The Social Construction of Crime

elevated from the diaries ~Welsh is our Canadian election correspondent
The Social Construction of Crime

Most crime is created by the government by choosing to outlaw something.  Seem counterintuitive?  It is, simply, true.  All non-violent drug offenses are crimes that would not be considered crimes if the government hadn’t made drugs illegal.  And right there you’ve accounted for most of the growth in the prison population for the last thirty years.

This is not to deny that there are non-constructed crimes, there are, and you can figure out what they are by doing cross ethnographic surveys.  What you’ll find is that the big ones are murder, rape and assault.  Even theft, as we understand it, is not universal, because there are societies where private property as we understand it doesn’t exist.  (Most hunter gatherer bands hold almost everything communally, the best bow, for example, is held by the best hunter, and once that’s no longer you, you give it up.)


… More after the jump.   (Thread on Canadian Election here)

People like forcing other people to obey their morals.  In the sociological literature such people are called “moral entrepeneurs”.  They take something that they believe in, say sodomy is evil, or adultery is bad, or some drugs are evil, and they try and convince their society’s authority to make violating their mores a crime.  

You can see this in a very pure form in prohibition, where the primarily rural, Protestant areas of the country formed a coalition to force the non-Protestants in the cities to stop drinking.  But you can also see it today, in the gay marriage debate, where some States have not only kept gay marriage illegal, but have gone further and stripped gay couples of rights they could already enjoy through normal legal means.  

That is one form of how government constructs crime – another is when it constructs crime for its own interests.  Money tracking laws fall into this category.  Tax evasion falls into this category.  

A third category is when the government acts to enforce the privileges of a monopoly or oligopoly. Calling yourself a doctor when you don’t have the right license is an example, and in fact in studies few things will get you cracked down harder than hanging up a shingle without the proper qualifications and memberships.  Using the state to enforce some form of monopoly, whether service, good or labor is a long long standing practice.  You can see it today when telecom companies have lobbied state legislatures to make providing free wireless internet illegal, so they can charge for it or in so-called intellectual property laws.

In fact the best way to make money is to get the State to force people to give it to you.  Want mood altering drugs?  Well, legally you can only get most of the really effective ones (other than alcohol) from the troika of doctors/pharmacists and drug companies).  The cheap easy ones that can’t be patented are almost all illegal, and it is not a coincidence that as the AMA gained strength this is what happened (having a monopoly on being able to alter people’s moods is a sure money maker.)

So what we have in America is a society where the drugs of the rich and middle class are either legal, or not strongly enforced (how many celebreties who use cocaine have done serious jail time) and the drugs of the poor and minorities (who can’t afford to pay comissions and mark ups through the official mood altering regime) are illegal.  I’ve had valium, and I’m telling you its a serious drug and how many people are on it or some form of similiar drug?

What you have, on a more local level, is the inability of people to throw a carpet down on a sidewalk and simply start selling things.  They need “licenses” and for most of the poor, that isn’t possible.  The rights of the official merchants who pay for market space, and kick back into government coffers and protected against those too poor to do so.

Then there is what sociologists call Labelling.  Simply put, if you’re white, you  won’t be stopped for driving while black.  If as a white teenager you perhaps go on a joyride, it is significantly less likely that you will actually wind up being convicted of a crime and get that black mark on your record.  These effects are statistically inarguable – if you are black, or hispanic. you are simply much more likely to be charged and/or convicted of the exact same crime as a white boy.  And if you are poor, likewise you are more likely to be convicted than if you or your parents are middle class or rich.

The consequences of getting any criminal conviction on your record in the US are severe. Once it is there you will likely never, ever, hold a decent job.  As such, you will likely be pushed into the gray or black economies, and are much more likely to commit further crimes, out of simple economic necessity and because as one of those who has been marked, the unmarked will not associate with you, so you necessarily fall into bad company.

Again, this is measurable, and you can compare the effects by comparing recidivism rates between countries and then looking at how hard it is to get a decent job with a criminal record.  Make it harder to get a decent job with a record and you will have more recidivism.  It’s just that simple.

The simplest and easiest way to reduce crime rates is to reduce or eliminate the criminaliztion of victimless crimes.  The US has the highest prison population in the modern world, beating out even Russia, because it chooses to do so.  It has them because it refuses to stop trying to tell its own citizens how they should live their lives, when their actions are either harming only themselves or are harming those who have consensually agreed to be harmed or because it is enforcing a monopoly for those who have power or who kick back into the system.

The prison population exists also because it is how competition is reduced for scarce jobs on the low end.  With the exact same resume, a black candidate for a job will get half the interviews a white one will.  With the exact same crime, blacks are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites.  These two things are not coincidences, they are flip sides of the same coin.

Finally the prison population is also so large because it is a way of spreading pork to rural areas.  Rural folks work at locking up urban blacks.  It’s a great way to give them something to do so they don’t have to leave the area and go to a city themselves.

With only a few exceptions, crime is what a society chooses it to be, and the crime rate is what the society chooses it to be.  Sure it will rise and fall with demographic swings, but with the exact same birth rates and immigration profile, different countries would (and filtering out do), have lower crime rates.  Toronto is more multicultural than any American city I am aware of, yet we have a much lower crime rate than most.  Wonder why?

There is more to it than this (we could, for example, discuss the gun market and how it is used as a proxy for cash in the US and why the authorities allow this) but this is the basis.  Even if you take the position that criminalizing certain drugs is intended to stop car and machinery accidents, then it is still a choice – pay on the back end or pay on the front end.

Your crime rate is a choice your society makes, unless it is in an anarchic situation.  And who is in your prisons tells the world what sort of society you are.  I put it to you that what the US prison population tells the world about you is not very flattering.  At all.  (Although it’s better than what the Chinese prison population tells the world about them.  But then the US shouldn’t be measuring itself against one-party unfree states.)

Everybody chooses the world they live in.  Most people choose the world they are given.  Welcome to yours

27 comments to The Social Construction of Crime

  • Anonymous

    Ian, thank you for the great and substantive essays.

  • Anonymous

    for taking the time to let me know you like them.

  • Anonymous

    I can see how control by gov’ts is destroying our morals to comply with theirs. Thank you for an easy-to-understand view of governments and how the few in control dictate our morals.

  • Anonymous

       Precisely so!

       The term that I have been using is “ideological totalitarianism.” It’s rise, following McLuhan and Toffler, is due to the dominant group, with dominant values and icons, sensing that it is being marginalized by an emerging group whose values and icons are over-sweeping their outgoing culture. The present outgoing culture follows the industrial and bureaucratic model while the over-sweeping culture is digital-electronic with networking and semi-autonomy everywhere. The pyramidal power structures of the military- industrial complex are simply obsolete, yet the Neocons see continuous warfare as the solution to maintaining a USA Empire. Toffler has termed it “Reversionism,” attempting to pressure everyone to revert back to earlier behaviors, values and icons that are more reassuring to the old guard sensing it own demise.

       Unfortunately, ideological totalitariasm is sometimes a precursor to political totalitarianism, and there are plenty of examples in the not so distant past, including Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam, and others where a populace is pressured to embrace a values philosophy or face persecution and even annihilation.

       Those who object to the GW cabal of Neocons being labelled as “nazis” fail to understand the overtones to their values were loyalty to the man and a narrow range of projected ideals are pushed onto everyone else in a manner that marginalizes loyalty to country, the Constitution and the due process democracy that calls for persistent commitment and oversight. The resurgence of the debates over religion in the schools and abortion are symptoms of the disease more than they are issues in their own right.

       Many of the great crime stories from the first half of the last century center around Prohibition, where alcohol was prohibited. The legalization of alcohol liberated us from that terrible period of needless conflict. Our present period of prohibition centers on drugs and we are simply replaying the past. It is another example of an issue that serves to maintain a giant bureaucracy, an extension of the military- industrial complex, and to hold back the emerging future what is already in the cultural driver’s seat but does not yet control all of the resources. The legalization and regulation of all drugs is the obvious next step.

       Thanks for bringing the issue forward for our review.

       Channing
       Ventura CA USA

  • Anonymous

    …I extend it to its logical conclusion and I get a complete denial of the concept of the common good.

    Toronto has a much lower crime rate because, in part, we’ve got this state construct that says that private ownership of certain classes of firearms is a crime. Completely arbitrary, and right up there with making most classes of narcotics illegal.

  • Anonymous

    … firearm ownership isn’t actually lower in Canada than in the US, although I’m not sure what the rate is in Toronto (handgun ownership is lower, but my understanding is that getting illegal handguns is pretty easy in Toronto).  The truth is that you can find stats to support either side of the firearms debate, places which are well armed that have low rates and places that are badly armed and have high rates.  This is both internationally true, and true within the US.  (Not to say that firearm laws may not be a net positive, see below.)

    (Interesting trivia: up to a point in the 70′s the most common murder weapon in Canada was the axe.  Yup, we were a nation of axe murderers.)

    The Romans made this distinction as well – between things that are crimes in themselves, and things that are crimes by prohibition.  They didn’t take that to mean that you should never make things crimes by prohibition, just that you should think carefully before you do.  Is the cost of criminalizing something worth the benefit gained?

    Saying that a lot of crime is socially constructed is the first step to understanding a lot of it (but not all).   It’s necessary because it makes the point that things people often think of as obviously criminal, aren’t necessarily.  But it’s not sufficient.  

    A fuller discussion of drugs would discuss, for example, the fact that when you make something like that illegal suppliers spring up and they cause corruption of officials, more crime than just the strict crime (ie. if a drug crime will put you in jail for life it’s worth killing to silence stoolies), and loss of civil liberties.  On the other side of the ledger is a small amount of reduced junkies and fewer accidents (and in the cases of things like Meth, arguably fewer homicides.)

    You can do similiar things for prostitution (a much more clear cut case – the downside to legalized prostitution in health terms is much less than illegal prostitution.  Regular health checks for licensing + cutting out pimps far outweighs any harm.)

  • Anonymous

    The OPP does not break up too many gun battles. Also you can’t have rolling junk heaps running down the road. So much for the bent and bondoed class. Rubbies can pull your coat at crippled civilians; so you can have human junk heaps walking down the blvd. They kind of split the difference at the low end up there.

  • Anonymous

    …is very likely at least somewhat lower in Canada than it is in the United States. The estimates for the percentage of Canadians owning firearms range between 13% from a high-bound 1998 estimate done for Justice, to a below lower-bound “estimate” based on actual numbers of permits issued by CFC of about 6%. In the United States, a range of estimates are offered for the percentage of households owning a firearm between 35% and roughly 50% (DoJ estimates the former, the NRA the latter). Without knowing a lot about the demographic characteristics of gun owners in the two countries, it’s pretty tough to make a definitive comparison of the a household-based and population-based rates, but the magnitude of the difference between even the low-bound US estimate and the high-bound Canadian estimate sure suggests to me that it’s at least slightly higher in the States, and potentially significantly higher. It’s important to note that the numbers of firearms in circulation in the United States are much higher, and this difference becomes extreme when one compares handguns.

    From the CFC:

    “There are an estimated 7.4 million firearms in Canada, about 1.2 million of which are restricted firearms (mostly handguns). In the U.S., there are approximately 222 million firearms; 76 million of the firearms in circulation are handguns.”

    When you work this through with the relevant 1996 population figures (and use the more reasonable Canadian upper-bound figures for total firearms of 11 million), you get 0.82 firearms per individual for the US and 0.34 per individual for Canada.

    The net effect of this can be seen in study after study.
    From a recent StatCan study tracking firearms related deaths:

    “The risk of death from an injury related to firearms was a fraction of that in the United States. In 2000, the rate of homicide involving a gun in the United States was 3.8 for every 100,000 population, nearly eight times Canada’s rate of 0.5.

    In Canada, homicides accounted for 18% of deaths involving firearms in 2000, compared with 38% in the United States.”

    According to the CFC, this is a longterm trend:

    “From 1985 to 1995 inclusive, the average firearm homicide rate per 100,000 population was 0.7 in Canada, compared to 5.6 in the United States.”

    When one works from the first CFC cite forward through the figures cited in the rest of the piece, it seems clear that much of the difference is due to the fact that the US has a higher homicide rate than Canada, generally (whether firearms are involved or not), and the disproportionate role of handguns. Our rates of homicides using long-arms are much more in keeping with what one would expect, given our respective homicide rates, but the handgun-related crime gets really divergent.

    Arguing that much crime is socially constructed isn’t that novel, nor is it hugely productive in the absence of a means to determine which crimes are so heavily weighted to the social construction as to be of dubious legitimacy (or utility, for that matter). Sure it’s absolutely true, but without a means of weighing the relative societal interests here the treatment risks just being a re-telling of “X major flaws that most people recognize, but no one likes about the criminal justice system”.

    Oh, and the axe thing simply has to be an urban legend. Given that between a quarter and a third of homicides over the periods were committed with rifles and shotguns (that’s how it’s typically reported, with the two principal longarms grouped together), that would mean that about a third of murders would have had to have been committed with an axe to be the single most common murder weapon – given that I lived through the period, I’m dubious. The equivalent and a bit more figure should be about right for edged weapons generally (including the small subset of axes), however, with the balance being stranglings, blunt force trauma, etc.

  • Anonymous

    …but I’m also predictably dense – could you be more explicit about what you mean? I lost you with the bondoed class, sorry…

  • Anonymous

    … there is evidence for both sides of the argument:

    http://www.handguncontrol.net/
    Gunlaws%20around%20the%20world.htm

    As for the fact that crime is socially constructed, I’m afraid I disagree that it’s not worth discussing.  The insight may be pedestrian to you, but given your interest in gun control, you obviously fall into the camp who has spent a lot of time thinking aboiut crime.

    It is the first thing one needs to realize about crime, and as it sits at the basis of understanding crime from a social (as opposed to individual) perspective, it is the basis of most other reasoning from that point.

    Whenever you make a victimless crime illegal, you create a new group of criminals.  Sometimes the cost is worth it (you obviously think it is for gun control), many times it isn’t.  I’m sure we can all think of cases on both sides of the line.  (For example environmental laws would be relatively uncontroversial on this board, I expect, while criminalizing consensual sexual behaviour would go the other way.

  • Anonymous

    Bondo is to fix dents. ‘Rubbies’ are what we called the homeless when I lived there. Crippled Civilians is(was?) a place to buy second hand clothing. Bought some winter clothes there once.

    Ontario’s inspection laws are onerous. They keep poor people off the road. You have a bumper that is bent, they’ll pull you off the road.

  • Anonymous

    …that it’s not worth discussing. Not meaning that at all.

    What I’m saying is that you’ve got to be cautious and go about it in a somewhat more qualified way. My experience has been that most “victimless” crime is both somewhat victimless and somewhat “crime that the middle class doesn’t feel quite right about”. A lot of the criticism of drug crime came about when folks were forced to confront the fact that the demographic profile of the imprisoned population wasn’t as representative of the population as a whole as it should have been, given the known nature of use (a situation greatly exacerbated by mandatory minimums). I don’t think that the argument that “non-violent” drug-related crime is wholly victimless is entirely compelling in the face of junkies whose lives are entirely defined by their ability to maintain access to a specific pharmacologically active compound. To be blunt, the way that much of the criminal justice system deals with this sucks much worse, but the answer is not simply to define it as victimless. Similarly, I’ve seen enough occurence reports of prostitutes with their faces busted in, or worse, to not find the sex trade entirely victimless either, regardless of what the Criminal Code of Canada says.

    The other aspect of it that I think one has to be very cognizant of is that this construction in some ways plays with rhetorical gelignite. It’s a fairly small step from “victimless crime” to “the victim has no one to blame but themselves” and I’ve watched large numbers of folks make that little transition as they are forced to confront ugly intractable problems one too many times.

    Legal behaviour, illegal behaviour – the one constant is that there’s always a vic. I agree, it’s important to keep what you’ve highlighted in mind, and it’s a useful axis, but not without qualification.

  • Anonymous

    …but not quite what you meant. Thanks for the clarification.

    My experience with Ontario’s inspection regime is somewhat different (keep in mind I’m a cyclist, so this is a highly selective [okay, down right biased!] view) – I’ve seen a lot of stuff that has no business on the road, particularly with commercial traffic. Where the truth lies in the middle of our two anecdotes, I dunno. I do know that even if entirely rationally applied strictly to road safety issues it is going to necessarily impact the poor more than the rich, given the difference in relative resources. I don’t know how to deal with that and still respect the right of citizens to reasonably expect that the car in front of them isn’t going to pose an unreasonable danger to them.

  • Anonymous

    in all of this is that societies have laws, they could not be what they are without them; to inflate that idea into some kind of kind of social totalitarianism may help you curse the politicians(and their society), but it does not offer analytical foundation.

    In Texas, junk runs on the road. In Ontario, it does not. It’s a social choice, like leaving the liquor stores open 24-7 in some states, and closing them other places.

    You can remark about what they do here or there, but every state has to do something. There will always be reasons for criminal regulation of behavior; you have to look at each case and its why’s and wherefore’s.

    Past that, generalizations are quite difficult.

  • Anonymous

    Boxing Day horror downtown
    Dec. 26, 2005. 09:55 PM
    JEN GERSON
    STAFF REPORTER

    Shots rang out on busy Toronto streets crowded with Boxing Day shoppers today, killing one person and wounding seven others.
    The first shots were apparently fired around 5:30 p.m. from a vehicle driving north on Yonge St. near Gerrard St., severely wounding one woman in the head. She was in the doorway of a Foot Locker store.

    Police received calls within minutes about other shooting victims — including one in the Delta Chelsea hotel, one at a Pizza Pizza near Yonge and Gould St., a second person in the doorway of the Foot Locker and one at a Red Lobster restaurant.

    Police have two men in custody in connection with the shootings. They were apprehended at the Castle Frank subway station. At least one firearm was seized, police said.

    Police did not immediately say if the victims were targeted or if they were injured by random gunfire.

    The woman with the head wound who was shot at the Foot Locker has died. Two of the others shot are in critical condition at St. Michael’s hospital. One victim walked into Mt. Sinai hospital.

    The wounded reportedly include a 16-year-old boy, and others appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties. One of the victims who suffered a minor injury was an off-duty police officer.

    Wendy Perry and her husband were staying at the Delta Chelsea hotel when the violence erupted.

    They could see the area streets from the balcony of their hotel room.

    She said she heard a number of shots go off and the sound of a car squealing away.

    http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&a
    mp;cid=1135638541412&call_pageid=968332188492&col=968793972154

  • Anonymous

    …of that would be?

    It would seem to me that this is significant to the argument that much of what it identified as “crime” is arbitrarily and socially constructed mainly if TPS decides to target the “bondoed class” in favour of going after these mutts. Given the massive resource expenditure in a number of ops over the past two years and the force manning changes that have occurred more recently in order to target both firearms related crime and the bangers that are responsible for much of it (the manning changes alone are massive, having significant repercussions even at the recruitment level) I’d say that such an argument would fall absolutely flat. Getting these guys is priority one for TPS, by a goodly margin.

  • Anonymous

    I was laughing at my remark about the OPP and gun battles.

    Your point is also solid in that underlying it is the question of allocating resources to bondo or bangers, which question frames a social choice. Thus, the “social construction of crime” is an inflated way of saying that societies make these allocations in statutes and their enforcement. What else can one say here about this except “Of course they do.”

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, I didn’t hear the very real irony/humour there – sincere apologies. I’m a touch sensitive about it this morning – this is my town; never thought that I’d see this sort of banger crap literally steps away from where I work, if at all.

    The one criticism that I would level at all of what I related above is that the approaches taken thusfar are very focussed on policing, without commensurate investment on the social/civil side of the equation. TPS is the largest single line item on the amalgamated City of Toronto budget, by a significant margin, and its increase has been increasingly outpacing all other major spending areas of which I am aware. There has thusfar been little viable political pressure to control costs (not many of the pols seem to have the combination of guts and policing sophistication to take this issue on), and increasingly it is going to need to be taken on – policing in this town has generally not made the transitions that other services, notably the NYPD, have made over the past decade (I do lunch in a place where I get to occasionally hear some of the detectives, sergeants, and constables from the division covering this particular scene talk shop, and this perception of not making the necessary transitions is my take on much of what they kvetch about).

    All of this is all the more critical, given the recent upsurge at the banger/handgun nexus and the associated precipitous decline in homicide clearance rates over the past five years. We better get better, and fast, and it ain’t just all about more coppers – that part’s critical, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle and there’s a limit to what it can achieve alone.

  • Anonymous

    mostly Scots or are they a more diverse bunch?

  • Anonymous

    …and the police service has changed with it. Used to be a pretty Scottish bunch, but not so much anymore. Your average station looks pretty much like a UN General Assembly meeting…

  • Anonymous

    the new guys how to play the pipes?

  • Anonymous

    …pipe band for a while. That said, it’s still around: http://www.torontopolicepipeband.com/ and looks to be a going concern.

    It is interesting, however, that you ask about the “new guys” playing the pipes – I look at the membership list and I see a lot of pretty traditional Scots names. Guess there’s still a going Scots mafia somewhere in TPS, though greatly diminished from the past. ;)

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