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Al Capone: Factors of Delinquency and the Strain Theory

Xenia J. Kozlov



Alphonse "Scarface" Capone, also known as Al Capone, was probably one of the brightest criminals of the United States, and could be specified as a "criminal talent". He is the outstanding example of how society does influence our life – born in pretty poor, religious, law-obedient family, he made a dizzying career, becoming a millionaire before he turned thirty. Using the fertile soil of the Prohibition law, he built a criminal empire, involved his brothers, and thus changed the life of the whole family. Even his imprisonment seemed as an inadequate victory of justice, because he was arrested and sentenced not for murders, running bootlegging, gambling and prostitution "businesses", but for the income tax evasion. For someone, he might look unbeatable.

So, this paper is the attempt to figure out, what factors have played a role in the forming of his personality, and how does the Strain Theory work on the example of Capone's life.


Biological Factors

Environment, Nurture - Nature, and Heritage. Al Capone was the fourth son of the big immigrant family. Judging by the number of kids and the fact they all survived, we can assume that the family was in a good health. Al grew strong and hardy, and even thought about the professional career in baseball (Schoenberg, 1992)

It is known that his father could get up pretty quickly thanks to the literacy, which made his barbershop more concurrent comparing to others. His mother was a religious Roman Catholic, and family was something that was valuable for Capone for all his life. But, the position of immigrants, as well as the lack of knowing the language, worked as the limiter of feeling safe in their neighborhood. Besides, according to Italian tradition, children in Capone's family grew literally on the street, watching all the cruelty and poverty at the end of 19th century in New-York. Though different institutions and organizations were already at play (Regoli, Hewitt, Delisi, 2014, p. 15-17), many of children remained neglected and left to themselves, and Al was not the exclusion. Studies show, that watching violent scenes impacts the young brain significantly (Regoli, Hewitt, Delisi, 2014, p. 97) and somehow this could impact Al's perception of violence and determine his future development.

The factors of poor nutrition and the environment of the industrial city should also be taken into consideration.

Puberty. Al Capone has quitted school when he was 14, and there was the incident of violence when Capone offended his teacher. He was interacting with the gangs in his neighborhood starting from the age of 11. Finally, he's got the scars on his cheek when trying to get acquainted with the girl notwithstanding her protest (Schoenberg, 1992). This partly coincides with the age-crime curve, which shows that level of delinquency in adolescents start to grow significantly at the age of 11, having its peak nearly 15, and, in case of chronic delinquents, proceeding at the same level till the early adulthood (Regolli, Hewitt, Delisi, 2014, p. 231). However, we cannot say that Capone's aggression was absolutely due to the hormonal changes during the puberty – it seems like his natural aggression level was comparatively higher during all his life.

Intelligence. It is known that Al Capone showed good results (B's) at school and the only reason for his falling ahead was hooking off the school, and skipping classes (Schoenberg, 1992). So, we can assume that Al was smart enough to avoid delinquency or "overgrow" it, as many of his peers. But, it seems reasonable to suppose that while his logical thinking and cognition were fine, he experienced the lack of moral reasoning and empathy (Regolli, Hewitt, Delisi, 2014, p. 93). Besides, as he quitted from the school when he was 14, he actually deprived himself of further personal development, which is usually given by education. With high probability, this fact influenced indirectly Capone's future life choices.

Psychological Factors

Moral Values. As it was said earlier, Capone's moral values could be defined through the opposition of family to the other hostile world, which contributed to the forming of the restrained behavior which, in its turn, became one of the main traits of Al's personality. Later, when he met John Torrio and Franky Yale, Al Capone was impressed by the idea of not-involving in the violence, but ruling from a distance.

At the same time, we cannot say that Al Capone's moral development was mainly rigid - on the contrary, he had the ability to mimic if he found the environment potentially dangerous. Thus, some of his coevals remember him at the beginning of his gang career as "nonentity, affable, even mediocre" (Schoenberg, 1992, p. 29) – and this does not coincide with the knowledge of Capone's future life. So, we can conclude that in Capone's case, we deal with selective moral disengagement, when a person selects whether to use or not moral censure (Regoli, Hewitt, Delisi, 2014, p. 119).

Conduct Disorder, Attachment, Behavioral theory, and Psychopathy. During the earlier adolescence, Al Capone, probably, had the lack of anger control, but it seems that he had quickly fixed this issue. Later we would see him as cold, calculating, self-centered person, which is rather could be partial characteristics of psychopathy than conduct or oppositional defiant disorder (Regoli, Hewitt, Delisi, 2014, p. 126-131). But we cannot say that Al Capone demonstrated some characteristic patterns as, for instance, fail to learn by experience, loss of insight and failure to follow any life plan, so it seems like Al Capone's antisocial behaviors were due to environmental influence. We cannot say more but that Al Capone's relationships with his parents were extraordinarily cold or separated. He seemed to be a common boy in a common situation at that time. It would be reasonable to say that the best psychological theory which could describe Al Capone is the Behavioral theory – his behaviors and thoughts were determined by the observing and participating in social interactions. (Regoli, Hewitt, Delisi, 2014, p. 115).

Socioeconomic Factors

Family and Poverty, Nationality, Religion. Capone's family origins from the rural region of southern Italy, who escaped from poverty and the rampant crime and moved to the United States with the great wave of Italian immigration which took place in 1880-1910s. Unfortunately, their arriving coincided with the Panic of 1893 which has aggravated the socioeconomic status of the immigrants (Schoenberg, 1992). Basically, the family seemed not able to bring Italian cultural values due to their lack of education, and in some way, their memories about their motherland were mixed up with the myths about Italy which they've created after abandoning it. However, Capone's mother was the bearer of some national-cultural values, such as language and Roman Catholicism belief.

When Al was six, his brother Vincenzo has run off the home, changed his name, and later it turned out that he was probably the only Capone brother who could avoid criminal pathway (Schoenberg, 1992). This fact could serve as an argument for that it was an environment which formed Capone as a criminal genius.

School, Neighborhood, and Gangs. Dropping school at the 6th grade was usual in Capone's family – only the younger brother, Matthew, was able to finish the school. Young Al was a pretty successful student until he started to miss classes, hanging out with his friends, and had to repeat the 6th grade, after which he was expelled from the school for low discipline and violent behaviors (Schoenberg, 1992). It might seem that Al experienced the lack of socialization, but it would be wrong. In fact, he's got a much more effective group to learn and interact – gangs.

At that time, the poor sides of the New York were under the war of the groups of young men, united on the national basis. There was a fierce division of territory between Jewish, Irish, and Italian groups, and usually, a boy who lived in a street lifestyle had to join a gang just for survival. Actually, the acting of the "kid gangs" could be characterized as minor hooliganism —smashing windows, smoking, fights with previous disassembling of the fences, and minor thefts. Usually, those kids overgrew their "gang ages" and returned back to normal social life, but Al was the exception. He started to build his gang career, moving from South Brooklyn Rippers to more prestigious Forty Thieves Juniors, which was the part of an adult gang, named Five Points. When Five Points seem to lose their grounds, he moved to the gang of Frankie Yale which was more successful. Even at that time, Al was under the influence of a gangster John Torrio who was 17 years older. Torrio has become his mentor, his behavioral model, his idol, and later his start in the Chicago criminal world.

Of course, to move up the career ladder so quickly, Al had to demonstrate different skills, such as reliability, intelligence, obedience, understanding of the situation, and readiness to commit a crime. According to the sources, Capone committed his first murders nearly 1918, being 19 years old (Schoenberg, 1992). Probably, this could become a kind of a turning point (Regoli, Hewitt, Delisi, 2014, p. 239) in his life, when he fully accepted the delinquent lifestyle – and when his youth turned into adulthood.

The Strain Theory on the Example of Al Capone's Youth

Speaking about the strain theory, one of the clue terms is "anomie", which means "normlessness leading to social disorganization" (Regoli, Hewitt, Delisi, 2014, p. 158-159). Anomie is a state which emerges as a result of the disjuncture that exists between cultural goals and institutionalized means of reaching these goals. As different people have different access to these means, they have different abilities to reach the cultural goals, and thus a strain or an anomie happens, leading to further delinquency (p. 159). According to one of the developers of the Strain Theory, Robert Merton, there are five types of people corresponding to the ways of how they overcome the frustration of the strain. They are conformists (accept existing cultural goals and means), innovators (accept cultural goals, but find alternative/deviant means), ritualists (do not subscribe for goals but accept the means), retreatist (refuse both goals and means through quitting out of the society), and rebels (refuse goals and means, defining their own). Later the sixth type was distinguished – it is maximizer, who follows the goals with acceptable means but who is ready to engage in illegitimate means if there's a chance to reach the goal more quickly and effectively (p. 159-160).

If we accept this typology, we can say that Al Capone appeared to be an innovator, who had embodied the "American dream" about wealth and social status in a deviant way. It might seem that he's a maximizer, but studying his biography more closely, we could say that he had made his choice at the beginning of his youth, and later confirmed his willing, when he committed a murder as an admission to the adult criminal world (Schoenberg, 1992).

Then, the Albert Cohen's expanding of the theory, together with Richard Cloward's and Lloyd Ohlin's additions, perfectly explain what had happened with young Al Capone. The lower-class family, who are just arrived in the United States, were not able to give their children proper socialization so they could reach the common values/cultural goals, that Cohen calls middle-class measuring rod (Regoli, Hewitt, Delisi, 2014, p. 161). Then, it was a school which activated young Capone's feeling that he is actually far away from these goals, and low self-esteem merged from this feeling lead to dropping out of the school and turning middle-class standards upside down. Actually, Al Capone's values mirror the middle-class values but moved it into another coordinate system. Ambition, responsibility, skillfulness, rationality, hard work, courtesy, self-control and respect for property are still presented, but they are the ambition to gain criminal authority, responsibility for criminal "orders", skillfulness in committing crimes, hard-working, courtesy etc – all of them are related to the criminal world.

The later findings of Robert Agnew (the role of the neighborhood as a provider of conditioning factors in the delinquency), and Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld (the role of money in self-evaluation and, further, in strain and, then, delinquency) make the explanations even more clear. The poor neighborhood with low cohesion and constant opposition between gangs, of course, worked as a negative conditioning factor, and the first thing Al Capone sought to, was personal enrichment, and after that goes status, power, respect etc.


We've walked through different factors that took place in Al Capone's childhood to figure out which of them were mostly influent. Together with the applying the Strain Theory to Capone's lifestyle, it seems to be realistic to argue that it was the social environment which impacted Capone's life choices crucially. Being in the oppressed group of immigrants, having limited access to the cultural goals and simultaneously observing the street life and gangs acting, Al Capone made a choice which he followed through all his life – and, we should say, he had excelled in this pathway. It is hard to imagine how the things could look like if the negative factors were eliminated, and the environment was more friendly and supportive – probably, we could have a brilliant economist or passionate politician, or professional baseball player. But things are as they are – we've got a delinquent who contributed in criminal raise in 1920-30s.


Regoli, R. M., Hewitt, J. D., Delisi, M. (2014). Delinquency in Society. (9th Ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Schoenberg, R. J. (1992). Mr. Capone: The Real – and Complete – Story of Al Capone. NY, New York, HarperCollins Inc.

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