The Walk a Mile in her shoes program is a domestic violence awareness program. Photo by David Rizzico, Flickr CC

Generally, domestic violence is something we think of as linked to, and limited by, the boundaries of the home. The recent tragedy in San Bernardino, however, makes us rethink such notions, as the attacker shot his wife — an elementary school special-education teacher — at the school, killing an 8-year old student in the process. Incidents like this highlight the ways that domestic violence not only affects the domestic sphere, but also the community at large.

In an article on Angelus, sociologist Silva Santos of the Social Security Institute in Uruguay discusses how, out of all the homicides that occur among people who know each other in the United Nations, 79 percent of the victims are women. This phenomenon is reflective of a general social trend wherein women are already treated unequally in public spaces. As Santos describes,

Domestic abuse is based on gender violence, as well as in other types of violence that society chooses to ignore. For example, street bullying, or within the work environment are behaviors that society overlooks, but they who bully grow accustomed to seeing women as their property or as objects with which they can do whatever they wish.”

In essence, the gender discrimination and harassment women face on a routine basis forms the foundation from which domestic abuse is enacted, a platform wherein women are already treated like second-class citizen in the general community. This is mirrored by incidents such as the shooting in San Bernardino, where domestic violence spills out of the home and affects the community at large. Moving forward, it will be important to consider how issues of gender violence and domestic abuse are interconnected.  

Photo by Paul George, Flickr CC

Following the volatile protests in Ferguson, MO in reaction to the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of police, politicians and pundits have begun referring to something called the “Ferguson effect.” This term is meant to describe a new reality for police officers wherein they face a public that fundamentally dislikes and distrusts them. Some argue that this has had made it harder for the police to do their jobs and that police are reacting by taking a step back; these same people argue that this is leading to a jump in crime and a decrease in law enforcement. But social scientists have found no evidence for this and new research by sociologists at the University of Colorado, Boulder points to a different kind of Ferguson effect — more informed police officers.

As described by an article in the New York Times, police pullback and increases (or decreases) in crime are difficult to link directly to the events in Ferguson. David C. Pyrooz finds that there was no overall increase in crime across 81 major American cities following Michael Brown’ death. In fact, though some cities saw a rise in homicides in recent eras, this trend quite likely began before the events in Ferguson.

Research by multiple social scientists shows that there are complicated reasons behind drops in policing or rises in crime, and tracking these relationships is challenging. Nevertheless, research indicates that declines in policing are not related to police apathy or community angst. Instead, protests may actually help cops become more familiar with community concerns. Soon-to-be-published research by Professor Pyrooz and colleagues shows that, in Missouri, the events of Ferguson were followed by an overall drop in traffic stops and car searches and the proportion of successful car searches rose, meaning that the police are exercising better judgment when choosing who they pull over. This may be a sign that police forces are becoming more sensitive to community concerns and trying to police in a more effective way.

Photo from the Prison Proliferation Project

Prior to election of Donald Trump, many scholars and policymakers alike were hopeful that America’s “grand social experiment” with mass incarceration was slowly coming to an end. They saw Americans embracing a more pragmatic and rehabilitative approach to punishment and even private prisons were on the decline. However, with the Trump administration’s support for harsher crime and immigration policies, it appears as though the current prison infrastructure will multiply rather than be supplanted. In a recent piece for The Conversation, sociologist John M. Eason discusses the complicated relationship between prison proliferation and rural communities.

As Eason demonstrates, from 1970 to 2000, the number of prisons in the United States more than tripled from 511 to 1,663, the large majority of which were built in rural areas in conservative Southern states. Scholars have argued that this rise in prisons is the result of a prison-industrial complex that exploits minority populations to the benefit of poor, white, rural towns. However, Eason’s research complicates this narrative, pointing to the fact that prisons are more likely to be built in communities with a larger share of black and Hispanic populations, and that minorities are overrepresented among correctional officers in prison facilities.

Eason also discusses his new book Big House on the Prairie, which follows the development of a federal prison in Forrest City, Arkansas. His book uncovers how prisons are more than just about job-creation to the communities in which they are housed, demonstrating that the prison in Forrest City united an entire community as a reputation building project. He concludes that rural communities are marred by many of the same problems associated with low-income urban neighborhoods, and that local prisons help bring a temporary boost to many struggling local economies. These economic incentives are a large factor in why these rural towns are unwilling, and perhaps unable, to support prison downsizing. Eason concludes:

“Weaning rural communities off the prison economy will mean considering alternative investment strategies like green industries. If we do not provide creative alternatives to depressed rural communities, we stand little chance in reducing their over-reliance on prisons.”

Photo by codepinkphoenix, Flickr CC
Photo by codepinkphoenix, Flickr CC

Despite becoming more unpopular in many other nations, it appears as though the death penalty is alive and well in the United States. During the recent election, voters in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma called upon their governments to strengthen the death penalty. California rejected replacing executions with life sentences and shortened the legal process for executions. Nebraska revoked its 2015 ban on capital punishment, and Oklahoma voters motioned to include it within the state constitution.

In an article with Public Radio International, sociologist Susan Sharp from the University of Oklahoma explains why support for capital punishment is so robust in the United States and not elsewhere. According to Sharp, the U. S. embraces individualism, which allows citizens to ignore the social determinants of crime and perpetuates a “lock em’ up and throw away the key attitude.” Sharp states,

“We don’t look at social conditions and how those impact crime and criminal behavior. If you look at European countries, where there is no death penalty, they also have social service programs far superior to anything we have in this country. They don’t condemn people for needing assistance.”

911 Call Center in Seattle. Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives, Flickr CC
911 Call Center in Seattle. Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives, Flickr CC

The relationship between communities and police officers is getting an increasing amount of attention, particularly the effect police violence has on communities. The Atlantic recently reported on a new study by sociologists Matthew Desmond, Andrew Papachristos, and David Kirk that explores how trust in the police often decreases after a community experiences police violence. After analyzing 911 calls made in Milwaukee from 2004 to 2010, the researchers found that instances of police violence had an impact on the number of 911 calls being placed.

The study began after the highly publicized beating of Frank Jude by police officers in Milwaukee in 2004, after which the authors found that 22,000 fewer calls were placed to 911. They discovered a similar pattern following the killing of Sean Bell in Queens, New York in 2006, and the assault of Danyall Simpson in Milwaukee in 2007. The researchers concluded that instances of police violence, both locally and nationally, have lasting effects on African American communities as whole. David Kirk says,

“Once the story of Frank Jude’s beating appeared in the press, Milwaukee residents, especially people in black neighborhoods, were less likely to call the police, including to report violent crime. This means that publicized cases of police violence can have a community-wide impact on crime reporting that transcends individual encounters.”

Papachristos added in a statement,

“Police departments and city politicians often frame a publicized case of police violence as an ‘isolated incident’ … No act of police violence is an isolated incident, in both cause and consequence. Seemingly isolated incidents of police violence are layered upon a history of unequal policing in cities.”

Photo by meesh, Flickr CC
Photo by meesh, Flickr CC

America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and it is important to consider the long-lasting impacts that the criminal justice system can have on a person. This goes beyond the struggles of life inside or finding a job once they’re free — they can also lose their right to vote. In fact, due to laws which strip voting rights from people with convictions, over six million Americans will not be able to vote this November. This aggregate estimate comes from a new report by our very own Chris Uggen, TSP Editor and University of Minnesota Regents Professor, and his research team (which you can read about at Quartz, New York Times, Yahoo News, Democracy Now!, The Denver Post, Vogue, and others). Uggen explains,

“The message that comes across to them is: Yes, you have all the responsibilities of a citizen now, but you’re basically still a second-class citizen because we are not permitting you to be engaged in the political process.”

Public opinion is mixed on this issue, but people are generally okay if released prisoners within general society are allowed to vote, meaning legislation may be behind the times. In fact, consider that the 2000 election between Bush and Gore ended with a neck-and-neck finish in Florida decided by less than six-hundred votes. Today, Florida has one of the highest rates of felon disenfranchisement, and in 2000, such voters could have decided the race.  

And speaking of “race,” laws which restrict felons from voting are in many ways a black-and-white issue. Because of such legislation, one in thirteen American black adults are not able to vote. As Uggen explains, felon disenfranchisement particularly hurts the African-American vote, a logical conclusion since the criminal justice system is already known to be racially disproportionate. These laws are often defended staunchly, but things may change in the future, and in large part thanks to work like this. 

Photo by Andy Rogers, Flickr CC
Photo by Andy Rogers, Flickr CC

When it comes to looking at patterns of police force, a recent study by sociologist Joscha Legewie notes a relationship brewed from conflict. As described in an article featured in Science Daily, Legewie finds that a pair of fatal shootings of police officers by black suspects in New York lead to an increase in the use of force in subsequent days by police against blacks, but not against whites and Hispanics. Legewie says that this finding,

“…Extends beyond acts of extreme violence against police officers. It suggests a general set of processes where local events create inter-group conflict, foreground stereotypes, and trigger discriminatory responses.”

Legewie stresses,

“Discriminatory behavior arises not only from static conditions but also from temporal sequences of events and responses. This process is applicable to all kinds of everyday interactions, both with the police and with others who might engage in discriminatory behavior, such as landlords or teachers.”

Photo by Henry Burrows, Flickr CC
Photo by Henry Burrows, Flickr CC

A masked figure enters the bank, pulls out a gun and screams, “Everyone on the ground!” The tellers frantically scoop cash into a sack as the robber holds them at gunpoint, roaring instructions through a black ski mask while sirens blare in the distance. This is a scene most of us know well, as it is depicted in almost every cheesy heist flick ever made.

Now, here’s a question: as you played out this scene in your head, was the bank robber a man or a woman?

Chances are, you were thinking of a male bank robber. But this popular stereotype might be changing. An article in The Orlando Sentinel reports that the latest FBI Statistics show a surge in bank robberies committed by females. In 2005, about 6% of bank robberies were committed by women, but by 2015 that number had risen to 7.5%, representing a quarter increase in the number of female bank robbers. In the article, sociologists Darrell Steffensmeier and Rosemary Erickson explain how changes in strategy and motivation might contribute to the increased participation of women in bank robberies. 

Today’s bank robbers don’t always run in and cause a spectacle; they often blend in with other customers at the bank, standing in line or filing paperwork. The infamous “gun-slinger” bank robbery is becoming less common, and instead of using a firearm, more and more bank robbers quietly pass a note to a teller with their demands. Erickson explains this shift in strategy is in large part to the increased number of women committing these crimes, as women are less likely to commit violent crimes than are men.

Steffensmeier and Erickson point to the “feminization of poverty” as a major driver of this gender shift in bank robberies. Women have come to represent a disproportionate percentage of the world’s poor, and combined with a rise in single motherhood and homelessness among women, women have started to resort to crimes that were once committed mostly by men as they struggle to make ends meet. If the pattern observed in the data becomes a trend, we might be seeing more women taking charge of robberies and other crimes—and you can take that to the bank.

Click to visit Hoaxmap.
Click to visit Hoaxmap.

Over a million migrants and refugees entered Europe in 2015, leading many to dub this mass migration a “crisis.” Many are seeking asylum, especially those from countries experiencing considerable violence like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Many Europeans have reacted to the influx with fear, spreading stories that associate refugees and migrants with crime (something social scientists like to call “crimmigration”). In response, two German women created Hoaxmap to track and dispel rumors about refugees in Germany (a country that has been particularly welcoming to immigrants, per its Chancellor Angela Merkel’s directives). Of the 40 types of rumors tracked on Hoaxmap, most pertain to theft or sexual assault.

The discrepancy between documented and rumored crimes may reflect the way rumors spread and their connections to real events that people believe are plausible. Sociologist Gary Alan Fine, recently featured in an Atlantic article, agrees: “Once you have a plausible story then the criteria for information you need in order to believe [a new story] is much lower, because you would say ‘this is like what happened elsewhere.’” In fact, almost half of the rumors about sexual assault and rape associated with the contemporary immigrants cropped up in the two months following reported New Year’s Eve assaults on women in Cologne. Sociologist Mar Warr concurs that “even a small increase in apparent risk (like a locally reported rape or rapes) can generate substantial and widespread fear.” In reality, most crime in destination locations appears to have been directed at asylum seekers, rather than perpetrated by them.

Ban the Box via PBS

As noted by Harvard sociologist Devah Pager, experimental evidence indicates that the presence of a criminal record reduces one’s application callback likelihood by 50% for whites and 64% for African Americans. To potentially mitigate this employment discrimination, 23 states have adopted “ban the box” policies—the removal of the criminal history question on first-round job applications. However, a pesky question remains in the minds of many employers: do felons make good employees?

National Public Radio’s Planet Money Podcast, hosted by Keith Romer, asked Pager how felons fare if they gain employment. To get at the answer, Pager has been studying felon enlistment in the military (5,000 enlistees between 2002-2009 had felony records). She finds that those with felony records are no more likely to get kicked out before the end of their term than their clean-record counterparts. In fact, those with felony records are not only promoted faster, they are also promoted to higher ranks. Pager contends that “employers are probably missing a lot of talent when they exclude people with criminal records” (notably, with few exceptions, the military is not currently accepting felons). Because it is often so hard for ex-cons to get a job, they seem to work particularly hard to keep that job. Overall, Pager’s evidence appears to show that steps to “ban the box” will bring qualified applicants rather than unwanted mischief to employers.