Tag Archives: crime

Affluenza: A Cute Name for the S.O.S.

Photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr CC

Photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr CC. Click for original.

The latest controversy in criminal justice revolves around the defense of 16-year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people when he hit them with his car, driving at double the speed limit and double the legal blood alcohol level (as an underage drinker, actually, there is no acceptable limit, but let’s stick with the charges). Couch’s defense argued that he suffered from “affluenza”—a condition under which he had lived such a privileged and entitled life, with so few consequences for bad behavior, that he could not now be held suddenly responsible for his actions. Bizarrely, the judge accepted this defense and sentenced Couch to ten years of probation and a stay in a rehab facility known for its hippotherapy (affectionately, if a bit dismissively, known as “having a therapy pony”). Had affluenza not been accepted as a defense, the usual sentence for Couch’s crimes would have been 10-20 years of prison time.

In an article for Forbes, Dr. Dale Archer reminds us that the lack of consequences that accompanies privilege isn’t anything new:

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen introduced the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the 19th century to explain the behavior of […] families who spent their accumulated wealth in ostentatious ways to show off their newfound prestige and power.

Archer goes on to stress that the real worry is how common the modern trend of affluenza seems to be. He worries that the Keeping Up With the Kardashians era may be breeding a generation of narcissists, if not sociopaths who not only don’t understand punishment but also balk at the idea that they have anything to be punished for. He cites social psychologist Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan:

Her study of 13,737 college students found that there was a 40% decrease in empathy currently, when compared with 20 or 30 years ago.

In the end, it may be the application of the cute name “affluenza” that proves most offensive: personal responsibility is all the rage when it comes to the poor and people of color, but wealthy whites’ privilege appears to have found yet another way to keep them above the fray.

See more on “Affluenza” at: http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/2013/12/20/catching-affluenza-the-role-of-money-in-criminal-justice/

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Squeaky Clean?

Photo by Emily Baxter from "We Are All Criminals"

Photo by Emily Baxter from “We Are All Criminals”

What separates those with a criminal record from the rest of the population? According to lawyer Emily Baxter, not a whole lot. Baxter’s new project “We Are All Criminals,” highlighted in a recent StarTribune article and a post on Public Criminology by Chris Uggen, examines the illegal activities committed by people without a criminal record. In Minnesota, 1 out of 4 residents has a criminal record, but Baxter’s project, she says on her website, is about the 75% that “got away, and how very different their lives may have been had they been caught.”

By emphasizing the crimes of the unconvicted, Baxter blurs the lines between criminal and noncriminal and draws attention to the detrimental effects that a criminal record has on the lives of those who are convicted. Many of the undocumented and unpunished transgressions confessed through her project were committed when the perpetrators were juveniles, many of whom are now lawyers, doctors, and professionals.

Executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis Michael Friedman is intrigued by the project, saying:

“I don’t think I’ve come across anybody who has not committed crimes as a juvenile,” Friedman said. “Allowing society to use juvenile criminal records as a marker for someone’s potential success, or risk for employment or opportunity, is not scientific. It’s dangerous and discriminatory.”

The most intriguing part of her project lies in its look at society as a whole. Imagine if we had all been prosecuted for every crime we committed, even as a juvenile. What would the crime rate look like then?

Barroom Bystanders

We hope it won't come to that. Photo by DigitalGirl via flickr.com.

We hope it won’t come to that. Photo by DigitalGirl via flickr.com.

When things start to get crazy, the “bystander effect” can kick in. As seen in many public incidents (notably when bystanders took photos of a man about to be killed on NYC train tracks), the bystander effect is generally considered a powerful force in determining whether someone intervenes in a dramatic indecent. Basically, people are less likely to intervene if others are around—they assume someone else will deal with the problem. That said, a recent study by graduate student Michael Parks of Penn State shows that the bystander effect may not be as strong as was once thought.  In an interview for MedicalXpress, Parks explains what he saw in observing bar fights:

These bystanders used nonaggressive interventions to break up about 65 percent of the fights between two aggressive males. Most bystander interventions were classified as nonviolent interventions, which included verbally stopping the fight, or separating the fighters.

Parks worked with Wayne Osgood and Richard Felson, both professors of Penn State; Samantha Wells of the University of Ontario; and Kathryn Graham of the University of Toronto. The team’s study found that bystanders were most likely to intervene when they felt the violence was getting “too severe.” Bystanders were most likely to step in when it was male-to-male aggression, since most assume the violence escalates most quickly. Surprisingly, bystanders generally avoided breaking up male-to-female aggression (though, anecdotally, police officers do say intervening in partner violence is risky, since both partners may turn their aggression on the interloper).

“It seems a little upsetting that people didn’t intervene in incidents that involved a man harassing a woman, but the results showed that this was indeed the case,” said Parks. “Our data showed that this type of violence had the lowest level of severity, so one explanation for the lack of intervention in these incidents is that third parties perceived that the events won’t escalate into higher levels of violence, something that does not have the potential to be dangerous or an emergency.”

“Spiritual” Scofflaws

Here's hoping... Photo by Erik Ingram via flickr.com.

Here’s hoping… Photo by Erik Ingram via flickr.com.

This year’s hot trend in religion research is definitely the “spiritual but not religious” (SNBRs), a growing group of Americans who choose not to affiliate with any particular religious tradition, but don’t want to take the plunge into full-blown atheism. While a lot of scholars are still working through the concept, this new identity label is already cropping up in all kinds of research. How do SNBRs feel about religious practices like prayer, are they a stronger political force than conservative Christians, and—most recently—are they even more criminal than their religious peers?

A recent report from the science news website phys.org starts in on this latest question with research from Baylor sociologists Sung Joon Jang and Aaron Franzen.

Young adults who deem themselves “spiritual but not religious” are more likely to commit property crimes than those who identify themselves as either “religious and spiritual” or “religious but not spiritual”… a fourth category—who say they are neither spiritual nor religious—are less likely to commit property crimes than the “spiritual but not religious” individuals.

Franzen suggests that the SBNR identity reflects weaker ties to social networks that may prevent these crimes:

We were thinking that religious people would have an institutional and communal attachment and investment, while the spiritual people would have more of an independent identity.

Of course, this doesn’t quite explain why those who were neither spiritual nor religious were less likely to commit crimes than the SBNRs. The next question is whether strong ties to religion actually prevent crime, or just show up after criminals have been caught.

Concerns over Canadian Crime

Canadian homicide rates increased in 2011 relative to 2010, but according to the Globe and Mail, the uptick shouldn’t cause alarm. Any rise in homicide is worrying, sure, but Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd cautions against inferring too much from a single year’s crime data.

Journalist Patrick White sums up:

When 2011 numbers are plugged into a broader time frame, the picture is much more soothing. Homicide figures bottomed out in the early 1960s, peaked in 1977 and began plummeting in the early 1990s down to a statistical valley of around two murders a year for every 100,000 people, a low where it has remained for 15 years. In 2011, the rate was 1.7 per 100,000.

Canadian homicide trends via Stats Canada

Moreover, while Canadian homicide rates did increase last year, attempted homicides and the overall rate of violent and property crimes reported to the police continued to drop.  Like in the U.S., most forms of Canadian “street” crime (e.g. burglary and assault) are much lower today than two decades ago. As CBCNews reported, the overall rate of crime in 2011 reached a low last seen in 1972.

Are We All in Steubenville?

If we’re not all living in Steubenville, are we still subject to the rules of Guyland?

When people do horrible things, it is often too tempting to obsess over the individual perpetrator, to ask “What went wrong?” through a slew of news headlines, childhood photo montages, and impassioned Internet comments. However, one of the basic tenets of Sociology 101 is that nothing happens in isolation—we must also look at the social sphere around an individual.

Michael Kimmel reminds us of this maxim in a recent opinion piece on Ms. Magazine’s website. Writing about the community response around a now-notorious Steubenville, Ohio gang rape, Kimmel argues that public outcry against the individual perpetrators (and trivial “poster boy(s) for teenage male douchery” who make light of the event) misses the point. What about the influence of a male-dominated community that could protect the perpetrators—those Kimmel calls “The 18,437 Perpetrators of Steubenville” in his title? He writes:

As I found in my interviews with more than 400 young men for my book Guyland, in the aftermath of these sorts of events—when high-status high school athletes commit felonies, especially gang rape—they are surrounded and protected by their fathers, their school administrations and their communities.

They did what they did because they felt entitled to, because they knew they could get away with it. Because they knew that their coaches, their families, their friends, their teammates and the police department—indeed, the entire town would rally around them and protect them from the consequences of what they’ve done.

China’s Sexual Supply Chain

This Chinese park sign forbids prostitutes (along with superstitious activities, kite-flying, and feudalism), but says nothing about mistresses. Photo by Yendor Oz via flickr.com.

Providing sexual services in exchange for money is illegal in many parts of the world, “oldest profession” or not. And where prostitution is legal, it is often not regulated, leading to a whole new set of problems. On the other hand, being a long-term, extramarital lover may be frowned upon, but it’s generally not illegal. Sociologist and sex researcher Li Yinhe argues (as reported by the online edition of the South China Morning Post) that if mistresses and prostitutes are in the “same supply-chain”—that is, they essentially provide the same service—then prostitution should be decriminalized. In her talk at a “Love and Culture” forum, Li went on to discuss modern marriage, which she also sees in socio-economic terms:

…[T]he sociology professor said that judging from its current form, [marriage] would soon break away from its “shackles” and become more “free”… “The reason we had marriage was [traditionally] to bear children and allow each generation to inherit private property,” she said.

“If there are other uses for property and less cohabiting couples raising children, then the institution of marriage is likely to become extinct,” she added.

War in the Windy City

Gun shows are one source of the weapons used in Chicago’s homicides, but sociologist Venkatesh explains how the city needs to look at secondary markets and social networks to get a better handle on the problem. Photo by Michael Glasgow via flickr.

It has been a tough year for Chicago. A recent surge in gang conflicts has increased crime—so much so that Chicago saw its 400th murder of 2012 by the beginning of October. In a New York Times op-ed, Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia sociologist and author of Gang Leader for a Day, describes ways in which the efforts to control guns in Chicago are insufficient. Venkatesh explains:

Homicides are up about 25 percent over last year. Chicago has surpassed New York and Los Angeles as a hub of gun-related violence, most of it involving young people. Since 2001, it has recorded more than 5,000 gun-related deaths, compared with the 2,000 American military deaths in the war in Afghanistan.

Venkatesh sees several ways to improve outcomes for Chicagoans. First, he identifies a police focus on finding “gun-runners,” who buy from licensed dealers and resell to others, when nearly half of gun purchases actually come from a secondary market comprised of gangs, gun brokers, or informal traders such as family or friends. He suggests more amnesty programs like gun buyback programs could help here. Next, Venkatesh fingers a lack of support for mediation programs like Boston’s CeaseFire. These programs help open up conversations between gang members and police officers, and have been shown to lead to sharp declines in gang violence.

Finally, Venkatesh turns to a back to how guns get from person to person. A surprising amount of firearms, he writes, are passed between friends and family, and he believes a sensible, “clever” media campaign must be launched to discourage gun-lending.

These may seem like small steps, but they could have very important effects. As Venkatesh puts it, “Good gun policy is good social policy.” To underscore the point, he turns to his Freakonomics colleague, Steven J. Levitt, who has estimated “each homicide is associated with out-migration of 70 city residents. The total social costs of gun violence in Chicago have been estimated at about $2.5 billon—$2,500 per household—a year.”

Gun Violence and Single Parents

Gun Vector Image

Image by Vectorportal.com via flickr.com

At the second Presidential debate, a comment that linked single parents and gun violence prompted much response in the Twittersphere.  It also prompted Time Health & Family’s Belinda Luscombe to ask, “Is there a correlation between single parents and gun violence?”

Drawing on the research of sociologist Philip Cohen, Luscombe shows that understanding this relationship requires more than simply fact-checking a candidate’s statements.   Citing Cohen, she notes that while the number of single moms has increased since 1990, the number of violent crimes has been going down.

However, this doesn’t negate other benefits that may be associated with two-parent families in certain contexts.  Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in stable two-parent households perform better across a range of social indicators.  For many, these benefits likely stem from the fact that stable two-parent families generally have more resources.  However,

There are other issues besides money: children from low-income single-parent families are more likely to have less parental supervision and support, simply because the parent is under much more time and economic pressure. With only one parent to do all the disciplining, the relationship can get very strained.

But, this doesn’t necessarily link to gun violence.  Anecdotally, Luscombe also quickly checked data on the 12 most recent mass shootings in the U.S.  Out of these, six of the shooters were raised in two-parent families, while three were raised by single parents.  (And it’s difficult to trace the family structure of the other three.)  So, single parenting may be tough on children in certain circumstances, but the link between gun violence and single parenting is rather murky (if present at all).


Offbeat Policing

Photo by Alex E. Proimos via flickr.com

Photo by Alex E. Proimos via flickr.com

Beat cops – and the community-oriented policing projects they practice – are on the decline says Sudhir Venkatesh, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University.

In an article appearing last week in The New Republic, Venkatesh notes that tackling current crime concerns increasingly requires a partnership of federal resources, such as hi-tech gadgetry, and local knowledge of criminal networks. But to support these collaborative taskforces, “[t]he Feds are getting a bigger share of funding, while [local police] are forced to continually make layoffs.”

Venkatesh argues that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, joint taskforces have delivered. In addition to racking up arrests and convictions, “[Chicago] [r]esidents felt safer using public spaces, storeowners experienced less extortion, and even gang members exited their organizations at a greater rate after a federal operation.”

But, while traditional community policing may be outmoded for today’s complex investigations, Venkatesh also warns that cuts have had unintended consequences. Fewer cops on the street has created vacuums – opening the door for solutions from local gangs and vigilantes.