This text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensee. Preface


Chapter 8 Crime and Criminal Justice



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Chapter 8


Crime and Criminal Justice



Social Problems in the News


“Wilson St. Residents Stunned by Shooting,” the headline said. A shooting of a toddler in Chattanooga, TN, left a neighbor afraid. At 9:45 p.m. on a Friday night, someone walked up to an apartment and fired a gun through a window. One bullet struck the toddler in the leg, and another bullet struck a 20-year-old male with him in the hand. A neighbor across the hallway heard the shots and later told a reporter, “It scared me, my heart was beating, my hands were shaking. I was nervous and scared, is the baby going to survive. I was stuck on my bed and I was like what am I supposed to do, go see who is at my door or if I open it I might get shot at. I’m worrying about the baby, that’s all I’m worrying about.” Because the 20-year-old victim was a known gang member, police suspected that the incident was related to a drive-by gang shooting that occurred earlier in the evening.

Source: Boatwright, 2011 [1]

As this poignant account reminds us, many people across the nation live in fear of crime, and you may know several people, perhaps including yourself, who have been victims of a crime. The study of crime bears directly on this book’s theme of continuity and change: Crime seems to have always been with us, yet sound social science research points to many programs and policies with great promise for reducing crime if only our nation would undertake them. We begin with some conceptual issues in understanding crime before turning to the types of crime, explanations for crime, and some aspects of the criminal justice system.


[1] Boatwright, M. (2011, March 5). Wilson St. residents stunned by shooting. WRCB-TV. Retrieved from http://www.wrcbtv.com/Global/story.asp?S=14194540.

8.1 The Problem of Crime

LEARNING OBJECTIVES


  1. Understand the extent of public concern about crime.

  2. Explain how the news media contribute to myths about crime.

  3. Describe how crime in the United States is measured.

Put most simply, crime is behavior that is prohibited by the criminal law because it is considered especially harmful or offensive. This simple definition, however, raises many questions:

  • Who decides what is offensive or harmful?

  • Are some harmful behaviors not considered crimes, and are some crimes not that harmful?

  • Are some people more likely than others to be considered criminals because of their gender, race and ethnicity, social class, age, or other aspect of their social backgrounds?

These questions lie at the heart of the sociological study of deviance, of which crime is a special type. Deviance is behavior that violates social norms and arouses strong social disapproval. This definition reflects the common sociological view that deviance is not a quality of a behavior itself but rather the result of what other people think about the behavior. This view is reflected in an often-cited quote from sociologist Howard S. Becker (1963, p. 9), [1] who wrote several decades ago that “deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules or sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.”

This definition reminds us that some harmful behaviors, such as white-collar crime, may not be considered deviant and fail to result in severe legal punishment, perhaps because wealthy individuals perform them. It also reminds us that some less harmful behaviors, such as prostitution, may be considered very deviant because the public deems the behavior immoral and because poor people engage in them. As these possibilities suggest, the application of a criminal label to an offender is problematic: People arrested and/or convicted of a crime may not have engaged in a very harmful behavior or even in the behavior of which they are suspected, and people with no criminal record have in fact engaged in harmful and even criminal behavior.


Public Concern about Crime


The American public is clearly concerned about crime. Two-thirds of the public said in a 2011 Gallup poll that crime had risen from the previous year. More than a third, 38 percent, said they would be “afraid to walk alone at night” within one mile of their residence; this figure translates to more than 86 million adults. In the same poll, 47 percent (or about 114 million adults) said they worry about their homes being burglarized, and 44 percent said they worry about thefts of or from their motor vehicles. Corresponding figures for other crimes were: experiencing identity theft, 67 percent; getting mugged, 34 percent; getting attacked while driving your car, 19 percent; being sexually assaulted, 22 percent (including 37 percent of women); and getting murdered, 20 percent (among the lowest figures in this list, but one that still amounts to 42 million adults worrying about being murdered).

Although the public is concerned about crime, at least some of this concern might exceed what the facts about crime would justify. For example, although most of the public, as we just noted, thinks the crime rate has been rising, this rate has actually been declining since the early 1990s. And although one-fifth of the public worries about getting murdered, homicides comprise less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all violent and property crime (street crime); only about 7 of every 100,000 Americans, or 0.007 percent, are murdered every year; homicide does not rank among the top ten causes of death (which include heart disease and cancer); and the number of homicides is much lower than the number of deaths from harmful behavior by corporations (such as pollution or unsafe products and workplaces). Crime is indeed a real problem, but public concern about crime may be higher than the facts warrant.



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