Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category


So long, Cabrini Green

April 11, 2011

by Sarah Michele Ford

It seems innocuous enough… an apartment complex just northwest of downtown Chicago, constructed between 1942 and 1962, and home to approximately 15,000 people.  But Cabrini Green wasn’t an ordinary apartment complex; to many, it represented everything that was wrong with public housing in American cities. Cabrini Green was the scene of countless acts of violence over the course of its decades as a predominantly poor, predominantly African American public housing complex.  Cabrini Green stood until last month, when the last of the high rise building was demolished.  During that time, Cabrini stood not just as public housing, but as a symbol of the problems of public housing in America’s cities.

The city, the plight and living conditions of the urban poor, has been a central focus of American sociology, and in fact Chicago itself has been the subject of more than its share of urban sociology, beginning in the early part of the twentieth century with the Chicago school.  So how would a sociologist approach the question of Cabrini Green?

A sociologist would look at Cabrini Green and see both symptom and problem.  Cabrini Green, and housing projects in general, concentrated poor people, concentrated minorities, into one place.  On the one hand, this made it more possible to deliver social services. On the other hand, because the urban poor are overwhelmingly African American, it effectively imposed racial segregation and exacerbated the very inner-city problems – gang violence, crushing poverty – that marred the lifetime of Cabrini Green.  These are the causes.  But it’s not that simple… because Cabrini Green was also a symptom. A symptom of racial prejudice, of fear of the poor and of urban violence.

What would be a better option? How can we better deal with the problems of the inner city?


Differential Sentencing for Possession of Crack and Powder Cocaine

March 18, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

One of the themes that I deal with extensively in my introductory sociology courses is power.  Who has it, who doesn’t?  I struggle with identifying myself as a conflict theorist, but there is one area in which I definitely do come down on the side of conflict theory, and that is in the area of crime and deviance.  The issue that brings this power dynamic the most to the fore is the differential sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  Under current law, the penalties for possession of crack cocaine are 100 times more severe than the penalties for possession of powder cocaine.
Chart of Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Why is this?  To understand this difference, we have to look at the social context of each of these drugs.  During the 1980s both drugs were very popular; what differed was who used the drugs!  Cocaine was the drug of celebrities like Robin Williams and John Belushi as well as of young and powerful yuppies.  Crack, on the other hand, cost much less and its use was prevalent in the inner cities.  Cocaine use got relatively little press, while inner city crack use fomented a moral panic about the “crack epidemic“.  In short, powder cocaine was the drug of those who had power and crack was the drug of those who did not.  Race of course played a role as well: cocaine was the drug of the rich White elite; crack was the drug of poor Blacks in the inner city.  And so there arose a culture of fear around crack cocaine, with the associated legal sanctions.

This appears to be changing, however.  This morning, NPR reported that the U.S. Senate just passed a bill that would reduce the penalties for possession of crack cocaine to just 18 times more severe than the penalties for possession of powder cocaine.  A House of Representatives committee has approved a bill that would treat crack and cocaine identically.  If either of those bills becomes law, it will represent a major shift in the sentencing for drug possession.  What do you think?  Should crack and powder cocaine be treated identically under the eyes of the law, or should there be a difference?  What factors led you to this conclusion?


Be Afraid…Be VERRYY Afraid…(not)

March 3, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


Each semester I cover different aspects of deviance and crime with my Sociology students, and I’m always intrigued to hear their varying perceptions of crime and violence in our community, the nation, and the world.

It is inevitable that the prevailing viewpoint is that we do indeed live in a violent society.  In discussions this week, I had one particular student who is married to a local police officer share that her husband refuses to allow her to walk, jog, or run alone at night in her neighborhood and community for fear of violence.  An argument can be made that he is just being safe, but it certainly does beckon the question: How safe is my community?  My country?  Society in general?

Ten years ago Barry Glassner released his “Culture of Fear“, which examined how various social forces from media to the government influence Americans’ perceptions of safety and violence in the United States.  Glassner has since updated his book, continuing to provide documentation and evidence that the culture of fear we live in is largely unjustified.  In most places in the United States, and yes there are exceptions, but in most places in the United States, a fear of violence and crime is largely unfounded.  This fear rests in an inaccurate assessment based on opinion, largely influenced by the mass media.

Let’s examine a couple examples that influence our culture of fear.  The image at the beginning of this post is the threat level diagram that was implemented by the United States Department of Homeland Security following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  The system was designed “create a common vocabulary, context, and structure for an ongoing national discussion about the nature of the threats that confront the homeland and the appropriate measures that should be taken in response. It seeks to inform and facilitate decisions appropriate to different levels of government and to private citizens at home and at work.” (Source link)  During 2002-2004, anxiety rippled through the U.S. population as the threat levels fluctuated from blue to orange.  In late 2009, Wired magazine reported proposed changes to the threat level system, given the lack of public confidence in the system and the suspicious nature and use of the system for political maneuvering.

Various organizations (academic and government) monitor the types and degree of crime committed all across the United States to determine the extent of violence and safety to the population.  Historically, serious crimes have been monitored to get an accurate assessment to the degree of violence and crime occurring in the United States.  Serious crimes that are monitored are homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, and rape.

The data above from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows both the recorded rate of violent crime and the rate of victimization reported to the police.  These two measures combined give us a very good assessment to the extent that violent behavior and crime are occurring in the U.S.  Given the recent history of the war on terrorism and terrorism in the United States, perhaps American society is doomed to be scared out of it’s wits for some time to come.  However, the fact of the matter is that total violent crime in the United States is lower now than it has been in over 35 years.

A closer look at the victimization rate shows us the changes by age group over time.

This data further verifies that few people are being victimized by violent behavior and crime.

While most people indeed are not afraid of walking alone at night, data from the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics documents that the fear, while changing somewhat over time, has not changed over the past 45 years.

How else does our society nurture and foster a culture of fear?  Do you feel safe in your neighborhood, your community?  Why is feeling of safety important?  How does a one’s perception of fear and violence affect one’s outlook on life?  How does it affect how you might interact with strangers?


Honor Killings

January 26, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford
e-mail: ford-at-soc-dot-umass-dot-edu

On January 17th, a 21-year old Indian woman was murdered; the alleged killer was her father.

What would drive a father to kill his daughter? In this case, the motivation appears to have been that the daughter had married a man of whom her father did not approve. To those of us who have been raised in Western cultures, this “honor killing” – the murder of a woman by a family member because she has violated social or sexual norms – seems crazy. This practice, however, has a long history in a number of cultures, primarily in the Middle East.

In order to even begin to understand the phenomenon of honor killings, we have to keep a number of things in mind. First and foremost is the concept of “honor”. The honor at stake in these cases is not the woman’s – it is that of her father and other male relatives. In the Turkish context, for example, “A man’s “honour” consists of two main components: His reputation is determined by his own actions in the community (“seref’) and the chastity or virtue of the female members of his family (“names”)” (“They Killed her for Going Out With Boys…”, 35 Hofstra L. Rev. 815 2006-2007). Why, you might ask, is a man’s honor dependent upon the actions of his female family members? This brings to the fore another vast cultural difference between these cultures and the West. In our social context, the individual is the most important social unit. In this particular Middle Eastern context, however, the family is the most important social unit. It is the family’s honor that the young woman in the Indian example has brought into question. And, in that context, it has historically been considered acceptable to restore the family’s honor by eliminating the person who brought it into question.

This social phenomenon raises so many questions for us as sociologists. Is it appropriate for us to take a relativist view and say that these acts are understandable within their cultural context? (Human rights groups condemn the practice – see Stop Honour Killings and reports from Human Rights Watch on Afghanistan and Turkey.) If we conclude that we need to speak out against this practice, what is the best way for us to do so?

Most of all, though, this phenomenon illustrates the ways that all of the questions we ask as sociologists are intertwined. This one topic forces us to think about culture and cultural relativism, gender inequality and family structures, power, human rights, and numerous other issues as well. When we study sociology, we can’t ever boil a question down to one issue, or even to one “type” of sociology. People are so complex, society is so complex, that everything is interrelated.


Social Control in Society: What is Acceptable?

July 17, 2009

taserOne of the characteristics of society is a stable pattern of behavior over a long period of time in one geographic place. Some sociologists suggest that people behave the same under similar conditions because they follow a shared set of social rules for behavior. These rules can grouped into categories such as values, norms, folkways, mores, and laws. Continuing down this line of thought, you might suggest that you can teach people the rules, but not everyone will obey them! Society, however, reinforces its rules through social sanctions.

For example, if you break the law, society might empower a policeman to arrest you and take you to a jail. The argument here is that obeying the law is important to protect people in this society. But what happens if enforcing the law becomes more destructive than breaking the law? That brings us to the issue of this post. ABC news reported a 72-year-old woman was tasered by a police officer during a traffic stop in Texas. The police department defended the use of the taser noting that the woman, according to the video released, was verbally abusive and physically resisting the police officer. At one point it looked like she was attempting to walk into a busy highway or return to her vehicle. Would you like to respond to this posting?

If so, select one of the topics below:

1. Do you think the officer acted correctly? Why or why not? What would have happened if the woman had a pacemaker for her heart and the electric shock killed her? What would have happened if the office allowed the woman to walk into the road and was hit by a passing car?

2. Can you think of values and norms that need to be followed by people, but shouldn’t be enforced by force? Can you think of values that should be maintained even if they injure or kill people?

3. Look at the responses to the topics above (or offer one yourself). How can these ideas be applied to determine what society should and shouldn’t do to control people’s behavior? How can your insights be applied to other issues such as the closing of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba, capital punishment, three-strikes-laws, decriminalization of marijuana, student expulsion from school, or another issue in society today?

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Changing Violent Norms

July 14, 2009

Sociologists study values and norms because they believe norms form a base for shared behavior. In other words, if most people think they should behave a particular way in a specific circumstance, then that behavior becomes both predictable and common in society. Common behavior allows for the development of social organization and stabilizes society—that is, if the norms producing these behavior are constructive. But what happens if underlying norms and values of common behavior are not productive? What happens if these norms or values are destructive or even promote violence?

This is a hypothesis that many sociologists use, in part, to explain why some people are violent. Norms are taught to us—we are not born with them. Thus, these sociologists hold that some people are taught to be violent—in other words, the use of violence forms a “base norm” for some groups of people. But if destructive norms are some of the underlying factors that create and maintain violence in some areas—why can’t we just teach people different norms?

Andy Coghlan of “Science and Society” reported that a new program based on changing values and norms has apparently reduced the firearm shootings and killings in areas of Chicago and Baltimore between 41% and 73%! Retaliation murders, those committed by people in response to another act, dropped in some area by 100%! The tactics for this program, dubbed CeaseFire, includes teaching people that solving problems with violence is “uncool” or makes the person look “stupid”. The violent actor loses respect on the street.

Below is a short recording of a counselor talking to young people in a violence intervention group sponsored by CeaseFire called “Project Change”. This is an eight-week program of life-skills training, part of which is teaching alternative problem solving methods and negotiation techniques.

Would you like to respond to this posting? If so, select a topic below and respond to it:

1. Explain how the CeaseFire program can be used to illustrate the practical application of sociology.

2. Do you think this program would work in your community? Why or why not?

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Teenage Girl Gangs

June 24, 2009

The role of girls in gangs is changing...

The role of girls in gangs is changing...

Traditionally in the United States, when people thought of street gangs—it was a gang of boys. Girls associated with street gangs were either the members’ girlfriends or sex objects for the gang. But that’s not the case anymore. A recent study conducted by Christian E. Molidor of the University of Texas suggests that not only are girls becoming more active as full members in street gangs, but they are becoming more violent as well.

What hasn’t changed is the traditional social characteristics of girls who associate with gangs. They are usually victims of sexual abuse, poverty, poor schools, and/or members of dysfunctional families. What has changed is the function of the gang for these girls—not only is gang membership a source of protection, it is also a means of empowerment. They sell and transport drugs, rob businesses, mug people, and fight with other gangs to defend their “turf” or area of operation.

Would you like to respond to this posting? If so select a topic below:

1. Why do you think girls are becoming more active members of gangs? Do you think this is linked with changing gender expectations in their generation?

2. What does this tell us about how violence and status are related in some parts of our society? How would you address this problem as a sociologist?

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Measuring Crime

June 18, 2009

Before we can control it, we have to be able to measure it!

Before we can control it, we have to be able to measure it!

With the current recession in progress, a fair number of sociologists who study crime have predicted an increase in certain types of crime called “instrumental crimes.” These are crimes that are committed for material goals—usually money. In fact, how best to deal with a possible spike in crime rates is already being discussed among sociologists. One of the first issues is trying to figure out how to determine when we are successfully controlling crime. Yes, even that is open to debate!

One way sociologists measure society’s level of crime control is through something called a “clearance rate.” Traditionally speaking, this a rate that compares the number of arrests made by police to the number of crimes reported to authorities in a specific area. Examples of specific areas could include murder, rape, arson, burglary, or car theft.

Some sociologists object to this method for several reasons. First, the number of crimes committed doesn’t always match the number of crimes reported. (The difference between the number of crimes committed and the number we know about is called the “dark figure” of crime). Another problem is that one person can commit several different crimes. For example, a burglar can break into ten homes before he is arrested for one burglary. This results in ten crimes being “solved,” but credits only one arrest. Third, just because someone is arrested and convicted of a crime doesn’t necessarily mean they actually committed the crime.

My basic response to the problems above is to refer to the elementary principles and concerns of social research. Specifically, these problems illustrate sociologists’ concerns about reliability and validity in research. Would you like to post a reply to this article? If so select select a topic below or respond to the another reader’s response:

1. What is meant by the term “reliability” in sociology? How can you use the example of using “clearance rates” to illustrate issues of reliability in sociological studies?

2. What is meant by the term “validity” in sociological research? How can you use the example of using “clearance rates” to illustrate issues of “validity” in sociological studies?

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The Economics of Law?

May 31, 2009

Amsterdam has Marijuana or Pot Bars, a popular attraction for part of the city's  tourist industry. This sign warns against smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol in the street.

Amsterdam has Marijuana or Pot Bars. This is an attraction for part of the city's tourist industry. This street sign warns against smoking pot or drinking alcohol in the street.

Many sociologists who specialize, in part, in the study of crime or “sociology of crime” have long since come to the conclusion that what is right or wrong varies from place to place and time to time. So does what is illegal or legal—in other words, what is considered a crime and what isn’t varies, too. One reason why some sociologists suggest this variance exists is that social institution reflect the general values and norms of society.

One example might be marijuana. In many states, the use or possession of this substance in large quantities is currently illegal. But, in the 1920s, smoking marijuana was not an uncommon practice among many people in the southern and southwest states. Some historians and sociologists hold that marijuana wasn’t made illegal because of its dangerous biological and psychological effects, but because of economic conditions!

The theory goes that as the job market shrank during the Great Depression, people from the South started migrating to other parts of the United States looking for work. They brought with them the habit of smoking marijuana. These immigrants from other states became a threat to the local job market that was already strained. Partly in response to this threat, local authorities outlawed the use of marijuana to discourage the immigrants from coming to or settling in the area. The law was an economic tool.

Would you like to post a reply or comment to this article? If so, select a talking point below and respond to it. Feel free to also respond to other people’s posting as well.

1. Can you think of any other social issues the law might be used to regulate?

2. What other groups of people might have been targeted through the manipulation of the law?

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Bigger Prisons, Bigger Problems?

May 19, 2009

Britain is going through a prison crisis—they have more criminals to put in jail than jails! Until recently, the British government was planning to build large prisons to hold these criminals. The prisons, dubbed “Titan Prisons” by the British press, were to be designed similarly to American prisons, each holding close to 3,000 prisoners. But now it appears the British government is not going to build these huge prisons. Instead, they are going to a build a larger number of smaller scale prisons.

Pilikan Bay Prison in California, a "super max" mega prison.

Pilikan Bay Prison in California, a "super max" mega prison.

Sociologists worry about the idea of prison altogether, since it can be a form of secondary socialization. Socialization is the social process a person goes through to learn the rules of society. Some sociologists hold that prisoners are re-socialized in prison—they are taught how to be more violent, have less respect for authority, and become more criminally active by other inmates. This negative socialization process is called “prisonization.” Some of these sociologists hold that the bigger the prison, the less control authorities have over the prison population and the more likely it is that this negative re-socialization process will occur.

What do you think? If you would like to voice your own sociological insights, please respond to one of the topics below:

1. How can putting people in prison protect society? What other remedies do you think society has? What are some advantages and disadvantages of these alternatives?

2. How can putting people in prison ultimately hurt society? Would the size of prisons increase the negative social processes you’ve listed? How?

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