Crime and Disrepute


John Hagan

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  • Sociology for a New Century


    Edited by Charles Ragin, Wendy Griswold, and Larry Griffin

    Sociology for a New Century brings the best current scholarship to today's students in a series of short texts authored by leaders of a new generation of social scientists. Each book addresses its subject from a comparative, historical, global perspective, and, in doing so, connects social science to the wider concerns of students seeking to make sense of our dramatically changing world.

    • How Societies Change Daniel Chirot
    • Cultures and Societies in a Changing World Wendy Griswold
    • Crime and Disrepute John Hagan
    • Racism and the Modern World Wilmot James
    • Gods in the Global Village Lester Kurtz
    • Constructing Social Research Charles C. Ragin
    • Women, Men, and Work Barbara Reskin and Irene Padavic
    • Cities in a World Economy Saskia Sassen


    • Social Psychology and Social Institutions Denise and William Bielby
    • Global Transitions: Emerging Patterns of Inequality York Bradshaw and Michael Wallace
    • Schools and Societies Steven Brint
    • The Social Ecology of Natural Resources and Development Stephen G. Bunker
    • Ethnic Dynamics in the Modern World Stephen Cornell
    • The Sociology of Childhood William A. Corsaro
    • Waves of Democracy John Markoff
    • A Global View of Development Philip McMichael
    • Health and Society Bernice Pescosolido
    • Organizations in a World Economy Walter W. Powell


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    About the Author

    John Hagan is Professor of Sociology and Law at the University of Toronto, having taught previously at the University of Wisconsin and Indiana University. He is currently editor of the Annual Review of Sociology and a former president of the American Society of Criminology. His recent books include Structural Criminology, which received the American Sociological Association Crime, Law & Deviance Distinguished Scholar Award, and Crime & Inequality, which is forthcoming from Stanford University Press.

    About the Publisher

    Pine Forge Press is a new educational publisher, dedicated to publishing innovative books and software throughout the social sciences. On this and any other of our publications, we welcome your comments, ideas, and suggestions. Please call or write to:

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    Sociology for a New Century offers the best of current sociological thinking to today's students. The goal of the series is to prepare students, and—in the long run—the informed public, for a world that has changed dramatically in the last three decades and one that continues to astonish.

    This goal reflects important changes that have taken place in sociology. The discipline has become broader in orientation, with an ever growing interest in research that is comparative, historical, or transnational in orientation. Sociologists are less focused on “American” society as the pinnacle of human achievement and more sensitive to global processes and trends. They also have become less insulated from surrounding social forces. In the 1970s and 1980s sociologists were so obsessed with constructing a science of society that they saw impenetrability as a sign of success. Today, there is a greater effort to connect sociology to the ongoing concerns and experiences of the informed public.

    Each book in this series offers a comparative, historical, transnational, or global perspective in some way, to help broaden students' vision. This volume does so by examining and seeking new explanations for American's crime problems, which are all the more staggering when viewed in comparison to violent crime and imprisonment rates in other Western industrial nations. The comparative focus throws in sharp relief what is unique about crime in America relative to other times and places, and emphasizes the importance of understanding how these problems have developed.

    The comparative perspective is additionally useful because it suggests fresh explanations are needed to explain the unique aspects of America's changing and more contemporary crime problems. One of this book's innovations is its development of a new sociology of crime and disrepute that focuses on the criminal costs of social inequality to account for America's experience. A key part of this understanding is that America's changing place in the world economy and the plight of America's cities have combined to make contemporary prospects for upward social mobility, especially through urban vice industries, less promising and more hazardous than was the case for earlier disadvantaged groups in previous parts of this century. Another criminal cost to the growing disparity between rich and poor takes place at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, in the way white-collar crime is permitted to flourish in the new global economy. The important theoretical link between these very different kinds of crime is further demonstration of why a comparative and historical perspective can form the basis for a better understanding of crime and disrepute in America.


    The dimensions of America's crime problems are staggering. U.S. rates of violent crime and imprisonment far exceed those of other Western industrial nations—for example, more than quadrupling those of neighboring Canada. A recent National Academy of Sciences report reveals that while the time spent in prison by violent offenders nearly tripled in the United States between 1975 and 1989, violent crime did not decline. The effects have been devastating for minority low-income communities. Homicide is now the leading cause of death for young African-American males, and this death rate soared more than 50 percent during the “War on Drugs” of the mid- to late 1980s. The imprisonment rate for young African-American males is four times that for whites, and it is estimated that three-quarters of black male school dropouts in the United States have come under supervision of the criminal justice system by the time they reach their early thirties.

    This book highlights the uniqueness of America's crime problems relative to other times and places, and emphasizes the importance of understanding how these problems have developed. While classical sociological theories provide a base from which this understanding can begin, a new sociology of crime and disrepute that focuses on the criminal costs of social inequality is required to explain unique aspects of America's changing and more contemporary crime problems. This new approach directs attention to processes that divert capital resources away from socially and economically distressed communities. This approach also gives special attention to the development of “deviance service centers” and “ethnic vice industries” organized around drugs, prostitution, and related activities, which are often adaptations to the absence of alternative avenues of social and economic mobility within distressed communities. The new sociology of crime and disrepute seeks to understand the social and economic roles these behaviors often play in the social organization of inner-city American life, and to explain the fact that often activities surrounding ethnic vice industries, especially involving drugs, have become more violent. A key part of this understanding is that America's changing place in the world economy and the plight of America's cities have combined to make contemporary prospects for upward social and economic mobility, especially through urban vice industries, less promising and more hazardous than was the case for disadvantaged groups earlier in this century.

    Meanwhile, the new attention that is given to “crimes of the street” must not obscure our simultaneous awareness and attentiveness to “crimes in the suites.” There is an important theoretical link between these very different kinds of crime. While the diversion of investment and resources from disadvantaged groups creates conditions in which disreputable and criminal adaptations are sought out and developed, the investment of resources among the advantaged in society provides opportunities for the latter to “take advantage” by disreputable, if not criminal, means. This is especially true in a changing global economy where corporations can be bigger than countries and where corporations often and easily evade efforts of countries to monitor unethical and often illegal entrepreneurial activities. The problems of white-collar crime are truly global in the ways the geographical dispersion of criminal activity can markedly increase opportunities for eluding detection, prosecution, and sanctioning, thus lessening if not eliminating risks of punishment.

    America's continuing ambivalence about problems of crime and disrepute is reflected in its loosely structured criminal justice system, its periodic crackdowns on particular kinds of crime, and its recent and extensive reliance on imprisonment. Even white-collar crime has sometimes been singled out for aggressive prosecution—for example, in the immediate post-Watergate era. However, enforcement efforts focus much more selectively and persistently on street crime. Today, this emphasis is so extreme that the United States is a world leader in the use of imprisonment, especially of minority citizens, leading to widespread perceptions of injustice. An important part of the United States coming to terms with its crime problems will require a realization of the uniqueness and extensiveness of these problems. The new sociology of crime and disrepute is placing the uniqueness of the American experience in a comparative and historical perspective that can form the basis for a better understanding of contemporary events and for the evaluation of measures aimed at mitigating problems of crime in America.

  • Epilogue

    This book has emphasized the unique and disturbing dimensions of crime in America. The new sociology of crime and disrepute locates some of the sources of our crime problems in growing disparities of income and wealth that are linked to minority group membership, along with pervasive residential segregation and growing concentrations of poverty in American society. Many citizens accept these features of American society in the 1990s as inevitable reflections of a social inequality that is necessary to stimulate and reward economic productivity. Yet the economic gains have proven elusive and the costs of inequality include high levels of crime and punishment that probably make even the most brazen among us uneasy.

    Race-linked inequalities of poverty, segregation, and discrimination increasingly pervade the array of institutional settings where minority, and especially black and white Americans meet. In particular, because community-level policing practices in ghetto settings display discriminatory patterns, and because nonetheless the justice system is expected to embody high standards of fairness and equal treatment, justice system interactions have become especially difficult forums for black-white relations. The final chapter of this book cited disturbing evidence that American juvenile and criminal justice systems are perceived with suspicion, distrust, animosity, and despair by minority citizens, who are too often stereotypically treated as suspects by the police and others. This negative atmosphere is likely intensified by the increasing experience of imprisonment by minority youths. Many disadvantaged minority youths grow up in environments of animosity toward the justice system. It is not surprising that when these youths come into conflict with the law they have attitudes that aggravate their contacts with the system and its agents.

    The large-scale use of arrest and imprisonment is incredibly costly in financial terms. Current estimates are that it costs over $15,000 per year to keep the average prisoner in jail. It is probably impossible to calculate the lost social and economic contributions of such persons to society. It is no less difficult to calculate, but perhaps more easily recognized that a growing fear of crime and an increasing alarm about the demoralization of our cities is an added cost of street crime in American society. This fear feeds on itself and is reflected in the proliferation of guns in American society, for purposes of protection as well as predation.

    The number of guns in the United States has more than doubled over the past two decades, from less than 100 million prior to 1970, to about 200 million in 1990. In 1992, the citizens of Los Angeles County alone purchased over 100,000 guns. We may have more guns than citizens in the United States. Many of these weapons are owned for self-protection, and this kind of legal gun ownership increases with income and fear of crime. Gun ownership for self-protection is the tip of a private security industry that includes private policing and an abundance of home security devices that range from complicated locks, sensing devices, bars on windows and doors, to high tech alarm systems. These are all signs of a growing class fortification against crime that is a postindustrial counterpart to the protected havens probably more often associated in most Americans' minds with the homes of drug lords in corrupt and developing nations. We live in a society that is ominously polarized around issues of criminal inequality.

    The concentration of poverty and inequality along racial and ethnic lines of residential segregation may once have been thought to keep whites separate and safe from blacks in American society. However, the more recent and unintended consequence of this history may be a society that is more dangerous than ever before and uniquely violent among Western nations. The irony is that policies and practices that residentially segregate and concentrate race and poverty also produce increasing problems of crime that threaten to explode beyond the boundaries in which they form. Recognizing this, white as well as minority Americans increasingly arm and otherwise attempt to secure themselves within their homes and communities.

    Yet a recurring urban nightmare looms below the surface of American society troubling its citizens in a variety of urban folktales, such as The Bonfires of the Vanities, Do the Right Thing, Grand Canyon, and Boys'n the Hood, in which unsuspecting individuals become the alarmed and vulnerable subjects of the polarization of fear and violence that stalk our city streets. Issues of inequality and crime are no longer of interest to sociologists alone. These issues are at the heart of growing concerns about the quality of life available to citizens in this society, whether white, black, male, female, poor, or affluent.


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