In 1963, sociologist Howard Saul Becker published The Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, the most well-known book on Labeling Theory. Prior to Becker’s work, sociologists looked at non-normative behavior to establish deviance. Instead, Becker focused on negative social sanctions or punishment. He said the deviant is the one to whom the label has been successfully applied. An essay about Becker’s work defined it as follows: “[D]eviance is not a quality of a bad person but it is the result of someone characterizing and labelling someone’s activity as bad.” Once the label “deviant” is applied, the more likely the person is to violate the law (act in a deviant manner). It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Labeling theory says social deviance can be prevented by replacing “moral indignation with tolerance.” Rehabilitation of the individual by altering their labels is key. Alternative measures such as mediation, victim/offender restorative justice procedures, restitution and diversion are encouraged. This, of course, does not explain the most serious of offenses including those that involve violence.
Reduction of recidivism is a primary goal of criminal justice processing including sentencing. Labeling the offender could result in unemployment, homelessness and other negative consequences of being labeled thus defeating that goal.