Criminology and the Theater


America’s “solution” to crime is punishment because we believe that criminal behavior is a personal choice for which the individual offender must be held accountable. Just make the consequences of crime “painful” by punishing ’em and crime will stop. So we believe. But “getting tough on crime” has not worked.

Criminologists and other social scientists have presented research evidence over the past 100 years that there are identifiable causes for all human behavior. We all have choices and make personal decisions. But those choices are influenced by factors beyond our control. Many state laws and policies for reducing juvenile delinquency were based on findings that interventions in families and home environment made a difference.

The voices and actions of criminologists, social workers, and juvenile rehabilitation proponents were drowned out by those who insisted that crime was simply a personal choice. Most of us don’t want to accept that perhaps some of our crime and social problems can be traced to our nation’s lack of support for families, schools, and social institutions.   Can the theater open our minds to criminologists’ claims? 


The award-winning play “West Side Story” depicted a satirical view of juvenile delinquency that reflects criminologists’ findings. The 1957 Broadway play was based on a book by Arthur Laments, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The 1961 musical film was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. The story revolves around two warring New York City gangs: the “Jets,” a white gang led by Riff; and the Puerto Rican “Sharks,” led by Bernardo.

Tony, a former leader of the Jets and Riff’s best friend, sees Maria, Bernardo’s little sister, at a dance. Their eyes meet across the room and it is love at first sight. Despite opposition from both sides they secretly meet and their love grows deeper. The Jets and the Sharks plan one last rumble, and whoever wins gains control of the streets. Maria sends Tony to stop the fight in hope that he can end the violence. His attempts fail however, and tragedy strikes as the story comes to a climactic and heartbreaking ending.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics put to music by Bernstein in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” portray both the stereotypes and established causes of juvenile crime.

“Gee, Officer Krupke”

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand

It’s just our bringin’ up-ke, that gets us out of hand.

Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers are all drunks.

Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks….

We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.

We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood….

Dear kindly judge, your Honor, my parents treat me rough….

They didn’t wanna have me, but somehow I was had.

Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad! ….

This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!

It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.

He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!….

This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.

Society’s played him a terrible trick, and sociologic’ly he’s sick!….

Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease! ….

Good entertainment?   Yes!    Besides portraying some of the stereotypes and “bleeding heart” explanations of delinquency, “West Side Story” portrays the problems we face due to disparities in school funding, lack of equal educational and employment opportunities, and our willingness to turn our backs on countless children and their parents, most of whom are doing their best to make it with limited resources.

Fast-forward to 1998 and 2000 when medical experts published research on the effects of  Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs). Children and youth who experience abuse, family conflict, disruption, alcohol and drug abuse tend to make bad choices and personal decisions that bring them to the attention of police and juvenile authorities.

        Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and Delinquency

  • Childhood Abuse: Emotional, Physical, Sexual Abuse
  • Neglect: Emotional or Physical
  • Growing up in a seriously dysfunctional household: Domestic violence, alcohol & drug abuse in the home, mentally ill family members, parental marital discord, crime in the home.

“Discipline your children while there is hope; do not set your heart on their destruction.” –Proverbs 19:18.

“The righteous walk in integrity—happy are the children who follow them.”                     –Proverbs 20:7

“Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” –Proverbs 22:6

Tags      Juvenile Justice: The Essentials         “West Side Story”       “Gee, Officer Krupke”