and punctuation, and critical thinking and analysis. Your papers should demonstrate sound arguments and not a mere summary of the reading material.

Midterm and Final Exam:
The exams will consist of multiple choice and true/false questions as well as short essays. No makeup exams will be given without a verifiable excuse.

Classroom Etiquette
Students are advised that lectures and discussions about criminal justice involve sensitive issues that may challenge personal beliefs. Therefore, the norms of academic discussion and debate will be maintained at all times. Students will not interrupt one another. Students will raise their hands before speaking. Students will be prepared to state why they hold a certain belief (how they know what they know) if they expect to persuade others. In this college, we come from a diverse range of ethnic, social, religious, and cultural backgrounds. As such, all classroom discussions will be conducted with respect and sensitivity toward differing viewpoints.

Please refrain from any behavior that interferes with the learning environment of the classroom. No earphones, no texting. Turn off and put away all electronic devices at the beginning of class.

Academic Integrity:
This class will be conducted in compliance with LaGuardia Community College’s policy on academic integrity.  Students suspected of cheating or plagiarism will be reported to the college. If found guilty, penalties for academic dishonesty range from getting an “F” on a given test/assignment to failing the course or being suspended or expelled from the college.

Class Schedule:


Introductions & Course Overview
Defining Crime and Deviance

Read Ch. 1, “Crime and Criminology” and Ch. 2, “Nature and Extent of Crime”



Exploring Criminological Theory and Classical Theory

Read Ch. 4, “Choice Theory: Because They Want To”


Trait Theories
Biological and Psychological Explanations
Position Paper #1 DUE

Read Ch. 5, “Trait Theory”


Crime and Economic Conditions
Differential Association
Position Paper #2 DUE

Read Ch. 6, “Social Structure Theory”


Crime and Economic Conditions
Strain Theory
Position Paper #3 DUE

Read Ch. 6, “Social Structure Theory”


Social Process Theories
Social Learning Theory
Position Paper #4 DUE

Read Ch. 7, “Social Process Theories”


Social Process Theories
Social Control Theory & Labeling Theory
Position Paper #5 DUE

Read Ch. 7, “Social Process Theories”


Social Conflict Theory
Position Paper #6 DUE

Read Ch. 8, “Social Conflict and Critical Criminology”



Violent Crimes
Causes of Violence
Position Paper #7 DUE

Read Ch. 10, “Violent Crimes”


Violent Crimes
Serial Killers and Mass Murderers
Position Paper # 8 DUE

Read Ch. 10, “Violent Crimes”


Property Crimes
White Collar/Organized/Enterprise Crime

Read Ch. 12, “Enterprise Crime: White Collar Crime, Cyber Crime, and Organized Crime”


Public Order Crimes
Position Paper #9 DUE

Read Ch. 13, “Public Order Crimes”


Guest Speaker
Wrap-up and REVIEW 
Position Paper #10 DUE