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Chapter 8 questions

Use the Social Problems Continuity and Change online textbook to answer each of the following questions a short paragraph. A very good answer = 3 points, a good answer = 2 points, and a fair answer = 1 point. You will have a week to turn in the answers online.

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1. How is the application of a criminal label problematic and why are some people more likely than others to be considered criminals?

2. What is white-collar crime and why is its impact worse than that of street crime?

3. How does the news media influence the public in its beliefs about the dangers of crime and who does crime in U.S. society?

4. Describe the different aspects of homicide that the book focuses on.

5. What are the correlates (gender, age, etc.) of who commits crimes in the U.S.?

6. Briefly describe the five ways that people respond to anomie / strain according to Robert Merton.

7. What are the different ways that conflict theorists study crime and criminal justice?

8. In what ways is the criminal justice system biased against poor and minority defendants?

 

Sociology 2                         Comments on Chapter 8

Spring 2020

 

Crime is behavior that is prohibited by criminal law.  But for sociologists the main questions have to do with who is making the laws and how are the laws applied.  One has to look at the groups that have power in society and the law-making process.  The rich and powerful want to create laws that target groups they see as threats, and will make sure the laws that exist will not deal harshly with their lawbreaking.

A book I read in the past was called The Rich Get Rich, and the Poor Get Prison.  That book and others like it look at how our society will label the poor as criminals for their behavior, but will not focus much on the crimes of the rich even though they are costlier and deadlier for society.  When the rich and powerful do get caught they get light sentences and serve time in minimum security facilities, or even at home.  But when the poor get caught doing illegal activities, they often have to do time in prison.

Often behaviors that have been targeted by the U.S. government, such as marijuana smoking, haven’t been a major cause for concern in other societies.  This shows that deviance is not a quality of the behavior, but involves how people react to the behavior.  For example, because their crimes receive a lot of media attention the poor and minorities will often get the criminal label.  But, the public’s lack of awareness regarding white-collar crime and its consequences means that many affluent lawbreakers will not get the criminal label.  Therefore, as the chapter notes the application of the criminal label is problematic.  We may focus a lot of attention on one type of criminal activity (street crime) while other more serious crimes go unpunished.

One of the problems in our society is the way the public is manipulated by moral panics.  That means that the public is made to believe that a problem is so bad that the authorities need to do something about it right now.  This has happened with certain drugs and it also happens with crime.  This means that although crime has been going down since the 1990s, people still believe that crime is everywhere and that something must be done to get it under control.  One reason for this moral panic is that media coverage makes it look like crime is going up, even though it has been decreasing since the 1990s, and this even includes homicides.  For example, one study that I read showed that news coverage of homicides had gone up over 400% in a period where the amount of homicides had decreased by one-third.

The reason why media myths about crime are so pervasive is that the system benefits from the panic that is created.  The horrific crime news is seen as contributing to higher ratings and more profits for corporate media.  So they have no desire to change the way they report crime.  Also, the police, courts, and prison systems will be given higher budgets to use in their efforts to supposedly make the public safer.  But studies show that huge expenditures on the police and judicial system have a small impact on decreasing crime, especially homicide.

As the book notes only 0.007 percent or one out of every 100,000 people a year will be a murder victim.  This is bad, but it is not a problem that more police can do much about.  This is because most of these murders did not happen in public, but in homes where arguments escalated into gun violence.  It happens so fast that there is no time for the police to intervene, even if they happened to be nearby.  The news doesn’t focus much on this and instead focuses on the murders that are committed by people the victim doesn’t know.  In addition, the media will spend a lot of time on murders where the victim was white and the perpetrator was black or Latino.  This reporting will create a perception that Blacks are violent criminals and will also lead people to arm themselves for protection.

First, the perception that whites should fear blacks is wrong.  Studies show that violent crime, including murder, tends to be intraracial, committed by members of the same racial / ethnic groups.  So, if someone is going to kill a white person, it will usually be another white person.  As for buying guns for protection, it usually is not a good idea.  Studies show that there are a lot of innocent victims, including the gun owner, of guns bought for self-protection.

The book looks a variety of crimes, but white-collar crime stands out.  In particular for the fact that losses from these crimes is far greater than for street crime, and that there are huge numbers of people injured, sickened, and killed as a result of corporate crime.  In fact, the book states that actual deaths from corporate violence exceeds the numbers of deaths from homicides.  One reason why white-collar crime exists is because little attention is paid to it and corporations are willing to pay fines as a cost of business.

The section,“Who Commits Crime” states that criminals are usually male, young, poor, urban, and come from minority groups.  One thing worth noting is that as people get older, they tend to age out of crime. Younger males are the ones who are responsible for most violent crimes.  It really didn’t make sense to put people in prison for life under “three strikes” for relatively minor crimes, when by the time they get to their 50s they are not likely to pose a danger to society.  The disproportionate numbers of minorities who are locked up tend to be poor and tend to come from urban areas. Also, to some extent the numbers come from the fact that those areas tend to have a heavy police presence that leads to a high number of arrests.

Theoretical Perspectives: The Functionalist Perspective includes both Social Disorganization Theory and Anomie Theory (also known as Strain Theory).

Social Disorganization Theory looks at areas that suffer from neglect and weak institutions, as well as weak social bonds.  Not mentioned is the Broken Windows Theory that stated that when an area shows signs of neglect that criminals will take it as a sign that no one cares.  The original theorist claimed that he was interested in having the neglected areas paid attention to, by fixing things like broken windows – which would show that someone does care.  But the police have modified this theory to be that all crime, even minor crime has to be dealt with harshly, as a way to show that these areas will not be neglected in terms of law enforcement.  Such an approach fails to get to the root of the problems of poor inner-city areas, and creates a hostile attitude towards the police by residents who feel they are being harassed.

Anomie Theory or Strain Theory was developed by Robert Merton who focused on the strain that was produced when groups were not given legitimate means / opportunities for economic success / achieve societal goals.  The reasons why certain groups may not have the means is poverty, a lack of education, a lack of health care, etc. that limits the opportunities available to them.  Merton came up with five ways that people could deal with this stress. These reactions included conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion, which are described in the chapter. What Merton intended to show was that the system was part of the problem (dysfunctional) and the way to deal with it was to increase the legitimate opportunities available to marginalized groups.

The Interactionist Perspective: Differential Association Theory, Social Bonding Theory, and Labeling Theory.  I will focus on Differential Association Theory and Labeling Theory.

Differential Association Theory was created by Edwin Sutherland to counter the idea that crime was biological.  There was a time when people believed that people had criminal genes that could be passed on to offspring.  In fact, in the past some women who got in trouble with the law were sterilized to prevent them from having children that would grow up to be criminals.  Sutherland didn’t believe that and instead focused on the fact that people learned to be criminals from being around people who had criminal norms.  If someone grew up around friends and family members who were criminals, they were likely to learn criminal behavior.  Therefore, it makes little sense to put low level offenders in jail with hardened criminals as it makes it more rather than less likely that they will commit more crimes.

Labeling theory doesn’t get enough attention in the book.  Labeling theory looks at deviance, not as the result of the behavior itself, but as the result of the way society reacts to the behavior.  Society will not always react the same way to the same behavior.  According to studies, like William Chambliss“The Saints and the Roughnecks”, the type of person who does the action, rather than the deviant action itself, in terms of who gets the criminal label.  In his study Chambliss notes that both groups he studied did the same deviant acts, such as vandalism, underage drinking, reckless driving, etc., but that the reaction was different due to the boys’ social class.  The Saints were middle-class kids, while the Roughnecks were working class.  When the Saints did these actions, the reaction was “boys will be boys” and the acts were not treated as deviance.  Parents were called, not the police.  But, when the Roughnecks did them, the reaction was to label them as criminals and deal with their deviance harshly.  Victor Rios in his book Punished showed that when minority youths acted up in school it was dealt with harshly, but white kids were not given the same punishments.  For many of the minority youths the fact that they got the criminal label as youths led to their being put in a school to prison pipeline.

Conflict Theory –The two theories I will focus on are Group Conflict and Radical Theory.

Group conflict involves social groups that are already in conflict because of race, ethnicity, class, religion or other factors.  In cases of group conflict, the law is used by the dominant group as a form of social control to keep the subordinate group in line.  A video I usually show in class is called The Central Park Five.  It is about five black and brown youths sent to prison for a crime they did not commit.  After an affluent woman jogger was attacked in Central Park, the police in New York City wanted to make an example of these young men to show that they had the minority population under control.  They wanted and got a conviction even when the evidence was extremely problematic, such as their being no DNA evidence.

Radical theory focuses on social class and the capitalist system.  Several studies, including the book Punishing the Poor, focus on the fact that in the U.S. the capitalist system no longer needs workers from poor ghetto and barrio areas. Capitalists now have access to a much cheaper labor supply in developing countries.  One way to deal with this large group of surplus people is to send them to prison for relatively minor crimes.  Rather than focusing on the fact that the system is not providing jobs or the squalid conditions in poor neighborhoods, the media will report that mass incarceration involves individualswho lack of character, or is due to the breakdown of the family, etc.

Systemic Bias:  Finally, I will look at the biases of the criminal justice system.  It is a system that works well for people with money, but works poorly for everyone else.  If a large number of people have been wrongly convicted it is because they had the decked stacked against them.  First, there is the problem of bias in who gets arrested -mostly poor, mostly minority.  One might think that it is because they do more crime.  But that isn’t the case.  For example, whites use drugs as much or more than minorities but aren’t jailed nearly as much for it.  When practices like “stop and frisk” mostly (90%) affect young men of color, it points to bias in the way the police deal with minority youth.

Then there is bias in the judicial system.  The poor often cannot make bail, or afford a private attorney.  Defendants who can afford a private attorney get much better outcomes than defendants who have to depend on public defenders.  The poor and minorities usually do not get a jury of their peers and jurors often hold their appearance against them.  In an article entitled “Looking Deathworthy” research showed that jurors were inclined to give the death penalty to people who looked like the image they had in their minds of what a murderer would look like. All too often they would see young minorities who looked like “thugs” as deathworthy, while giving a break to those who didn’t match with their preconceptions.  In addition, prosecutors will try to gain an advantage by excluding blacks and people opposed to the death penalty from juries.While the book gives some information on issues with the death penalty that lead to calls for its abolition, you can find more about problems in the judicial system, like bad eyewitness identifications, bad lawyers, and prosecutor misconduct that lead to wrongful convictions at websites like that of the Innocence Project.

The last type of bias I will focus on is that of who the system responds to.  We have a system where class and race matter in terms of who gets justice and who doesn’t.  If this were a regular class, I would show you a Los Angeles Times newspaper article titled, “For Her an Uproar, For Him a Whisper.”  But it is in my office that I don’t have access to.This article looks at the deaths of two people killed by drivers in a hit and run crime on the same night.  She was a rich, white, USC student, and he was a poor Guatemalan day laborer.  After the USC student was killed, they put 20 police on the case and a huge reward was offered.  But the system barely did anything for the poor Guatemalan.  One officer worked part time on the case for a couple of days before he went on vacation, and no reward was offered.  In a couple of days, they caught the killer of the young woman, but the killer of the day laborer was never caught.

Sociology 2                                                                                         Dr.

Spring 2020

 

Chapter 8 questions

 

Use the Social Problems Continuity and Change online textbook to answer each of the following questions a short paragraph.  A very good answer = 3 points, a good answer = 2 points, and a fair answer = 1 point.  You will have a week to turn in the answers online.

 

1.How is the application of a criminal label problematic and why are some people more likely than others to be considered criminals?

 

  1. What is white-collar crime and why is its impact worse than that of street crime?

 

  1. How does the news media influence the public in its beliefs about the dangers of crime and who does crime in U.S. society?

 

  1. Describe the different aspects of homicide that the book focuses on.

 

  1. What are the correlates (gender, age, etc.) of who commits crimes in the U.S.?

 

  1. Briefly describe the five ways that people respond to anomie / strain according to Robert Merton.

 

  1. What are the different ways that conflict theorists study crime and criminal justice?

 

  1. In what ways is the criminal justice system biased against poor and minority defendants?

 

 

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