Unit Four: Crime and Justice

What is Crime?

Crime represents a violation of a formal, codified norm or law in a society.  Another component to the definition of crime is that a crime violates a criminal code enacted by an officially constituted political authority. The definition of crime just described, is seen from the social and legal viewpoint. But what about the people of society?  How do they view crime?  Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. believed the laws supporting racial inequality were morally wrong, and so not to obey those laws was seen as duty, not a crime.  People opposed to abortion believe abortion is a crime, not matter what the law says. Legally speaking, the law defines a crime. Current law determines what is to be considered a crime. As new ideas are introduced to society and interest groups emerge to support the new ideas, laws regulating and defining criminal behavior will change.

Crime1There is also a political component to the notion of crime. If groups engage in behavior that is seen as threatening to the power structure, then that behavior will be considered criminal.  For example, every spring thousands of college students head to the beaches of Florida for spring break.  They engage in lots of drinking and sometimes destructive behavior.  Law enforcement agencies and the community at large often overlook such behavior- since it doesn’t challenge the power structure.  However, if these same college students were to demonstrate against a war or economic inequality, those actions would be considered a threat to the power structure and would most likely be deemed criminal.


Measuring Crime

There are many groups in society who have an interest in knowing about the frequency and types of crimes committed. In the United States, citizens, sociologists,  politicians, and economists are all interested in crime statistics. In viewing crime statistics, the political nature of crime must be remembered. Certain types of crimes committed by the powerless, may be emphasized, while crimes committed by the ruling elite may be ignored. There are two major sources of crime statistics in the United States: the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) published annually by the FBI and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) conducted every year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics Department.

Uniform Crime Report (UCR):  UCR statistics are based on data supplied by 17,000 law enforcement agencies from around the country.  One problem using UCR statistics is there is a potential for underreporting because the only crimes that get counted are the ones that are reported to the police. Another problem is the accuracy of the reports. Law enforcement agencies are under political pressure to show reductions in crime.  A recent survey of retired New York City police officers showed manipulation of statistics to produce lower crime statistics. A third problem is that these statistics focus on street crime while omitting statistics on white-collar, corporate, organized, and political crimes.  UCR data are useful as a source for information on violent crimes, especially homicides.

National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS):  Instead of coming from law enforcement agencies, these statistics come from a nationally representative survey of households. The survey reaches nearly 70,000 households. It calculates how many violent and nonviolent crimes U.S. residents aged 12 and older experience each year.  The benefit of using NCVS statistics is that they include crimes whether or not they were reported to the police.  Typically NCVS data will show close to twice as many crimes committed as UCR data. This means close to have of crimes committed in the United States go unreported.


Crime Statistics

crimestatisticsEach year in the United States, approximately 16,000 murders are committed along with almost 1 million aggravated assaults. Assaults are much more likely to involve strangers than murders. In terms of robberies, there are about half a million robberies each year, some of which involve personal injury to the victim.  Another serious crime is forcible rape. Forcible rape occurs when an assailant sexually assaults another person.  Close to 100,000 rapes are reported to the police each year, but many criminologists place the actual number much higher because victims may be reluctant to report the crime.

Looking more generally at crime rates over time, crime rates for all types of crimes appeared to have risen during the 1990’s, with a trend toward decreasing rates since 2000.  How come crime rates have fallen?  For criminologists and sociologists, the decrease in crime, especially during a prolonged recession, is baffling. It has long been believed that worsening economic conditions means higher crime rates. One reason is increased expenditures by law enforcement agencies. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2010, expenditures increased 420 percent for police departments, 660 percent for the Department of Corrections, and 503 percent for the Judicial Branch from 1982- 2006. Another reason might be the increase rate of incarceration over the past few decades. If more criminals are in jail, then those criminals can not being committing crimes on the street.  Some research indicates that new policing methods, where more resources and manpower are put in crime “hot spots” is responsible for the decline. Other explanations include a decrease in drug usage, a stabilization of territory by drug gangs, a decrease in lead contaminates in children,  an increase in the number of abortions, and police departments manipulating statistics.

1.  U.S. Violent Crime Down for Fifth Straight Year in 2011

2.  Most Americans Believe Crime is Worsening


Crime Demographics

The data from the official sources indicate that people from certain social categories are more likely than others to be arrested for criminal activities. Those categories are gender, age, social class, and race.

Gender:  Historically crime has been a male-dominated activity.  Overall, men are more likely to be both the offender and victim of a crime. In 2010, males accounted for 75% of all arrestees and 92% of all incarcerated prisoners.  Even though men outnumber women in arrestees and being incarcerated, the number of women arrested and incarcerated over the past decade is growing faster than that of men. In the twenty-nine different categories un the Uniform Crime report, women’s rate increased in fifteen of them.  The incarceration rate for women was 62 per 100,000 in 2008.  That rate is at least three times higher than that of any other nation.

So why is there a gender gap in the committing of crimes? Sociologists believe that through gender socialization, boys are taught to be aggressive and risk takers, whereas, girls are not. In patriarchal societies, men are given more freedom and women are subjected to more social control. Women have fewer opportunities to participate in organized crime, neighborhood gangs and drug trafficking. In modern post-industrial countries like the United States, the increase in crime amongst women might be explained by the increase of women in the labor force with more opportunities to commit crimes and the burdens of taking care  of children and the temptation to commit crimes to care for them.

Age:  According to crime statistics, the majority of criminal behavior occurs when a perpetrator is between the ages of 15 and 25.  Although people in the Unites states ages 10 – 25 only constitute 21 percent of the population, they account for 46% of all arrests for violent crime and 56% of all arrests for property crime. And the reverse is true. Those over the age of 50 are responsible for 6.8% of the violent crime arrests.  Why do young people commit so much crime? It may be due to trying to impress peers through an act of daring. It may be that younger people commit more “visible” crimes such as theft compared to “hidden” crimes such as embezzlement that older people commit. Secondly, because they lack experience and work skills due to their young age, young people may believe they need more money to provide for a desired lifestyle, a lifestyle that can’t be paid for through entry level wages.  A third reason is that young people believe they have the physical skills necessary to commit crimes.

Social Status:  Sociologists and criminologists have been studying the relationship between crime and social class for years. It is a controversial issue. In general, there seems to be a direct correlation between those who are caught and a lower social class. The bulk of the people processed by the criminal justice system for committing street crimes are the undereducated, the poor, the unemployed or those working at low-level, alienating jobs. Why does this trend exist?  Official crime statistics show that lower-class people are more likely to commit crimes and that they are also more likely to be arrested. Therefore, it may be that arrest is more common among the lower class rather than actually having higher crime rates than higher income people.  Also, poor people are easier to catch and convict and lack the access to the same resources the wealthy do. In addition, at every step of the criminal justice system, the wealthy are weeded out by a system of bail, public defenders, and plea bargains that all work in their favor. Street crime is also more visible than white-collar crime.  The irony is that although white-collar crime and corporate crimes do much more harm to society than do the crimes by the poor, crimes by the poor are seen as the crime problem.

racial-profiling-4Race: People labeled as criminals in the United States are disproportionately people of color (African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans).  For  example, although African-Americans are 12.3% of the population, they constitute 39.4% of those arrested for violent crimes and 30.1% of those arrested for property crimes. More so than any other demographic, the relationship between race and crime has been very controversial. The above cited statistic does not mean that race is a causal variable.  The social environment of people of color is primarily responsible for crime rate differences. Racial minorities commit many crimes on the street because the social conditions of unemployment, poverty, and racism fall more heavily on them. The bias of the system against the poor, and especially poor minorities, makes the likelihood of their arrest and conviction great than for well-to-do whites. Because of a host of factors, including the influence of the media, people of color may be more closely watched than whites by law enforcement agencies, which would lead to higher arrest rates.  Crime statistics may be skewed due to the practice of racial profiling, which is the act of using race to determine whether a person is likely to have committed a crime.

1.  Race and Crime in the United States


Types of Crime


1.  Street Crime

muggingStreet crime refers to crimes against property (such as theft) and violent crimes against a person,  such as murder, rape, and assault.  Surveys indicate that this is the type of crime Americans are concerned about.  Conversely, law enforcement agencies put most of their time, energy, and resources into solving street crime.  The perpetrators of these types of crimes are disproportionately people on the economic margins of society (the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed, the homeless, and racial minorities).

2.  Moral Order Crimes

The dominant group in every society has a tremendous influence on the values of a society. If the dominant group deems certain acts to be offensive, these acts will often become defined as criminal. Violations of these laws are moral order crimes. Examples of this type of crime are gambling, recreational drug use, and prostitution.  These types of crimes are often referred to as victimless crimes because even though they may violate the moral order and offend the majority, they do not harm other people. The argument for such laws is that the state has a right to preserve the morals of its citizens in the interest of promoting social stability.

This brings up the question of should an individual have the right to choose among alternative forms of behavior without the fear of a social sanction and being labeled a criminal.  For example, if a man and a woman consensual agree to an exchange of money for sex, is this an example of a victimless crime?  It could be argued that it is, except that some people are unwillingly forced to become prostitutes and to live in servitude to a pimp or organized crime.

Focusing on moral order crimes is expensive. More than half the arrests and roughly 80% of the police work in the United States are related to the regulation of private morals (alcohol abuse, pornography, drug use, prostitution, gambling).  If these acts were legalized, then the police, the courts and the prisons would be free to pursue other more important crimes.  Moral order crimes also contribute to the corruption of the police and courts.  Although law enforcement officials may not take bribes from murders, they may take them from perpetrators of victimless crimes, believing such crimes are harmless or impossible to control.


3.  Organized Crime

organizedcrimeOrganized crime is a business supplying illegal goods or services.  It is related to the economic concept of supply and demand.  If there is a demand for a good or service that people want but laws are enacted to prohibit  such a good or service, then organized crime steps up to supply that good or service.  Goods and services such as sex, drugs, and gambling have long had connections to organized crime. There is a connection between organized crime and the moral order crimes discussed above. Organized crime depends on the corruption of police and government officials for its survival and to make profits.  Another feature of organized crime is the use of violence to enforce conformity within organized crime groups. The need for obedience and trust has led many organized crime groups to be ethnically or racially based.  Violence is also used to eliminate competition.

4.  White-Collar Crime

whitecollarcrimeThe upper class is not immune from committing deviant acts.  White-collar crime is the term used to describe crime that people in high status commit in the course of their jobs.  Crimes such as insider trading, fraud, embezzling, and tax evasion. White collar crime is less visible than street crime.  White collar criminals use their powerful offices to illegally enrich themselves. White collar crimes are usually regulated by civil law, which deals with business dealings between private parties, compared to criminal law, which defines a person’s moral responsibilities to society. Any white-collar crime statistics are going to be under reported. Many people are embarrassed that they were swindled and don’t report the crime, and many white-collar crimes are hard to detect. Even when caught, white-collar criminals seem to receive lighter sentences.

1. Types of White-Collar Crime

2. National White-Collar Crime Center

3.  White Collar Crime: An Introduction



5.  Corporate Crime

Closely related to white-collar crime is corporate crime.  Corporate crime is when entire companies, not just individuals, break the law.  Corporate crimes such as selling dangerous products or polluting the environment have a huge cost to our society. This cost goes beyond money.  When companies like Enron and Tyco International  engage in illegal activities, thousands of people lose their jobs and pensions.  White collar crime and corporate crime costs our society more money than street crime.  It could be argued that more people are killed in our country because of white collar and corporate crimes than street crime ( unsafe working conditions, unsafe products such as Firestone tires, environmental pollution, price-fixing, stock manipulation).  Because the goal of corporations is to make profits, there is a financial incentive to make decisions without considering the consequences to the customers, employees, or the environment.  As with white-collar criminals above, the criminal justice system treats corporate criminals much more gently than street criminals.

6.  Political Crime.

A political crime is any illegal act intended to influence the political system. When looking at political crimes, the most important word is “illegal”.  Governments can pass laws against any type of behavior. The question then becomes, is it illegal to disobey unjust laws? If you don’t follow a law that supports racial or gender discrimination, does that make you a criminal?  To challenge laws puts an individual up against the state. One type of political crime is the imprisonment and harassment by those powerful within the state against those who challenge the state’s authority. Across the globe, there have been thousands who have been imprisoned for challenging the state’s authority, and hence the term political prisoner. Governments themselves can engage in criminal activity. Can you think of a historical example of where the U.S. government has engaged in an illegal activity?



Sociological Theories on Crime

1.  The Role of Biology

biologycrimeThere are those in the scientific community who believe some individuals have a genetic predisposition for crime ( examples: intelligence, an extra “Y” chromosome, or blood type).  There is however, not much scientific evidence to back it up.  For most of human history, people have generally thought that human behavior is the result of biological influences.  In other words, people were “born to be bad” or there was a “bad seed” in the family.  In 1876, Cesare Lombroso wrote a book titled, “The Criminal Man“.  In it, he wrote that criminals possessed certain physical abnormalities, such as long arms or prominent jaws.  Had Lombroso studied more carefully, he would have noticed these features throughout the entire population, and that there are no physical traits that distinguish criminals from non-criminals.  Even as we begin the twenty-first century, there is still research being done that seeks a possible link between genetics and criminal behavior.

Sociologists look outside the individual for answers to why someone is a criminal.  Sociologists look at influences such as socialization and social class to explain criminal acts.  Sociologists, then believe that criminal behavior is shaped and influenced by society.  Cultural norms, and therefore what is considered deviant or criminal, change.  The three major sociological theories explain why crime exists below.  What do you think is the reason why people are criminal?


Structural Functionalist Theories

911planecrashThe theories we will first look at belong to the structural-functional perspective. Deviance and crime exists in the social context of an event rather than in the act itself. What is defined as criminal or deviant depends on what are considered socially approved means and goals in a society.   Emile Durkheim studied deviance and came up with a few reasons to explain the function of deviance.  He said that deviance clarifies moral boundaries and affirms norms.  It affirms the group’s norms and clarifies the difference between conforming and deviance.  Durkheim also said that deviance promotes social unity.  It creates a “we” feeling.  Think of how the 9/11 terrorist attacks united citizens in the United States who believed some great wrong had been done to them.  The group collectively affirms the rightness of its ways.  Durkheim also believed that deviance promotes social change.  Boundary violations that gain support can become new, acceptable behaviors.  Deviance can help a group to rethink its moral boundaries and to change their ways.  Finally, Durkheim said that when society experiences rapid change, the norms of society may become unclear or not applicable.  Durkheim called this situation anomie.

Durkheim’s Anomie

Strain Theory

Strain theory was developed by Robert Merton.  Strain theory claims that a strain can exist when culturally approved goals can not be met with culturally approved methods.  Strain theory makes the point that people are a product of their society.  Merton suggests that the most common path that people choose when they feel strain is conformity.  They use legitimate methods to achieve goals.  For those who do not, there are four deviant paths:

drugdealer1)  Innovators–  These are people who accept the goals of a society but use illegitimate means to acquire them.  (Example:  drug dealers, thieves, athletes who take illegal drugs to improve performance )

2)  Ritualists–  These are people  who have given up trying to achieve a cultural goal, but continue to use legitimate means.  Their goal is security, not success.  They would like to go unnoticed.  Merton says they are deviant because they have given up on society’s goals of achievement and upward mobility. (Example: anyone who continues to work in a job they dislike)

3)  Retreatism–  These are people who reject both the goals and the means of achieving them.  They are society’s dropouts.  ( Example:  drug addicts, street people ) The deviance of retreatists is found in their willingness to live an unconventional lifestyle.

4)  Rebels–  These are people who reject both goals and means of a society, but want to replace them with another set of goals and means.  ( Example:  revolutionaries, communes, survivalists)

Accept Reject Create New
Cultural Goals Accept Conformity Innovators
Reject Ritualists Retreatists
Create New Rebels

Merton’s Strain Theory


Structural-functionalists also try to explain the relationship between social class and crime.  They make the claim that unequal access to the institutionalized or legitimate means to success can create deviance.  The school system is a good example. Because of the numerous problems of the school system, many poor students drop out.  This educational failure closes the door on legitimate avenues to success.

This helps explain the connection between class and crime.  According to structural functionalists, street crime is the result of poorer people using illegitimate opportunity structures, such as burglary, prostitution and gambling, to achieve goals.  Some recent studies on youth gangs have shown that many youths join gangs not because of broken homes, but because it offers steady money.




Symbolic Interaction Theories

streetgang1.  Differential Association Theory.  This theory was developed by Edwin Sutherland.  He believes that people learn devianceIn its simplest form, this theory states that people learn deviance from the different groups they associate with.  People learn to be deviant if more people they associate with favor deviance than favor conformity.  There are many groups that influence our decision to conform or deviate.  The family is a major one.  Others include friends, neighbors, and subcultures such as gangs.  Our choice in membership in groups influences and shapes our self.

Differential Association Theory

2.  Control Theory.   Developed by Walter Reckless.  He claims that we have two control systems that work against our motivations to deviate.  Reckless claims we have two types of controls.  The first is called inner controls.  Inner controls refers to our conscience, ideas of right and wrong, religious principles.  Inner controls include a fear of punishment, feelings of integrity, and desire to be a good person.  Outer controls refer to people, such as parents, friends, police, who influence us not to deviate.  The stronger our bonds are to society, the more effective our inner and outer controls are.  Bonds consist of attachments (respect for people who conform to society’s rules.) , commitments (having a stake in society that you don’t want to risk, such as a good job, involvements (putting time and energy into approved activities, ) and beliefs (holding that certain actions are morally wrong).  If our control systems are strong we will not deviate.  If they are weak we will.  Control theory can be summarized as self-control.

Control Theory

3.  Labeling Theory.  Developed by symbolic interactionists.  This theory focuses on the labels (names, reputations) given to people.  According to this theory, labels tend to become part of our self-concept.  Labeling involves assigning a different identity to a person.  If we stamp someone as deviant, we are putting a warning label on him/her.  For example, a child exhibiting deviant behavior might be labeled a “brat”.  We can either accept these labels or reject themPrimary deviation refers to when a person rejects a label. Even though a person might engage in a deviant behavior (such as skipping school), the behavior will have little affect on the person’s self-concept.  Secondary deviation refers to when people accept the new identity of a label.  This is where a person repeatedly violates a norm and takes on a deviant identity.  Labeling theorists argue that because deviants are not much different from non-deviants, the problem lies in organizations that label.  The solution then would be, for the organizations to: a) leave the deviants alone whenever possible and b) apply justice fairly when the legal approach is required. Over time, a person involved in a deviant behavior will acquire a stigma, a powerful, negative, label that changes a person’s self-concept and social identity. Think of the stigma attached to a young teenage girl who has been labeled “easy” or “likes to fool around”.  Finally, keep in mind that some groups embrace labels (Hell’s Angels). They intentionally embrace the negative stigma that comes with the label.

Labeling Theory



The Conflict Perspective

Conflict theory proposes that competition and class conflict within society create deviance.  They stress that a group at the top, a power elite, controls the criminal justice system.  Law is a weapon used by the ruling class to maintain control.  Conflict exists between the capital class and the working class.  Working class people may become desperate because of no jobs and money and commit a crime.  They are then severely punished.    Conflict theorists believe that the law is an instrument of repression.  The equal application of the law is a social myth.  The law is designed to maintain the powerful in their privileged position.  The criminal justice system does not focus on the harm corporations do.  Instead, they direct their energies to the violations of the working class.  For example, white collar criminals are more likely to pay a small fine, than do jail time.  Those at the bottom of the social class ladder (homeless, prostitutes, unemployed) are more likely to carry a negative stigma of deviance than those at the top (corporate polluters, CEO’s of pharmaceutical companies).

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”-  Anatole France

Conflict theorists would claim that modern capitalist societies are based on the private ownership of property, availability of productive labor, and respect for authority.  When people engage in acts such as theft, homelessness, drugs or union strikes, they undermine the foundation of capitalism.  Such behavior  represents a threat to the existing social order and  therefore is labeled as deviant or criminal.  The wealthy in society are powerful and have the resources to resist deviant labels (think about the role of public relations).

Conflict Theory Perspective on Deviance

The Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system includes the police, the courts, the prisons, and other institutions whose task is to control crime in society. The goals of the criminal justice system are to deter people from committing crimes, to provide society with some retribution against those who have violate serious social values and norms, and to rehabilitate those who have committed such violations.  The law itself, the administration of the law by the police and judges, and the prisons all express bias against certain categories of people. This has led to a growing debate over how effective and “just” the criminal justice system is.



The most important requirement for a just system is a body of nondiscriminatory laws. There are two primary models for how laws are created. The first is the consensus model of law.  This model suggests that laws arise because people see a behavior they do not like and agree to make it illegal. For example, most people believe that murder and rape are wrong and support laws against it.  The law will then dictate what kind of punishment a violate will receive.  The second type of law is the conflict model of law. this proposes that powerful people write laws, and in doing so, then to protect their own interests. Often these laws punish the actions of those without much power.  Some segments of society (the poor, minorities, youth, debtors) rarely have access to the lawmaking process and therefore often find the laws  unfairly aimed at them. For example, fugitive slave laws prior to the Civil War were targeted against slaves who had no voice in the creation of the laws, and to the benefit of slaveholders who saw an escaped slave as a loss of property and profits.

Not only is the formation of the law political, so too, is its administration. At every stage in the processing of criminals, authorities make choices based on personal bias, pressures from the powerful, and the constraints of the status quo.


When a crime is committed, the first link most citizens have with the criminal justice system is the police. In the United States police have a great deal of discretion. They decide whether a law has been broken. Because of the power of discretion that police possess, it brings up the question of whether police as a group hold particular biases that affect their perception and actions. If members of the police believe that people who are poor, or minority are more likely to commit crime, then these groups will receive more attention and investigation.  This had led to police to create “profiles” of criminals. The most damaging profile is racial profiling. Racial profiling is the practice of targeting citizens for police encounters on the basis of their race. One example of racial profiling is the term DWB (driving while black). Another example would be the recent treatment of people who appear Muslim since 9/11.

1. Police Admit to Framing People

Police Brutality

 policebrutalityEven though police brutality is hard to define, it is a major issue among minorities throughout the United States.  Generally, police brutality is defined as the use of force by police officers beyond what is necessary to make an arrest, subdue a violent suspect, or protect the police officer from injury.  Incidents between minority citizens and police officers have often been the catalyst for an outbreak of racial violence.  Complaints about police brutality are much more widespread among minorities in America than among white Americans. When citizens challenge police authority or when the police hold citizens in low regard, then violent encounters between minority group members and police is more likely. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission) in 1968 and the 1991 Christopher Commission report on Los Angeles, published in the aftermath of the notorious beating of Rodney King discuss the existence of police brutality towards minority groups.  Many mass examples of police brutality occur after an event where a minority community believes justice was denied (Watts, 1965, Rodney King verdict 1991). 

The U.S. government doesn’t track how many people are killed by the police.  The FBI tracks “justifiable” police homicides, which it reports to be about 400 per year. Recently, some nongovernmental attempts to compile this data have been made.  These include the Fatal Encounters database, the Gun Violence Archive, Deadspin, and Killed by Police.  Data from these websites suggest the number of people killed each year may be closer to 1000.

For the last 20 years, since 1994, Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act obligates the Department of Justice to collect statistics on the extent of brutality and excessive force used by police officers, and to make those findings available to the public. 20 years down the road no such stats exist, because the Justice Departments of the Clinton, the Bush and the Obama administrations have all simply ignored the law and refuse even to try to gather the information.

91% of the people killed by Police in Chicago in 2012 were Black. 87% in New York. 100% in Saginaw and Rockford.  The report goes on to say that 47% of these killings (146 cases) occurred not because of the person brandishing a weapon (as noted above less then 30% of them HAD a weapon, or were even thought to have a weapon), it’s because the Officer or Citizen – “felt threatened” and were in “fear”.  In only 8% (25 cases) did the suspect fire or discharge a weapon that wounded or killed Police or others while Officers were on the scene. Only eight (8) Officers were Charged with Murder, Manslaughter or use of excessive force in these case.


After an arrest is made, the individual enters the court system.  In the American court system, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But is there a gap between this principle and how it is put into practice?  Can members of the court have biases too?

The court system consists of two opposing camps, prosecutors and defendants.  A judge, who is an elected or appointed public official who presides over a court of law, exercise power between the two camps by deciding what should or should not be admitted into the case and in the outcome in terms of sentencing. One area where judges have a great deal of influence is in the setting of bail. Judges may decide to set a high bail, to teach the accused a lesson or to protect the community.  such a practice seems to violate the Eighth Amendment.  Those who are poor may also not be able to pay the bail. The result is that the poor are forced to remain in jail while the wealthy are released. The inability  to make bail tends to imprison the poor. Time spent in jail before trial varies by locality. In some jurisdictions, defendants have had to wait as long as 18 months in jail awaiting the start of their trial. Clearly this violates the principle of an accused person being innocent until proven guilty.

The prosecuting attorney’s official duty is to conduct criminal proceedings on behalf of the state or the plaintiffs. It is the district attorney’s office which decides what the official charges are. Prosecuting attorneys influence police behavior. If a prosecuting attorney does not seek a conviction for a particular type of offense, the police will spend little time dealing with cases of that offense. And the opposite is true. If a district attorney favors prosecuting a particular offense, the police will put their focus on apprehending violators of that offense.

On the opposite end of the courtroom is the defense attorney. A defense attorney is either hired by the defendant or appointed by the state. Ideally, counsel for the defense is responsible for representing their client’s interests before the criminal justice system.  In reality, there are pressures on defense attorneys to place as much emphasis on “negotiating justice” as on representing the interests of their clients. The defendant’s best interests may not be served when there is pressure on both prosecuting and defense attorney’s to dispose of cases on a crowded docket quickly and smoothly. this lead to the practice of plea bargaining.  Plea bargaining is the use of out-of-court agreements between the prosecution and the  defense attorneys that often involve concessions by the prosecution to obtain a guilty plea as well as the defendants bargaining away their right to a trial. Plea bargaining is involved in over 90 percent of all convictions for criminal offenses.  In exchange for a plea of guilty, suspects may receive special considerations from the court, such as the dropping of some charges, a more lenient sentence, or the reduction of a charge to lesser offense. Plea bargaining has been criticized because it leads to a “informal dispensing of justice”, with the lack of justice falling heavily on the backs of the poor and minorities.

Plea bargains are used by prosecutors to convict the innocent along with the guilty.  Plea bargains eliminate juries and time-consuming trials, that is, plea bargains eliminate all work on the part of prosecutors and police and lead to high conviction rates for prosecutors, the main indicator of their career success.  In the past prosecutors examined police investigations and only indicted suspects whose conviction they thought could be obtained by a jury.  Sloppy police work was discarded. That does not appear to be the case today. Once indicted and provided with a lawyer, the defendant learns that his lawyer has no intention of defending him before a jury.  The lawyer knows that the chances of getting even a totally innocent defendant found not guilty is slim to non-existent.  If a prosecutor detects that a defendant intends to fight, the prosecutor piles on charges until the defendant’s lawyer convinces the defendant that no jury will dismiss all of the many charges and that the one or two that the jury convicts on will bring a much longer sentence than the lawyer can negotiate.  The lawyer tells the defendant that if you go to trail, you will be using up the time of prosecutors and judges, and the inconvenience that you cause them will send you away for many a year.  Judges prefer plea bargains despite the fact that plea bargains amount to self-incrimination, because plea bargains dispense with time-consuming trials that cause backed-up and crowded court dockets.  Trials also demand far more work on the part of a judge than accepting a plea bargain.  The police have learned that such a small number of cases go to trial that their evidence is seldom tested in court. Consequently, often police simply look for someone who might have committed the crime based on past criminal records, select someone with a record, and offer him or her up as the perpetrator of the crime. This police practice is one explanation for high recidivism rates. In such a corrupt American criminal justice  system, anyone indicted, no matter how innocent, is almost certain to be convicted.

1.  People Illegally Jailed For Years Waiting for a Trial- or Charges

Sentencing and Punishment



If a defendant is either convicted or pleads guilty, then that person must be sentenced. Sentencing is an opportunity for  a judge to exercise judicial discretion.  Prior to the 1970’s judges were given considerable latitude in determining the exact punishment for criminals.  The results were inconsistent form judge to judge. Beginning in the 1970’s there was a movement to curb the power of judges in sentencing. States began imposing mandatory sentencing laws. Mandatory sentencing is a structured sentencing strategy that allows for no discretion on the part of the judge.  A judge merely looks at the offense and the number and types of previous offenses and finds the required sentence on a grid. “Three Strikes And You Are Out” laws are an example of mandatory sentencing. These laws state that if someone is found guilty of three serious crimes they would be locked up for life with no chance for parole.

There are a number of consequences sentencing laws in the United States. Some states take away voting rights of convicted felons; other states bar ex-offenders from obtaining states licenses to work in a variety of occupations; other states strip them of their driver’s license. A second area of concern is cost. Tougher sentencing is a major factor in the growth in the incarceration rate in the United States. This has put an enormous financial burden on states to finance their correctional systems. But perhaps the most important consequence of sentencing is in who receives a sentence. The evidence suggests that the judicial system is biased against racial minorities.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Prisoners in 2010 research, for example, 3,059 of every 100,000 African American men, 1,252 of every 100,000 Hispanic men, and 456 of every 100,000 white men were incarcerated in a state or federal prison or local jail. The incarceration rates for women, although much lower than the rates for men, revealed a similar pattern: 133 of 100,000 for African Americans, 77 of 100,000 for Hispanics, and 47 of 100,000 for whites. Between 6.6% and 7.5% of all black males ages 25 to 39 were imprisoned in 2011, which were the highest imprisonment rates among the measured sex, race, Hispanic origin, and age groups. 18  American and Hispanic offenders who are sentenced to prison receive longer terms than whites do. “From 1988 to 1994, some 38 states and the District of Columbia reported an increase in the racial disparity in their rates of incarceration. Nationally, the black rate of incarceration in state prisons increased from 6.88 times that of whites to 7.66. One in 523 whites in the state will spend some time in prison, while for blacks the number grows to one in 53 .


As part of the process to make community members adhere to social norms,  sanctions are applied in the form of punishment to those who violate codified laws. There are four major reasons why society punishes its wrongdoers:

1.  Retribution.  This is society’s way of getting even.  Retribution is an act of moral vengeance intended to make the criminal suffer as the victims of his or her crime.  In cases of retribution, justice is served through “an eye for an eye”.  Although research seems to indicate that retribution does little to reform the offender, many people still believe it is an acceptable form of punishment.

2.  Deterrence.  Deterrence is the use of punishment to discourage future criminal acts.  The idea is that criminal acts can be reduced if  criminals believe that the risks of punishment outweigh the benefits of the criminal act.

3.  Rehabilitation.  Rehabilitation is an attempt to prevent future crimes by rehabilitating or reforming the offender. Rehabilitation motivates the offender to conform to societal norms and behaviors. Programs to get criminals high school diplomas, college degrees, or on the job training would fall under the rehabilitation umbrella.

4.  Protection.  Society can protect itself if it renders an offender incapable of committing future crimes by imprisonment.   The thinking here is that if a criminal is locked up in a prison, they are unable to harm individuals in society at large.  This theory has provided a rationale for those in favor of the death penalty.  In response to public fears about crime, this theory has gained support in recent years.  This is evident by the growing size of the prison population in the United States.

Does punishment work?

The best way to answer this question is to look at recidivism rates.  Recidivism looks at later offenses committed by people who were previously convicted of a crime.  Approximately three-fourths of state prisoners have been jailed before and about half will be back in jail within a few years after their release.

1.  Department of Justice Report on Recidivism


Correctional System

The United States currently imprisons a far larger proportion of its population than ever before. The United States constitute less than 5% of the world’s population yet the U.S. prison system accounts for 23% of the world’s prisoners.  According to the Correctional Populations in the United States 2010 report from the Justice Department, during 2010, the number of persons under supervision of adult correctional authorities  reached 7.1 million by years end.  About 7 in 10 persons under the supervision of adult correctional systems were supervised in the community (4,887,900) on probation or parole at year end in 2010, while about 3 in 10 were incarcerated (2,266,800) in local jails or in the custody of state or federal prisons. Probation is a sentence given in lieu of prison and requires conditions that must be met by the offender. for example, the offender might be required to attend counseling or drug treatment as a condition of their probation.  Parole is a correctional strategy that releases inmates from prison early but supervises them in the community.  Parole conditions are similar to probation conditions.

Even though governments at all levels keep track of the cost per inmate, these reported numbers underestimate the true cost of incarceration. For example, when a parent goes to prison, the family may fall into poverty and need public assistance.  Children are at an increased risk for doing badly at school. The federal government reported paying almost $26,000 per inmate in federal facilities in 2008.



What could the United States do to reduce crime?  To reduce crime sociologists and criminologists would say that reforms in many areas would have to occur. First there would need to be social reforms.  Our society needs to provide equal educational and employment opportunities for all Americans.  The jobs people get must be able to support families. As a society we need to invest in institutions such as the family and education that prepare people for productive lives. Another recommendation is to legalize some crimes. Doing so would remove these activities from the black market and hands of organized crime and place them in the public realm, where they can be regulated and taxed.  A third reform would be better law enforcement. Police should focus on strategies that research has shown to work (more intensive police patrols of “hot spots”, devoting resources to serious repeat offenders, etc…) Another area would be judicial reform.  Pushing for swifter, more fair punishment, equal enforcement of the law regardless of race and class, and truly equal legal counsel would all help.  Finally, prison reform would be necessary. Focusing on rehabilitation, the recidivism rate and overcrowding would all help in reducing crime.




  action Social Problems in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  A Civil Action.   This film explores issues related to white-collar crime.

2.  Boyz N the Hood.  There is a lot pertaining to deviance in this film, but underlining the film are aspects of control theory.

3.  The Outsiders.  This movie explores deviant behavior from the “labeling theory” lens




books03 Social Problems in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.






Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca      2012  Social Problems  (Twelfth Edition) Boston:   Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)

Sullivan, Thomas J.

2012  Introduction to Social Problems   (9th Edition) Boston:  Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)


Copyright ©2008, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved

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